Monthly Archives: May 2007

A Review of ‘Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow’

Alison Morris - May 28, 2007

Having had too little time to devote to novels the past few weeks, I've been bingeing on graphic novels — short ones. While eating a bowl of cereal Sunday morning I read Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow by James Sturm and Rich Tommaso (Hyperion, 2007). Already I'm itching for December to arrive, bringing this book with it. That's how anxious I am to put it in the hands of all customers at or over the age of 10.

Contrary to what its title might suggest, this graphic novel is not so much about Satchel Paige as it is about the miserably harsh conditions of life for blacks living under the divisive Jim Crow laws of the American South. Narrating the story is Emmet Wilson, a fictional Alabama sharecropper who once scored a run against the legendary pitcher of the Negro Leagues. Permanently benched due to injury, he now picks cotton under the watchful eye of two vindictive white landowners who would just as soon root for a team called the "Yankees" as show any kindness toward him and his son. Much of the plot hinges on the tension that builds along the racial divide in Emmet's town, but its black and white residents do share one thing in common: an awestruck regard for the pitching talents of Satchel Paige. It's his eventual appearance on their hometown field that brings this story to a heady climax and a powerful conclusion.

Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow is the second book Hyperion has published in collaboration with the Center for Cartoon Studies. Their first joint venture, Houdini, The Handcuff King by Jason Lutes and Nick Bertozzi, was an entertaining and interesting look at one particular stunt in the life of the world's most famous escapologist. I enjoyed Houdini, but not half as much as Satchel Paige. Sturm and Tomasso's collaboration is the real thing: a compelling narrative, a strong voice, solid illustrations, and the perfect pacing to move the story along but keep you, in places, on the edge of your seat. At less than 100 pages, it's a short read, but in the time it'll take you to complete it you'll feel the range and strength of emotions it would take most prose writers twice as long to convey. The last four pages of the book offer detailed notes on what's contained in the story's panels, helping to account for some of the real-world events that informed this story's fictional one.

I love this book. I love its deeply human message and I love the window on American history that Sturm and Tommaso are opening for their readers. Through it we see just how much the sport of baseball and one of its stars meant to a generation of blacks who were barely allowed to play the game of life, let alone win at it.

Alternative Gifts for Those Gifted with Books

Alison Morris - May 27, 2007

I haven’t had much time to wrap my brain around the fact that BEA is just a few days away, in part because I’m too busy at work to give it much thought, and in part because I’m going to be missing much of it! Early Saturday morning I’ll be zipping off to Pennsylvania to watch one of my oldest and closest friends, Timothy Decker, tie the knot with his beloved fiancee Mandy.

Tim and Mandy live in a tiny apartment, so they registered for almost nothing, gift-wise. Why ask for gifts when you don’t have anywhere to put them? The trouble is, that leaves guests and loving friends like me all the more stymied.

I imagine this same situation must sometimes confront the loved ones of those of us in the book business. For most readers a book makes a wonderful gift, but for those of us overburdened with reading material, a gifted book sometimes makes a guilt-laden burden. (My secret, pained thought on such occasions: "How many years will it take before I’ll find the time to read this one?") Of course, there are very cool gifts to give book hoarders other than books, but these are sometimes harder to come by and don’t always seem like the perfect fit.

So, here’s the question: What do you give to the people who mean the most to you but need the least from you (at least in terms of tangible "stuff," e.g. reading material)? And here’s my answer: You give stuff to someone else on their behalf.

For a few years now I’ve been making donations to Heifer International on behalf of friends and family members for Christmas and birthdays. In each case they’ve been thrilled and moved to learn they’d given a needy family a flock of chicks, a flock of ducks, a hive of honeybees, or a trio of rabbits. Thinking another charity’s offerings might have a wedding gift more perfectly suited to Tim and Mandy, though, I went shopping for them at Changing the Present, a website that partners with many, many nonprofits to offer one-stop-shopping for all your intangible gift-giving needs. Below are a few examples from their website of reading-related gifts that would make meaningful offerings for those of us with inadequate shelf space. 

Two caveats: 1.) I still think books make an EXCELLENT gift for almost anyone, and I’d be a terrible bookseller if I didn’t think/say so. 2.) Changing the Present’s website does not yet include financial information on these groups, so if you’re concerned about the channeling of your contributions, do some digging. Each nonprofit name below includes a direct link to their website, to help you in that quest.

For $25, you can help CEC ArtsLink build an art library in Russian or Central Asia in your friend’s name.

Your politically active aunt will love that you gave $100 on her behalf, to help PEN American Center free jailed writers or inspire underserved, "aliterate" New York City high school students.

Even if they haven’t yet been awarded a fellowship to the MacDowell Colony, your writer friends may appreciate your paying $10 to cover lunch for an artist-in-residence or $100 to give someone at MacDowell "The Gift of Time." (Oh for someone to give ME a gift of that nature!)

For $50 you can make a book accessible to someone with print disabilities, through the work of Benetech.

For as little as $5 you can give two new books to a needy child by way of First Book, who is also happy to have you fill a child’s bookshelf ($60) or "stock the homes of an entire classroom of children in need" ($720).

Anyone who’s fallen in love with Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible will think it’s the perfect gift — your donating $45 to Women for Women International who’ll use those funds to teach a woman in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to read.

For $75 you can pay a Nepalese librarian’s salary for one month, supporting the work of Read Global and thanking your lucky stars $75 isn’t a librarian’s monthly salary here.

Here’s one more suggestion: Donating $250 will allow Room to Read to educate a girl for one year. They’ll pay her school fees and provide her with a bicycle, a school uniform, a backpack, a daily lunch, a medical exam, immunizations, and mentoring from a Room to Read staff member.

Imagine giving your friend (and a girl somewhere in the world) all that, without taking up an inch of space in their bookcase.

YA Author Takes to the Road and the Airwaves

Alison Morris - May 24, 2007

Mark Peter Hughes shared some uber-cool news with the Association of Booksellers for Children's list-serv today, and I am thrilled to be passing that news along!

First let me say that Mark has (as of March 30th) quit his job to write full time. As if that wasn't brave enough, he is currently planning a seven-week road trip with this family to travel across the country visiting bookstores (mostly independents) and promote his most recent novel, Lemonade Mouth, which I've mentioned previously. Here is where we come to the biggest piece of news: National Public Radio has asked Mark to record "audio postcards" during his road trip — "audio postcards" that will be broadcast to the 12 million regular listeners of All Things Considered!!  Wow, wow, wow!  How fantastic is that?!

I know, I know… We could all die from envy on this one, but let me also add this little bit: Mark didn't have connections at NPR who scored this gig on his behalf. Thinking he had an idea that might work well for their SoundClips series, he went to the NPR website, found a "How You Can Participate" phone number, then pitched his idea to their answering machine. A producer called him on his last day of work (!) to hear more. He ultimately concluded that Mark's idea would be better as a series of clips rather than a one-off broadcast, so Mark's proposal and the subsequent sample recording he sent along were passed up through the ranks. Fast forward a bit and… poof! Mark is suddenly recording a series of "audio-postcards" that began with one wildly optimistic phone call.

Soon we will all be listening to entertaining bits of Mark's adventures with his wife, three kids, a rusty old van, and a whole lotta bookstores! Will Mark and his entourage be careening through your neighborhood? Check out the tentative path of his cross-country journey to find out, then e-mail him to tell him the name of your favorite independent bookstore. With any luck he might be able to include them on his tour.

Rick Riordan Recap

Alison Morris - May 23, 2007

Last Friday night was our evening with Rick Riordan, and It. Was. WONDERFUL!! We partnered with the Morse Institute Library of Natick to host the event in Wilson Middle School's beautiful Joseph A. Keefe Performing Arts Center. Too pretty to be called an "auditorium," the space even sports very Grecian-looking pillars, which I jokingly told our audience they'd installed specifically for our event with Rick. (A bewildered kid later asked whether or not that remark was true.)

Despite the fact that Friday was miserably cold and rainy and the fact that we had to unload and set up in record time, EVERYTHING went swimmingly! There were approximately 350 Percy Jackson fans in attendance, which made the 400+ seat auditorium feel comfortably full. (This was an excellent turn-out given the weather and the fact that many families were no doubt tied up with the trappings of Natick High School's prom, which was happening elsewhere that night.) Everyone present seemed enthusiastic when they arrived and overjoyed when they left. Why? Because Rick was just fantastic.

There are authors who can present and there are authors who can entertain. Rick does both, with the skill that can only come from years spent standing at the front of a middle-school classroom. He had the audience hanging on his every word and begging for the opportunity to answer his questions (questions about the particulars of Greek mythology, no less). Sure, it helped that Rick tossed out t-shirts to those kids who correctly answered his questions (which all of them did), but I think what most of them really wanted was the chance to show off for the man whose books they so adore.

Yesterday I received a wonderful e-mail thank-you from Tracy Gladstone, a customer I'd never met before, that pretty well sums up the enthusiasm we all felt for this event. Here's an excerpt from Tracy's very thoughtful, validating message:

I am writing just to share with you how thrilled we were with the Rick Riordan event this past Friday night, and to thank you for making it happen. I couldn't believe I drove with my son 45 minutes in the rain to get there, and then waited outside (again in the rain) for 15 minutes to get into the school, and then waited for 192 numbers to get our books signed… and honestly it was one of the most wonderful evenings I've ever had with my 10-year-old. I was thrilled to sit with him in an auditorium of kids who read and who believed they were in the presence of a real pop star. I loved watching my son giggling at the author's jokes, and craning his neck to see the covers of his books published internationally, and waving his arm in the air to answer questions about Greek mythology. Thank you so much for giving us such an amazing evening!

Lest anyone worry that this "pop star" might be fleeing the children's literature scene anytime soon, Rick says there will be two more books starring Percy Jackson, and he's got other mythology-inspired series in the works.

Below is an assortment of photos from the event, plus one of the drawings Gareth added to his sketchbook during Rick's presentation.



This Pen Slays Titans

Alison Morris - May 17, 2007

We are beyond excited about the fact that we're hosting an event tomorrow night with Rick Riordan, author of the oh-so-fabulous Percy Jackson and the Olympians series! We are also beyond excited about the fact that we've got pens! Special ballpoint pens!!

If you've read The Lightning Thief, The Sea of Monsters, and now The Titan's Curse, then you're quite aware of the important role played by Percy's seemingly innocuous ballpoint pen. Remove the cap and it becomes a sword named Riptide. In celebration of Rick's visit to our neck of the woods, we ordered pens (making use of our Hyperion co-op pool) to hand out at tomorrow night's event — Riptides for everyone! The printing on them reads as follows:

If found please return to
Percy Jackson c/o
Wellesley Booksmith

We ordered the pens from a Maine company called Crestline who've done a great job with the Harry Potter promo items we've ordered from them in past years. Here's how our Percy Jackson pens look on my desk, on The Titan's Curse (note that I designed the pens to match the cover), and put to use by Lorna Ruby, book buyer and hand model extraordinaire:


Meeting Rita, Undisguised

Alison Morris -

There's a book coming out this September that I feel very personally connected to. No, it's not my own book, but it does have very direct ties to the one I'm writing, and for that reason I'll tell you a bit about both.

For what feels like eons now, I've been working on a non-fiction book for Candlewick titled Imposters! True Stories of Girls Incognita. Aimed at a middle school audience, it's a collection of true stories about girls and women throughout history who (at some point in their lives) had to disguise themselves as men because the things they wanted to pursue were off-limits to them as women.

In the course of my Imposters! research, I stumbled across a reference to a book called Disguised: A Teenage Girl's Survival in World War II Japanese Prison Camps by a woman named Rita la Fontaine de Clercq Zubli. Originally published in 2001, it was already out of print and had been published by a small press I'd never heard of, which didn't seem promising. Nevertheless, I was intrigued by the book's synopsis: Fearing that the invading Japanese troops might use her as a "comfort woman," Rita's parents disguised her as a boy — an identity she maintained for the three and a half years during which her Dutch-Indonesian family was sent to multiple POW camps. I requested a copy of the book from inter-library loan and less than two weeks later found myself transfixed by Rita's remarkable story and the wonderful way she tells it.

It's not just Rita's own personal experiences that are so noteworthy. It's also the clear, honest way she presents the sequence of events in her life, and her uncanny ability to recall the nuanced emotions of her adolescence. In reading the book I was reminded of Katherine Paterson, who frequently links the effectiveness of her writing to the fact that she possesses a good "emotional memory" of her childhood. Rita has that "emotional memory" and more: a factual memory, a historical memory, a no-detail-left-out memory that makes her story truly come to life in the minds of her readers.

And what a story it is. Not only did Rita pose as a boy during three and a half harrowing years, but she managed to do so while working right under the noses of the Japanese government. "Rick" was so resourceful, determined, hard-working and intelligent that no one suspected that when the war began he had been a 12 year-old girl wearing dresses.

I loved Disguised and couldn't help wondering what had become of Rita. I knew she'd be in her 70's, but as her book had only just been published in 2001, it seemed safe to assume that she was still alive, and that perhaps she was someone I could track down and hopefully interview for my book.

I Googled numerous combinations of Rita's many names and came up almost empty-handed. An abridged version of her story had appeared in a book of survivors' accounts of the Japanese occupation of Indonesia. Thinking the editor of that book might tell me how to find Rita, I wrote to the only e-mail address I could find for him but got no answer. I returned to Googling and testing my luck with the online white pages. Still no luck.

About the time I started giving up hope of finding Rita, I phoned my editor Mary Lee Donovan, told her I'd fallen in love with Disguised and said, "Candlewick has to reissue this book." A week later she called me back to say she agreed with me — that she couldn't put the book down. By that time I'd tried one last-ditch effort to find Rita, trying a combination of names I apparently hadn't tried before, and lo and behold I found her, or so it seemed. "I think she's living just up the road, in Nashua, New Hampshire," I told Mary Lee. Neither of us knew quite what to make of the fact that this woman might be less than an hour's drive away. I dialed the number I'd found, and (sure enough) Rita picked up the phone.

Our conversation began something like this: "Um, hi, is this Rita la Fontaine de Clercq Zubli? Hi, Rita, my name is Alison Morris and you don't know me but… bookseller… writer… book about women and girls who… would love to interview you for my book… recommended your book to my editor… and Candlewick Press would like to reissue your book!" There was a long pause before Rita's voice came back to me: "Who is this again?"

About two months later, on May 8, 2006, Mary Lee and I drove to Rita's house accompanied by some Candlewick paperwork (the latest round of Rita's contract negotiations) and my laptop. Rita and her husband Dan greeted us at the door then ushered us into her house for what became a lively morning of conversation and laughter and awe, really, as Rita poured out the details of her family's experience to me, Mary Lee, and my portable microphone. I can't quite tell you what it was like to meet this woman in the flesh and hear her describe her story, but you need only read her book to get a taste of it. And in a few short months, you'll have that chance.

This September, Candlewick is reissuing Rita's book with an new eye-catching cover under the slightly revised title Disguised: A Wartime Memoir. I urge you to buy a copy, read it, and share it with others. I'm so thrilled to have played a part in helping this book finally find the audience it deserves, and (just as much) to have had the pleasure of meeting Rita. I hope you someday have that pleasure too.

Here's a photo of me, Rita, and Mary Lee taken last May, followed by a photo of me with Rita and Dan.

Future Authors of America

Alison Morris - May 16, 2007

Last night I spent a lovely evening at the Wellesley Free Library, playing "bookstore ambassador" at what's become one of my favorite community events — the "Read In" for winners of the town's fifth grade fiction writing contest. The Foundation for Children's Books, based in Boston, was the organization that originally got the contest off and running here, then later piloted it in other towns/cities (including Boston proper). The Wellesley contest is now organized and run by local parents with the sponsorship of our bookstore, the Wellesley Free Library, and the Wellesley Townsman, our local weekly newspaper.

What's so great about this contest? Community. And I'm not just talking about the local community — I'm talking about the book industry community. The one you're probably a part of if you're reading this blog with any regularity and your last name isn't Morris. Fifth graders from the town of Wellesley don't just mail their contest entries off to a local parent or local teacher or local bookseller to have them judged. Their entries are judged by CHILDREN'S BOOK EDITORS. And each of the kids who enters receives what remarkable prize? An editorial letter from one of those children's book editors. I ask you: how cool is that?

While in previous years Houghton Mifflin and Candlewick Press have also played a part, this year's judges were all from Charlesbridge, which no doubt made it a bit easier to corral the judging staff into the same room to hash out their thoughts on the entries. In the end, the Charlesbridge Four (as I'm calling them) selected six stories as the best of the bunch. The authors of those stories each received, in addition to their editorial letters, the coveted prize of a gift card to Wellesley Booksmith.

These gift cards are presented each year at the ceremony I attended tonight — the "Read In," which all of the contest entrants are invited to attend, and at which all of them are invited to read at least part of their stories aloud to the audience. Every year I see kids who aren't going home with gift cards step up to that podium and read to the room of assembled parents, grandparents, and siblings, and every year I think to myself, "What a cool event," and often, "That kid's going to be a writer someday."

The "writer someday" part is what prompted me to ask last night's assembled group of kids and families if anyone minded my giving you a verbal snapshot of the stories read aloud during the Read In, plus the names of their authors. I don't know what the future will hold for these talented young people, but I'd like to think that some of them may appear in frontlist catalogs a few years down the road. Wouldn't it be cool to be able to say, "Yep. I knew she was going to become a writer that night she read her story to a crowd at the Wellesley Free Library"?

As such, the blubs pasted below include the names of those bright young writers who might someday be writing for you, in a professional capacity. In the meantime, they are writing (what else?) the types of stories that fifth graders like to read. In other words, those of you publishing types who tuned out paragraphs ago might want to start paying attention here:

Meg Crowley: Delivered in the first-person, Meg's heart-warming story is about befriending a new classmate from Korea and helping her get a better grasp on the English language. I love the finishing touch on her story: the narrator sees a Spanish-language translation of the children's book her friend can now read in both Korean and English. She wonders ("Hmmm") how difficult it would be to learn Spanish.

Emily Ryan: Emily's suspenseful story is about a skiier stuck on a chair lift beneath a rapidly fraying cable. During her daring escape, "She flung the bar on the chair lift up, and before she could think twice about what she was going to do, she clipped her skis off so they landed in the snow and began their long descent down the mountain." (I love the image of those skis setting off on their own.)

Louisa Elliott: Louisa had us laughing at the beginning of this story and (no joke) fighting back tears at the end. Her story, punctuated with entries from a girl's diary, is about Nicole Lawford, who's been sent to spend the summer with her overly saccharine grandmother and learns she's had the old lady figured all wrong. My favorite excerpt from Nicole's diary: "Boy was today awful. Grandma Nikki is already spreading her 'specialness,' even though it's only been a couple hours."

Alana Rosenbloom: In Anna's touching story, a girl named Arabella is reunited with her long-lost sister in a visit arranged by her new foster mother, Gertrude. When Arabella meets Gertrude for the first time, the scene plays out like this: "All of a sudden a plump old lady wearing a pink sweater and a green hat appears in front of me. She looks like a strawberry, and me, I'm the carrot, skinny and pale."

Cole Krasner: In a humorous introduction to the supernatural, Cole gives us Alex, whose London pen pal has sent her a very unusual gift: a poltergeist. When the ghost disappears Alex calls out for it. "In response, a book started dancing on the table. It looked like it was trying to do the can-can but failing because it had no legs, only four corners."

Serena Benages: In a Serena's story, each puppy in a litter of four was named according to what their mother deemed important. The results? Pups named Bone, Squirrel, Chase, and Moon. Moon's adventures eventually deliver him to a shelter, a loving family, and life with a new name: Mattie.

Christina York: A adventure tale about two mice, Christina's story ends with the duo safe inside their hole in the kitchen wall, being attended to by two human girls who've discovered their hiding place. The girls supply them with cheese and tissues, a.k.a. mice food and blankets.

Emily Kessler: Her story about two boys discovering a secret door in the Green Monster at Fenway Park had everyone laughing out loud. What's behind the door? A snake pit and the Red Sox spirit who explains, "My job is to poison Yankees fans. That is the purpose of the snakes."

ShelfTalker’s Sidekick Reviews Tamar

Alison Morris - May 14, 2007

On April 19th I introduced my savvy 16-year-old sidekick, Katrina Van Amsterdam. What follows is Katrina's review of a new favorite, Tamar by Mal Peet.

Tamar: A Novel of Espionage, Passion, and Betrayal
by Mal Peet (Candlewick Press, 2007)
Reviewed by Katrina Van Amsterdam

The novel Tamar: A Novel of Espionage, Passion, and Betrayal is essentially about espionage, passion, and betrayal. Two plot lines intertwine in Mal Peet’s story, each incredibly captivating. One centers around a member of the Dutch Resistance during World War II. He goes by the code-name of Tamar as he and a friend are sent from England back to their native country to help fight the Nazis, who have control over Holland. The other plot line deals with the granddaughter of Tamar, who tries to piece together things about her grandfather’s life after his suicide. Written with gripping, eloquent language, Peet grabs the reader in the first chapter and keeps him or her in suspense for the entirety of the book. As Tamar gets into more and more danger in Nazi-occupied country, his granddaughter continues to find out more and more about his life… until the one climactic moment when everything you thought you knew about Tamar is changed. This is truly a book that you cannot and will not want put down.

Fabled Daemon

Alison Morris - May 10, 2007

As big a Philip Pullman fan as I am, I'm embarrassed that it's taken me this long to meet my daemon, who turns out to be… a mouse! Having read the comments on Roger Sutton's blog in which so many in the book business report having (being?) ocelots, I was a bit surprised to find myself in the company of so diminutive a creature. Apparently, though, a mouse is the right match for someone "modest, outgoing, competitive, spontaneous and a leader" (the profile formed by my answers to the 20 daemon-pairing questions). Whether or not that's an accurate description of my personality, I've already grown quite fond of my little whiskered friend, so that decides it. He's a keeper!

Beloved Audiobook Series

Alison Morris - May 9, 2007

In my April 14th post, "Easy on the Ears," I mentioned my love for several book series on audio. Here are three that are especially worthy of mention.

The DeGranville Trilogy (Blood Red Horse, Green Jasper, and the brand new Blaze of Silver)
by K.M. Grant, read by Maggie Mash (Recorded Books)

I adored the first two books of this series on audio and consider them to be two of the most engrossing I've listened to. British reader Maggie Mash lends the perfect tone to these epic Crusades-era narratives and creates distinct voices for the books' four main characters: Gavin, Will, Eleanor and Kamil. Having so loved listening to the first two books I was anxious to get my hands on a galley of Blaze of Silver, but once I did…? I couldn't bring myself to read it. I started to do so, but one chapter in I determined that it just wasn't the same, reading the book to myself. I started the trilogy with Maggie and I want to end it that way too. So determined is my Maggie Mash resolve that I have now had the galley for about seven months, the actual book is now selling from the shelves of our bookstore, and I STILL haven't caved. Any day now some wonderful library in the Minute Man library system will acquire the audio for Blaze of Silver so that I can finally begin listening! (The recording is not available for sale to retail stores or for download anywhere yet, so I'm forced to wait it out.)

The Children of the Red King series (five books available so far, the first being Midnight for Charlie Bone) by Jenny Nimmo, read by Simon Russell Beale (Listening Library)

Like the DeGranville Trilogy, this is a series that I do only on audio. Why? Because Simon Russell Beale is truly what makes it work for me. I have such distinct impressions of each of the books' many characters, and what makes them so fully formed in my mind are the voices Beale has assigned to each of them. Charlie's Uncle Peyton, his friend Benjamin, his enemy Manfred, even his three aunts — each has such a distinct voice, so perfectly suited to their character. I have talked to others who have read (but not listened to) the Charlie Bone series, and who are less enthusiastic about it than I am. I think it's the absence of Beale in their experience that's to blame.

The Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series (out so far: Wolf Brother, Spirit Walker, and the brand-new
Soul Eater
) by Michelle Paver, read by Ian McKellan (Recorded Books)

Katrina Van Amsterdam (my new sidekick) comes from a family of audiobook listeners, and I have them to thank for introducing me to the audio versions of Paver's books. I read Wolf Brother and enjoyed it, but the Van Amsterdams convinced me that I really ought to try listening to them. (The mere mention of Sir Ian McKellan's name was all I really needed to hear.) I listened to Spirit Walker and was both transfixed and spooked out of my wits. The drama! The suspense! I have since gone back and listened to Wolf Brother, which was like a completely different story under the spell cast by McKellan. While I have not yet listened to it, I have no doubt that Soul Eater will be the same.