Monthly Archives: June 2007

See that galley? Sell it to me.

Alison Morris - June 29, 2007

Last week I received a shipment of galleys in which the three "biggest" titles (in terms of the books’ likely popularity and initial print runs) included no plot synopses, to my great frustration. Many publishers have made this mistake in the past (and perhaps even in this very season), so I’m not mentioning the name of the specific publisher who made me grit my teeth last week. I am, though, asking ALL publishers to please consider the following…

Just as books have to sell themselves to customers, galleys have to sell themselves to booksellers. Given the overwhelming stacks of books I’m drowning in, both at home and in my office, the competition for my time is incredibly steep, and the odds of me reading any one ARC dwindle with the arrival of each new one. Imagine, then, my frustration to find that I don’t know even the basic plot of the forthcoming books by two of my favorite authors! I can assume, based on knowledge of their previous titles, that I will love both, but so what? I’m also assuming I’ll love all the other galleys in my ever-growing pile that I haven’t yet found the time to read. Not knowing what I can expect to find on a book’s pages therefore makes it harder for me to want to place it at the top of my pile. I have to say too, that in the cases of these two galleys, their covers aren’t helping matters — each gives me no indication whatsoever as to what stories the book might have to tell, adding to my bewilderment and frustration.

When this happens, couldn’t I just look up the mystery book in the offending publisher’s catalog and read the plot synopsis there? Of course I could. But doing so would require me to expend valuable time and energy that would be better spent selling publishers’ books rather than trying to unravel their mysteries. And what about the other booksellers, kids and teachers also reading galleys for our store? They don’t have access to catalog information with the ease that I do, so it’s especially important to provide plot synopses for them.

PLEASE, wonderful publishers out there, understand that we booksellers and librarians are even more inundated with reading material than the general public. Just as you need to make your finished books speak to our customers, you need to make your galleys speak to us, as clearly and eloquently as possible.

Pink Makes a Perfect Picturebook

Alison Morris - June 27, 2007

While meeting with my PGW rep this season, I fell head-over-heels for a new picture book being published by Groundwood Books in August: Pink, written by Nan Gregory and illustrated by Luc Melanson. I love everything about this book, but it’s the writing that especially stands out for me, prompting me to wonder for the umpteenth time why there isn’t a "big" award given specifically for the text of a picture book. If there was, Pink would absolutely be on my list of this year’s nominees.

"Vivi is dizzy with wanting pink." Each schoolday she watches a gaggle of rich girls arrive in shades of rose from head to toe and wishes she could be like them. "Every day at school they parade their glory – from hair bows to tippy toes, every shade of perfect pink." Vivi thinks of them as "the Pinks" and imagine they must go home to warmly colorful houses every day, not to brown apartment buildings like hers, or to a mother and truck-driver father who struggle sometimes to make ends meet.

Believing that the Pinks have all the pink, Vivi complains to her parents who they tell her there’s plenty to go around and point out the shade in her very own cheeks, which to Vivi is no consolation. "Don’t they want to understand? Vivi is wild with wanting."

And here we arrive at my favorite paragraph in the book:

"One dead of winter afternoon, running an errand for her mom, Vivi finds a wonder the Pinks don’t have. It stands in the window of My Little Darling, Gifts for the Fortunate Child, all lit up like crystal – a dainty bride doll in a dress of glistening pink petals, layers and layers, each one glazed with rainbow light."

Vivi desperately wants the rosy doll but hasn’t got the money for it. Rather than sulking or begging her parents for what she knows she can’t afford, she jumps on her mother’s suggestion that she run errands for her neighbors, requesting that they pay her dimes and nickels or whatever they’d like to contribute to her cause.

Wanting to give her daughter some pink in the meantime, Vivi’s mom plans a pink outing complete with a picnic (or "pinknic" as Vivi calls it) of pink-hued foods. As the family lazes under the pink shade of a plum tree, Vivi’s father tells her about a truck he saw once, covered with twinkling lights. "At first I didn’t know what it was, all lit up like fairyland. Ever since, I’ve wanted lights like that for my truck." When Vivi asks why he doesn’t get them he explains that they’re expensive and tells her, simply, "You can’t have everything."

On the return trip Vivi takes her parents past My Little Darling, so they can all admire the perfect doll in the window, but the doll isn’t there. A Pink has beaten them to the punch. Heartbroken, Vivi wilts visibly. She trudges slowly behind her parents as they make their way home. "It’s hard to go fast when your heart is a stone."

Finally home at their apartment building, Vivi’s father sits on the steps and tries to raise her spirits by playing a tune on his harmonica. Soon the music gets under her skin and Vivi is dancing, dancing, allowing her heart to grow lighter and her fingers to wave to the doll she knows she simply can’t have. When her father finishes playing Vivi collapses beside him on the steps and agrees that wanting things makes for good music. He reminds her, again, that you can’t have everything, but Vivi realizes that, at least for that moment, she does. The end.

I love this book. I love that you think Vivi will get the doll in the end, but she doesn’t. I love that the Pinks don’t have a sudden change of heart or change of color. I love that Gregory gives us this story from Vivi’s perspective, even if it’s not in her voice – that it’s not that her parents don’t understand or can’t understand, it’s that, as Vivi sees it, they don’t want to understand. I love Melanson’s warm illustrations, which give the pages a look both airy and contemporary, one feminine but not saccharine. I love the book’s cover design, which is suitably pink enough to attract fans of girly favorites like Fancy Nancy and does indeed offer them a suitable dose of rose. What I love most, though, is that readers will come away from this book with something much warmer than pink – something that will bring a little color to their lives, in the best, least surface of ways.

Harry Potter on the High Seas

Alison Morris - June 26, 2007

In the children’s section of our store this morning, I overheard a seafaring father talking with his worried, wizard-loving daughter about how they’ll get their hands on a hot-off-the-presses copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. "We’ll come into some port on July 21st," he reassured her. "I will MAKE SURE we come into some MAJOR port on July 21st!"

I love the image of ships all over the world sailing into port and dropping anchor on the same day for the same bookish purpose, their resident kids scurrying up the gangplank and rushing to the nearest bookstore.

Origami Now, Origami Wow

Alison Morris - June 25, 2007

About two years ago I was summoned away from my desk at work by a woman named Kyoko Kondo. She’d stopped in to let me know that the Fiske Elementary School in Wellesley would soon be hosting world-renowned origami master Michael LaFosse whose studio, Origamido, is located in Haverhill, north of Boston.  During our delightful conversation Kyoko suggested that we might want to be sure we had some origami books in stock (in particular books by Michael), as kids might come in asking for them. A few days later she returned with Michael himself, who was every bit as charming as Kyoko and wins extra points for being a former bookseller! I couldn’t help thinking that if the entire origami community was as nice as these two people, I might be in the wrong paper-related industry.

Fast-forward to last Sunday, when Gareth and I took a drive up to Salem, Massachusetts, to see the Joseph Cornell exhibit currently on display at the fabulous Peabody-Essex Museum. I’d been looking forward to seeing this impressive, thoughtfully curated exhibit for months but can’t deny the fact that it was ultimately overshadowed for me by a much smaller one we happened to stumble upon during its opening weekend — "Origami Now!" If you’ve got an art lover or math whiz in your family, I suggest that you pack up the car and make your may to the Peabody-Essex sometime between now and June 8, 2008. (Fortunately you’ve got almost a year!)

As Gareth and I entered the museum and noticed the beautiful origami butterflies suspended from the ceiling in the entry hall, I glanced to a table at my left. Who should be giving kids origami lessons but Michael LaFosse, who turns out to have been the "Origami Now!" exhibition advisor. I filled Gareth in on how I happened to meet him, made a mental note to say hello later and the two of us went immediately to the "Origami Now!" exhibit, which floored me.

Let me just say that I’ve folded my share of sailor hats and paper cranes, but what origami masters can produce today with a single sheet of paper is stuff your average folder can’t begin to approximate. The pieces on display in this exhibit are ART in the truest sense of the word. A formerly dull dollar bill practically breathes in its new pelican form. A paper schooner disappears under the tentacles of a paper giant squid. An entire alligator appears, each scale on its foot-long back a perfect triangular fold. As Gareth and I moved slowly from case to case on the exhibit floor, I would periodically turn around to take in the gaping mouths and pointing fingers of kids and adults alike. All of us were caught under the spell of magical paper creations like Michael LaFosse’s "Wilbur the Piglet," pictured below:

My favorite thing about this exhibit is the fact that it’s accessible for all ages and has an inherently "encouraging" way about it. Unlike elaborate oil paintings or chiseled stone sculptures, these pieces almost beg you to try your hand at imitation. They elicit that "Wow. Maybe I could do that…!" response from admirers young and old. The ages of some of the exhibitors or the number of years they’ve been folding validate these particular longings in younger patrons. The "American Giant Millipede" was folded by Kenneth Baclawski Jr., age 18. Corey Comenitz, the designer and folder of "Pulp Fiction" (a bearded man, seated, reading a book) is a year younger. The tags on many exhibits explain that their creators began doing origami as children. Michael LaFosse is among these — he discovered origami at age five and was designing original models by age eleven.

I also loved the fact that the marriage between math and art is so perfectly evident here. I’d never seen the crease patterns for a finished origami model before and therefore never fully appreciated the complex geometry involved in pieces that often seem too organic to have an origin of predrawn angles, tesselations on a plane. Did you know that origami can be linked directly to contemporary airbag designs, or that architects are looking at origami as they attempt to design buildings that could "bounce back" after collapse? I certainly didn’t.

Gareth and I were getting lunch when I realized that Kyoko Kondo and her husband were right in front of us in line! Over lunch she told us more about the origami community, the activities of Origami USA, and the prevalence of origami in math circles. As it turns out, MIT has its own origami club. Their website even includes photos of their visit to Origamido, which will (unfortunately for us New Englanders) soon be relocating to Hawaii.

Fortunately, you don’t need a local origami studio or this museum exhibit to get you started on the road to mastery. All you really need is an origami book, some paper, a lot of patience, and a little play time. Your local bookstore ought to be able to provide at least one of the above!

My Teenage Sidekick Loves a Deadline

Alison Morris - June 20, 2007

Here you go, folks — another review written by my savvy 16-year-old sidekick, Katrina Van Amsterdam.

by Chris Crutcher (Harper Collins/Greenwillow, September 2007)

Deadlines aren’t just for tedious homework assignments and stressful work projects. There is a deadline that, at some time or another, we all face: death. Some live in fear of that deadline for their whole lives, while other learn to appreciate life while they are living. In Chris Crutcher’s Deadline, Ben Wolf is told that he has a fatal case of leukemia and opts not to tell anyone, on the grounds that he wants his last year to be a “normal” year. Through football season, a quest to show up a bigoted history teacher, and some surprising new relationships, Ben lives his last year as any old 18-year-old with a terminal disease.

Crutcher touches on weightier issues in this novel – child molestation, to name a significant one. But, as always, he adds an element of athletics (football, in this case) for those of his readers who are avid sports fans. For the reader who doesn’t fancy football, have no fear – Crutcher makes his discussion of the sport very reader-friendly!

Deadline is one of the best books I’ve read in quite some time. It makes you laugh; it makes you cry; and it touches you in a place where most “teen fiction” novels fall short. If nothing else, you will come away with an invaluable lesson: to live life as if you have all the time in the world, while realizing that you might only have one day left.

Almost Naked Animals

Alison Morris - June 19, 2007

For your entertainment, I thought I’d alert you to the fact that the oh-so-talented illustrator (and soon-to-be author!) Noah Z. Jones has recently added a new "Almost Naked Animal" to his wacky "Almost Naked Animals" website. They are worth checking out, as is Noah’s star. See it there, rapidly rising? Go, Noah, go!

Ah, the things you’ll find on the web these days — everything from almost naked animals to almost corrupted horses.

P.S. Noah and his wife are expecting a baby in September, but they’re keeping their name choices top secret until the little guy’s/gal’s arrival. My best friend’s perfect two year-old son is named Silas. My new 10 year-old neighbor is named Milo. Kristen McLean’s perfect little sweetpea is Lola. Heard any other good names lately? I am personally NOT shopping around for one (would hate for those rumors to circulate…), but if YOU are, I recommend taking a peek at The Baby Name Wizard by Laura Wattenberg. Unlike most baby books, this one’s not about the meanings of names so much as their trends. Beside each name is a little popularity chart, enabling you to see which names had their heyday in a previous decade, which names are on their way out, and which names have never been a blip on anyone’s radar. You’ll also find a description of each name’s personality or historical significance, suggestions for siblings’ names, and colorful name categories like "Porch Sitters" (e.g. Agnes, Luetta, Floyd, and Norbert) and "Surfer Sixties" (e.g. Dionne, Randi, Kurt, and Vince).

69 Years of Leaning into the Wind

Alison Morris - June 13, 2007

Continuing the "marriage" theme I began earlier in the week, I’d like to share the fact that Tuesday was the 69th wedding anniversary of my grandparents, Olin and Evelyn Morris. My grandfather’s 92nd birthday is two weeks away, my grandmother will turn 91 in August and, yes, you read that right — they’ve been married for a whopping 69 years. Today I found myself thinking about the incredible range of books they must’ve seen and read and loved in that time. Sitting down to type this blog entry, I’m also thinking about how much more accessible reading material (in forms both actual and "virtual") is to all of us today than it was in 1938 when my grandparents tied the knot.

Earlier I called my grandparents at their home in Lincoln, Nebraska to talk to them about these things and ask if there was one book that stood out in their minds as having been important or meaningful to them at some point during their 69 years of marriage (and counting). My grandfather, as would probably be true for most Americans of his generation, named the Bible, citing the importance of church events in their lives throughout the years and their continued volunteer work today with their local Presbyterian church.

My grandmother, a voracious reader, former teacher and one-time school librarian, named Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. She said she read it soon after they were married (it was published in 1936 and won the Pulitzer in 1937). "Oh, I just wept over it and cried over it!" When I asked if my grandfather reminded her, at the time, of Rhett Butler, she laughed and sighed, saying, "I think he did a little bit. Your grandfather is quite poetic, and he can be rather romantic too!"

By observation I would say that the books playing second to the Bible in my grandfather’s life have, without doubt, been the complete works of Louis L’Amour, Max Brand and Zane Grey. I’ve rarely seen him without a yellowed, dog-eared Western within arm’s reach — usually one he’s reading for the umpteenth time. My grandmother’s reading tastes are harder to classify, as she’s devoured books of every conceivable fact and fiction over the years, paying particular attention to the books sent to her by (who else?) her loving grandchildren.

What literary gifts does one send to their nonagenarian grandparents? Because they’ve lived some of the same histories he writes about so eloquently, I’ve made Richard Peck fans out of mine, sending them books like A Long Way from Chicago, The Teacher’s Funeral, and recently a signed copy of Peck’s newest book, On the Wings of Heroes, which my grandfather (a WWII veteran) couldn’t help but appreciate. Patricia MacLachlan’s Sarah, Plain and Tall stroke a note with them when I first sent it, several years ago. And being bird-lovers, they both fell in love with one my non-fiction favorites, The Race to Save the Lord God Bird by Phillip Hoose. It seemed to excite them almost as much as the annual arrival of the Sandhill Cranes.

Of all the books I’ve ever sent them, though, the one my grandmother mentions the most often is one called Leaning into the Wind: Women Write from the Heart of the West edited by Nancy Curtis, Gaydell Collier, and Linda M. Hasselstrom. The beautiful piece by Rose Kremers that begins this anthology also comes to mind for me a lot, specifically in thinking about the hardships my grandparents have managed to endure in their 90+ years — years that weren’t always kind, against a landscape (physical and political) that wasn’t always hospitable. Rose concludes her two rich paragraphs about pain with an image of perseverence. Using the metaphor of roots struggling to find a hold in hardsod, she says it’s "a simple thing after all, to anchor, to stay. It just takes a leaning into the wind."

Wedding Bells at BEA

Alison Morris - June 12, 2007

Last week I posted my rather "serious" thoughts on BEA. This week I thought I’d post a completely ridiculous BEA-related musing: What if my friend Tim had decided to host his Saturday wedding at the Javits Center? Sure, his forthcoming book might be about the Black Death, which hardly seems like a wedding-appropriate theme, but I think a BEA wedding would nevertheless have boosted his book sales. Complete absurdity = publicity = sales, no?

Here’s what I’m picturing:

The wedding venue: Either the Boyds Mills Press booth, as Front Street is Tim’s publisher, or (to accommodate a larger crowd) one of those seating areas where you can watch cooking demonstrations and the like. In either case, finding an aisle would certainly not have been a problem.

The guest attire: Wedding-themed badge holders

The wedding party: Costumed characters, which are never in short supply at BEA

The music: Compliments of Putamayo, which is always present at the show and has a grand reputation for partnering well with booksellers

The reading: Publishers could have competed to have their ARCs featured during this portion of the service.

The officiator: I think David McCullough might have made the best choice out of this year’s BEA attendees, but Stephen Colbert would also have been memorable in this role… Any other nominees?

The recessional: Did anyone give out promotional rice packets this year? Maybe birdseed? Those might be the only two promo items I didn’t see. Surely SOMEONE did bubble stuff.

The reception: Take your pick of any number of publisher parties that could easily have accommodated our crowd of wedding-watchers. A Spiderwick reception might have been cool. Then again, Holiday House sounds like an appropriate place for a wedding reception.

The favors: All the swag your commemorative totebags could carry.

The vehicle whisking the bride and groom away: the Harry Potter Knight Bus, naturally.

What pieces of the BEA wedding puzzle am I missing? You tell me. (No, really, tell me. I’m getting a genuine laugh out of this, which will continue until someone decides this is actually a great publicity stunt and DOES get married at BEA, at which point I will cry for ever having shared this ridiculous idea!!)

How Inky Solomon Saved Cartoon Studies

Alison Morris - June 8, 2007

Looking for a chuckle or, better still, a guffaw? Try your darndest not to laugh at the comic that explains the origins of the Center for Cartoon Studies. I stumbled across it last week while writing my post about Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow.

If you want to zoom closer to the comic or to see it with a bit of color, visit the history page and download the pdf.

Recapping BEA

Alison Morris - June 5, 2007

So, I tested a theory last weekend and it proved correct. Whether you spend two, three, or four days attending Book Expo the end result is the same: you go home (or to your friend’s wedding) feeling completely and utterly exhausted. End of story. The reasons you feel this way are as follows: 

1.  You stay up way too late at various author dinners/publisher parties/late-night chats over cocktails with people you see far too infrequently.

2.  Even though you’ve learned this lesson countless times you still get up outrageously early so that you can attend author breakfasts that start much too early given your late bedtime the night before.

3.  Even after you’ve made every effort to pick up as little "loot" as possible, you wind up carting FAR too many books around the trade show floor, on the unforgiving straps of FAR too many totebags.

4.  You smile at too many people, make too much small talk, and pretty much exhaust your abilities to be both charming and professional, at least at the same time.

5.  You process, think, reflect, process, think, reflect, process, think, pass out from exhaustion.

What made this BEA worth all the fatigue were not the moments and experiences I had on the trade show floor so much as the conversations I had with fellow booksellers, with authors, and with publishing folks, mostly at dinners and parties but occasionally at places where we just happened to run into one another. Outside the actual exhibit hall Gareth and I stumbled into a long, delightful conversation with Judy O’Malley of Charlesbridge Press and author/illustrator Susan L. Roth. A Bloomsbury party brought me face-to-face with new celebrity-turned-author Julianne Moore, who seemed able to make delightful conversation with everyone in the room. I talked and talked with Laura Godwin at a wonderful Holt dinner at which I also talked and talked with author/illustrator William Low and author/illustrator Peter McCarty. A Holtzbrinck dessert party afforded chances to chat with authors,  illustrators, booksellers, and publishers galore, and the ABC auction and dinner felt like a who’s who of the children’s book world, with everyone doing (what else?) lots of talking.

Perhaps I need to amend my list of fatigue-inducers above to include a #6: talking. But this year the talking part really was the bulk of the fun.

Here’s what I did NOT like about BEA this year: the almost complete inaccessibility of books in the booths of most large publishers. As I strolled the trade show floor I found it almost impossible to get a sense of most publishers’ lists, because I couldn’t even get near the f&g’s of their forthcoming picture books, if I could even find them in the first place. While, yes, the crowds of people clogging the aisles were part of the problem, I couldn’t help feeling like the booth arrangements themselves and publishers’ decisions about what to feature in those booths were the bigger culprits. Time and time again I found that the only samples available for perusal were on a low shelf behind a table crowded with people conducting business. My options were to either interrupt these busy folks or move on having seen nothing. In most cases, I wound up doing the latter, ultimately walking away with no sense of what books that publisher was happy to be promoting.

The same is mostly true when it comes to novels. While I understand why publishers aren’t carting as many galleys to the show and stacking as many in grand piles within their booths, I have to say that the loss of those stacks ultimately leaves me with a lot less information. What is so-and-so excited about this season? I have no idea, because nothing stood out for me. What midlist author are they hoping to push to the forefront? I couldn’t begin to tell you, unless they happened to be part of special featured programs, like the New Voices one organized by ABC.

This means when you ask me what the "big books" were at the show for me this year, I’ve got almost no answer for you. Unless I happen to have already purchased a publisher’s fall list or happen to have dined with a particular author, I don’t necessarily even know what "the big guys" are selling. As a buyer who meets with sales reps at the store to do my purchasing, this is not a huge problem, but it is a disappointment. More importantly, it’s a missed opportunity. Think of all those frontline booksellers and librarians and people from other publishing houses who interact with customers, with patrons, with friends who have money to burn. They don’t have the sales rep advantage, they don’t have a chance to see the books that aren’t carried by their local bookstore, and they don’t know what they’re missing. These are people who can easily influence the purchasing decisions of their stores, their libraries, their fellow book-lovers. Why have so many of the larger publishers stopped catering to them?

In my head I’ve long had a list of those publishers who excel at making even their "small" books accessible in their large booths. Candlewick’s booth is probably the most bookseller-friendly, because it’s arranged with all of the books up front, where they’re easy to browse. Any meetings in their booth take place in semi-private sections where you don’t feel you’re tripping over them. Likewise, Chronicle Books always has their titles neatly arrayed, making them easy to pull from the wall to peruse. Houghton Mifflin makes clever use of their sometimes limited space by putting their picture book f&g’s in spinner racks. Voila! Browsers in the booth can still see the list, and Houghton folks can still make use of their meeting spaces. At the bottom of my mental list are Scholastic and Random House, who, for all the great, great books they produce, almost never display the bulk of them in their booths, giving me (sadly) fewer reasons to frequent them.

I say put your books (or at least sample pages) out where people can see them. I think people are more likely to recommend and sell the books they’ve actually read than the ones they’ve just seen advertised on their promotional totebags, beach towels, and post-it notes.