Diane Magras is a middle grade author with the gift of writing books with real heft and dimension within a breakneck adventure story. Her newest book manages to incorporate some of her established strengths and interests and weave them into a wholly different setting. I knew from spending a pre-pandemic day with Diane in area schools that she had real command over the historical dimensions of her books and was not surprised to see her evidence that same command over the fascinating world she set her terrific new book in.
Kenny: In Secret of the Shadow Beasts you adapted the strong affinity for medieval settings and weaponry you displayed in your two Madwolf’s Daughter books, into a modern environment with a gaming element. The pandemic has been all about adaption. How do you think young readers will connect with that element of the book?
We spend so much time as booksellers and book buyers parsing degrees of interconnection between books, assessing comparables in Edelweiss and on the floor, that we sometimes encounter elements that bind books together which are somewhat novel. Take imaginative play, for example.
Imaginative play as the subject or backdrop of books has a long and interesting literary history. It is a history wide ranging in tone, audience, and genre, from classics like Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, Edith Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle, and A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, to modern classics like Jeanne Birdsall’s The Penderwicks and Abby Hanlon’s Dory Fantasmagory. From Holly Black’s children’s horror tour de force Doll Bones to Carol Johnston’s deliciously disturbing adult intellectual thriller Mirrorland, imaginative childhood play, with its intrinsic elements of exploration, discovery, creativity, and transformation, continues to be rich literary soil.
Some things involving words—intellectual thrillers and philosophical discussions, for example—benefit from complexity and moral engagement. Others—such as instruction manuals and free speech—are best kept simple. Let us consider a case in point involving bookselling and free speech: the current attempt by two Virginia legislators to have a pair of popular and highly regarded published works banned from sale at bookstores in their state.
Thursday morning I was five minutes out from the store when I got the following text from my fabulous assistant manager meg. “hey kenny. not sure what your morning looks like, but I wanted to let you know that it looks like someone shot one of the windows in the night.”
How we approach the inexplicable defines us as human beings and as booksellers. This is a stern business, particularly since children’s bookselling often summons the specter of inexplicability. How could such a picture book be selling? How could such a picture book not be selling? How can a book be expected to overcome this cover? Why was my gift rep right about these atrocious fidget toys? And so forth.
Two weeks ago, we took in a display of Squishables’ incredibly adorable new line of baby and toddler plush toys, the Picnic Babies. Each one is more delightful and tactically proficient than the next, yet we have not sold one, yet which is profoundly inexplicable given the following circumstances. First of all, one must rule out possible culprits such as the placement and quality of their display. Note here that they are residing in the finest retail housing imaginable.
Conflict may be difficult, but ignoring it only heightens the tension. Take the case of Perfectly Pegasus and Donut: The Unicorn Who Wants to Fly. When two delightful picture books with magical horse protagonists which share themes of aspiration, discovery, and friendship are published within a week of each other, conflict is inevitable. Which of these two books is the finer story?
For the past couple of years, there’s been a surge in demand from teachers looking for books addressing kindness. Elementary schools have created yearlong curricula around kindness, and publishers have poured out numerous books — many beautiful and/or powerful, some preachy or simplistic — on the topic. And while I personally value kindness deeply, I have found myself wondering if this curriculum most effectively reaches those not particularly inclined toward kindness (whether due to temperament or environment), or if it helps children navigate difficult situations where kindness is not the key component of resolution.
For instance, let’s say two kindergartners are playing, and one deliberately knocks over the other’s block tower. We can remind the knocker-overer that her actions weren’t kind, which may or may not lead to remorse and apology. But how do we address the knockee, who is definitely not feeling kind toward her creation’s destroyer, help address the knocker, and help the two come to a satisfactory resolution?
One of the great things that came back this past fall, after a long time off, was our monthly meetings with BookPeople’s Teen Press Corps. Moving from our third-floor event space to the outdoor picnic tables, it’s been so great to get together, share ARCs, talk about what we’re loving (or hating), and catch up.
So, after a year off, I’m back with another round-up of rants, raves, and requests from BookPeople’s Teen Press Corps. From eighth graders through freshmen in college, our current group reads everything from period fiction to gruesome thrillers to intricate space operas. Voracious and opinionated, they jumped at the chance to share their current thoughts!
It would be a hard heart indeed that did not love the Iditaread. This time-honored reading challenge takes place during the Iditarod each year at the Mallet and Cape Cod Hill schools here in rural Maine, with each classroom becoming a sled dog team which reads its way across the race to see which team can read the most books. Each team has one Lead Dog and one Spirit Dog selected by their teacher. Here is the definition for selection provided by Mallett librarian Arika Galkowski.
With the outbreak of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, many of our parent customers are asking for books to help talk about war in ways that are age-appropriate and and honest without traumatizing their children. As you can imagine, this is a delicate proposition and personal for each family. What we do know is that when we can talk with children about the confusing and often scary things they know are happening in the world—things they inevitably hear about from us, on the playground, in snatches of conversations overheard out and about in the world, and in the news that filters into their lives—we can help them also see the good and hopeful things people are doing to help one another during times of crisis, and how we can work for tolerance, understanding, compassion, and healing.