I had one of those personal and poignant bookselling moments yesterday, when in conversation with a customer she mentioned that her seven-year-old daughter has been diagnosed with selective mutism. You may be a little bit familiar with this term, as I was, from Christina Collins’s powerful debut middle grade novel AFTER ZERO, which was published by Sourcebooks in September. In the book, eighth grader Elise moves into public school after an isolated childhood in which she was homeschooled by a mother coping with crippling depression. Struggling to understand the complicated social cues of middle school, Elise makes a few blunders that are heartbreaking in both their honesty and her subsequent shame, leading her to conclude that maintaining absolute silence is her only safety. She begins to tally the words she speaks aloud each day, with the goal of reducing that number of utterances to a perfect zero, the absolute silence of anonymity and safety. In spite of gentle prodding from teachers, concern and then avoidance by classmates, and well meaning but ineffective intervention from the adults in her life, Elise desperately tries to take control by abandoning speech entirely, and committing to voicelessness. A quote from Sakya Pandita, which Elise taped to the inside cover of her school notebook, reminds her that “Silence is the means of avoiding misfortune. The talkative parrot is shut up in a cage. Other birds, without speech, fly freely about.”
As has been reported elsewhere, Amazon has chosen to locate its new Headquarters in an area stretching from Queens, New York to Arlington, Virginia. This vast new campus will cross six states, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia.
The geographical extent of Amazon’s Headquarters raised some initial concerns about such issues as conflicting municipal, payroll and property taxation rates, interstate commerce, eminent domain, scale of political influence, and employee citizenship. These concerns have been resolved by the unusual step of granting the new campus District status, making it the nation’s second District, along with the District of Columbia.
As a retailer, I’m supposed to deck my halls for the holiday season pretty much the moment the first autumn leaf flutters to the ground. Fourth quarter makes or breaks our year as a business, so it’s vital to attend to “the season.” But as a human being, I dislike the relentless consumer madness our culture has created around the holidays. So I strike compromises at the store, reluctantly setting up a couple of low shelves with holiday books just after Halloween—people start asking for them in August and I’ll bring them out from the back but cannot bring myself to create a display that early—and I also relent by setting out the holiday boxed cards in early November, putting two shelves of Hanukkah cards in the top spots because, even though we don’t sell many, Christmas tends to drown out all the other seasonal holidays, and I’m striving for at least a little equity. But there’s one thing I do love about early holiday prep, and that’s the influx of aunts, uncles, and grandparents coming in with their lists of family members, eager to match each reader with the perfect book.
As booksellers, our primary job is to curate book selections and displays that welcome readers from all backgrounds and create moments of recognition, discovery, and delight for anyone who enters. Fostering that environment is both a big responsibility and a big job. We wrestle with whose voices to include and lift up, and the truth is that the good isn’t as easy to separate from the bad as we would all like for it to be. Not for nothing, the blog post that my ShelfTalker colleague, Cynthia Compton, wrote during Banned Books Week was the most eloquent, authentic expression of that particular bookseller conundrum that I’ve seen. And ShelfTalker’s Kenny Brechner and a group of college students thoughtfully explored the question of how to handle books by authors facing real world accusations very recently as well.
But the more important challenge is less about dealing with the repercussions of bestselling authors’ behavior and more about making sure no community feels that all their stories have been entrusted or restricted to a few lone stewards. As much as the Kid Lit community has truly dug into overdue and heartfelt conversations about inclusion and representation over the last few years, we can all agree we’re still working to fully live up to our goals, especially, perhaps, when it comes to Indigenous and Native voices.
I have seen a lot of holiday seasons come and go at this point. The total number, you will say, would not have impressed Hanako, a scarlet koi fish who lived to be 226 years old. I get that. Nonetheless Hanako, who was born in 1751, died in 1977 and is no longer here to be unimpressed. Be that as it may, many elements of the retail season up here in Maine have taken on the feel of longstanding traditions. One of my favorites is downtown Farmington’s Early Bird Sale.
Meteorologists are forecasting that the first flakes of snow will fall this week in Indiana. They won’t stick, and the roads will be fine, so this is a welcome weather phenomenon in specialty retail. There is nothing like the swirl of flurries on a gray November day to get customers excited about shopping for the holidays, and to add a little magic to the scene outside our cozy shop windows. Boxes of merchandise are stacking up in the stock room, the rolls of wrapping paper have been delivered (although there seems to be a national shortage of the perfect color of forest green curling ribbon, a modest cause for alarm at this stage of the season), and the annual rumors of shipping strikes, online price slashing, and pop-up retail inside every big box store have begun to sneak under the doors like drafts of cold air.
I’m distracting myself from the nail-biting anticipation of today, November 6’s, election results, with a post (almost) completely unrelated to politics. I hope it distracts you, too.
We have a 17-year-old customer—we’ll call him Nicholas—who is obsessed with orchids. Apparently, his mom recently found a family video from when Nick was three which showed him, arms spread wide, proclaiming, “I LOVE ORCHIDS!” Now, Nick has blossomed (pardon me) into quite an orchid expert. His parents, avid hikers, can only get Nick to join them if there’s a chance to spot orchids in the wild. This precocious autodidact receives several emails a day from people in the Northeast looking for his assistance identifying rare specimens.
Interestingly, Nick hasn’t read Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, a book I listened to and loved several years ago. “The wrong orchid is on the cover,” he said, proving once again that many readers pay attention to accuracy gaps between interior content and cover design. “I’m also not interested in theft as subject matter,” he said. “Also, who needs another book about love and betrayal?” I sort of love that the Northeast’s top expert on orchids hasn’t read the ONLY BOOK ON ORCHIDS that the general public has ever heard of (which may be part of why he didn’t bother, but honestly, it’s a terrific book and a gripping audiobook, so I hope he does dip in at some point).
Preparing for the holidays at a bookstore is a bit like outfitting a ship for an extended voyage. Of all the many things needed, from crew to supplies, is the provision of a remarkable and unlooked-for discovery, a totally unexpected and wonderful gift book that will delight and engage customers in a memorable way. No ship in the age of sail would have left without a sextant and no bookstore should embark on the holiday season without a book which, upon being shown to a customer, will provoke the strong desire in them to share it with someone else in turn.
What book have I selected to fill this singular and exalted role during the holidays? It is Notes and Methods by Hilda Af Klint, published by Christine Burgin Studio/University of Chicago Press. What better choice for us to provide discovery to our customers than a book that is all about uncovering hidden worlds? What a remarkable intellectual and aesthetic feast it is! Multifaceted, rich in the history of both art and spirituality, the book presents the abstract work of Swedish artist Hilma af Klint.
As I hosted Halloween-themed story times over the last week or two, a frequent topic of the discussion was trick-or-treat. Once everyone had announced their chosen costumes (sometimes more than one dress-up idea, for those young friends still deliberating) I ask the children to act out with me what they do on Halloween night. “We go up to the door,” I begin….. “and then we RING the doorbell. Ding dong, ding dong! What do we say when they open the door?”
“TRICK OR TREAT!”
“And then what happens?”
“You get candy.” “You put your pumpkin bucket out.” “You sometimes get pencils.” “And stickers!” “You get LOTS of candy.” “Sometimes they have a dog.” “My dad got a beer.”
“And then what do you say?”
“Thank you!!!l” “Happy Halloween!” “I like your dog!”
The upside of yesterday’s migraine is that, because I was in no state to write a blog post, I looked at posts from years ago to see if there were any favorite topics to revisit and had a fun trip down the halls of ShelfTalker Past. The following is a post I wrote in 2009 about audiobooks so good you’d listen twice. I’m still an audiobook fan, and still always on the hunt for the best of the best.