Monthly Archives: September 2008

A Belated NEIBA Recap

Alison Morris - September 30, 2008

This time of year, the pace of events in our store and in my larger life is so swift I can hardly stay on top of things! Blink once and I’ve missed my chance to record my thoughts on any of it. Blink twice and a year goes by in which I still haven’t blogged about HALF the things that happened the previous fall. I’m TRYING not to let that happen this year, but…? Already there are signs of me slipping! Here, then, is my week-and-a-half late recap of my time at the the New England Independent Booksellers Association fall trade show. (Visit the blog of The Alphabet Garden in Cheshire, Connecticut to read another bookseller’s report!)

This year NEIBA took place in downtown Boston. On Thursday, the day of education, I made it to the convention center in time to speak on a panel of booksellers about upcoming favorite books to handsell for the holidays. I then helped set up for and attended our wonderful NECBA dinner, at which I had the pleasure of sitting with lovely booksellers, lovely Random House folks, and authors Richard Michelson and Jeanne Birdsall. Jeanne was one of this year’s three delightful dinner speakers, in excellent company with Laurie Halse Anderson and Norton Juster. All three of their speeches were unique and lively and replete with love for we booksellers (which is always a good way to win us over!). Before the start of the dinner I had a lovely time chatting with Laurie, Jane Yolen, new author Jack Ferraiolo, veteran author/illustrator/bookseller Leo Landry, and many other folks who came by to say hello and visit during one of our few path-crossing opportunities for the year.

Friday was my only day at the trade show this year, and I spent much of it bumping into fellow booksellers and talking with them about how things are going at their stores, or bumping into sales reps and catching up on the latest news in their lives. For me the trade show itself is rarely about the books, as I’ve already bought the fall list from everyone by this point in the season, so there’s little left to surprise me as I linger beside assorted booths and pick up the occasional poster or (better still) foil-wrapped chocolate. It is also, though, about meeting authors and illustrators who are attending the show to do book signings. In particular this year I had a terrific time talking with the always delightful Barbara McClintock, who was at the show signing copies of Adèle and Simon in America — one of my favorite picture books of the year. Gareth and I were both also thrilled to be introduced to Barbara’s partner, David A. Johnson, whose illustrations we’ve admired for years.

Months ago now, in May, Barbara came to one of our NECBA meetings and did a wonderful presentation about her books, in which I learned (among other things) that she is SELF-TAUGHT as an illustrator!! This still astonishes me, as the perfection of her execution smacks of years of schooling. But no. Barbara got her art education by borrowing art books from the library and meticulously replicating the paintings she found in them before returning one batch of books and bringing home another. Grace Lin wrote a wonderful blog post about Barbara after hearing her speak at an event sponsored by the Foundation for Children’s Books here in Boston last May. Read Grace’s post to learn the OTHER things I should have told you about Barbara months ago. (Bad blogger! Bad!) Here’s a photo I took during Barbara’s visit to our NECBA meeting . That’s Barbara McClintock on the left, librarian Bina Williams in the middle, and Flying Pig bookstore owner/Candlewick author Elizabeth Bluemle on the right.

But back to the topic of NEIBA. The only educational session I had time to attend even briefly on Friday was "How to Make Publishers Love You," in which various in-house experts talked about what makes bookstores stand out in their minds and how we booksellers can best work with publishers (and vice versa). Sadly I caught only about 15 minutes of the chatter from this esteemed panel before I had to head off to our store’s Brisingr-related festivities. I just have to hope that doesn’t make me any less loved with those publishers that aren’t Random House!

Urban Outfitters Makes Me Cranky

Alison Morris - September 29, 2008

Urban Outfitters prides itself on its knowledge of (and catering to) what’s hip and trendy with edgier teens and the college-age crowd. I was therefore happy, at first, to see that some literary classics had a place in their current product mix. (Click on any of the photos to here to be directed to their product page.)


Along with the Fitzgerald and Kerouac options above, the stores’ selection of "graphic tees" for men also includes a few salutes to "required reading" for the younger set. They offer three Sendak-y designs and one ode to Seuss in Italian.


And (hooray!) a salute to "Reading Rainbow," a show I dearly wish was still on the air, and not just because I dreamed of cohosting it with LeVar Burton. (Ah, maybe in my next life…)

So, here’s the reason I’m feeling cranky about Urban Outfitters. While I’m happy that these reading-inspired tees appear in the stores’ offerings for men, I find it both odd and irksome that they don’t also appear in the selection of "graphic tees" being marketed to women. Does Urban Outfitters believe that hipster girls are less likely than their male counterparts to actually read and enjoy books? Do they think girls don’t WANT to announce their own love of literature? 

No, I think it’s less complicated than that, and the ONE book-inspired tee aimed at women browsing the Urban Outfitters website pretty well confirms that: tell me this t-shirt doesn’t have a blatantly suggestive subtext.

Like SO many others nowadays, the Urban Outfitters brand appears to be more concerned with making girls and young women appear sexy than making them appear smart (or confident or capable or… where to start?). I won’t go into all the reasons I’m offended by the rampant sexualization of girls and women that’s so readily evident in the marketplace nowadays, because this is neither the time nor the place. I will observe, though, that if sexualizing girls and women is their aim, Urban Outfitters seems to have missed one crucial point when they decided to market just one book tee to women rather than the full range available to men — it’s a point expressed well on THIS t-shirt designed by Sarah Utter — which is currently NOT available in Urban Outfitters stores:

Braving the Night for ‘Brisingr’

Alison Morris - September 25, 2008

Last Friday I left the NEIBA trade show (more on that to come!) in the early afternoon and hustled back to Wellesley, for a sweet, sweet line-up of events at our store, leading up to the midnight launch of Christopher Paolini’s Brisingr. While our turnout was much lower than we’d hoped, those who did join us for the evening’s festivities seemed very pleased to have done so — and they were probably just as happy they didn’t have to share the evening’s "special guests" with a large crowd!

The fun started at 6 p.m., when Ologies author Dugald Steer answered questions from a crowd of about 35 kids and grown-ups about all kinds of monsters and dragons. At times he tossed questions their way too. My favorite exchange went like this:

Dug: "Does anybody know where Yetis come from?

Kid (with great enthusiasm): "The Bahamas?" 

Below, the affable and highly intelligent Dug illuminates the characteristics of a creature featured in his newest book, Monsterology.

Below, (young) twin fans watch as Dug inscribes a book with their very own names!! Their excitement was palpable. 

Following Dug’s presentation and signing, illustrator Gareth Hinds (my… ahem… FIANCÉ!) did a demonstration in which he drew dragons and other objects/creatures/oddities by request, while kids drew along with him. Among other things, the young onlookers asked him to draw a blackberry (no, not the edible kind), Bart Simpson, Mario, Voldemort, a puppy, and a squirrel. (What a combination!) The consensus was he passed each test with flying colors.

A little after 9 p.m., fencing master Zoran Tulum educated AND entertained a rapt crowd in the back parking lot of our bookstore with his explanation of the history of sword-fighting, complete with antique swords from his own collection. HE WAS FANTASTIC! I honestly believe it would be worth your while to HIRE Zoran to come to your child’s birthday party, your sales conference, your family reunion, your next bookstore event — anything, anywhere. He’s easily one of the best, most entertaining speakers I’ve seen, which explains his overwhelming success as a coach and teacher. Just how much success has he had? Here’s the bio that appears on the site for his fencing studio (Zeta) in Natick, Mass.:

Zoran Tulum, head coach, has been a fencer for over 40 years and a coach for more than 27. His career has taken him from winning the Yugoslavian National Championships to coaching the International Olympic Games and US National Teams. In 1996, he was coach for the US Olympic Team.

As a fencing master, Zoran coached at Harvard University for two years and Stanford University, where he was head coach for 12 years. Over those years, his fencers won eight individuals NCAA titles in all three weapons. As well, his fencers have won multiple medals at both junior and senior levels at the Pan American Games, the University Games and World Championships. His students have accumulated nearly every national title in the US at each age and classification level, from youth through Junior Olympics and Senior National Championships.

Zoran founded Zeta Fencing Studio in 2001. Since that time, thousands of student fencers have participated in Zeta’s programs. Many have gone on to fencing in leading college programs. In the last six years, the club has won four national titles and fielded countless finalists in US National Championships.

Below Zoran wields a broadsword before a crowd of slack-jawed onlookers.

Following his explanation of fencing’s origins and some of its traditions, Zoran and 13-year-old Juliana Van Amsterdam (whose sister Katrina is my teenage sidekick!) then demonstrated some basic fencing techniques. 

I ask you: What Brisingr party could be cooler than this??

Following our fencing fun (during which we raffled off seven weeks of fencing classes, worth $225 — a very generous donation from Zoran!) many in our crowd of Brisingr devotees moved down to the store’s Used Book Cellar for a screening of the Eragon movie. They emerged at about 11:45 p.m. and joined other excited Brisingr fans (about 50 or 60 parents and adults) lining up to get their hands on this long-awaited book.

Each kid receiving his or her copy of Brisingr at midnight was also given a cool souvenir to commemorate the occasion: a foam sword bearing the slogan "I braved the night for Brisingr at Wellesley Booksmith." These souvenirs may not have the coolness of, say, Zoran’s broadsword. Or his rapier. Or his court sword, cavalry sabre, or katana. But we think these were a pretty good use of our Random House co-op, nevertheless!

In short, OUR ENTIRE EVENING WAS AWESOME!! Thanks go to neighboring restaurant Alta Strada, which made food available throughout the evening for families attending the festivities. And kudos go to my colleague Mayre Plunkett, who helped put things together and made sure they ran smoothly. Things went so well and we all had such a good time that it’s easy to forget this unfortunate bookselling reality: on Friday night we sold only 35 copies of Brisingr. Even after all that work, and with all that fabulousness. (Thank goodness we’ve sold another 75 or so copies in the days since.)

That reality begs the question: was the midnight party worth it? I suppose that depends on whether you’re asking the store’s coffers (which had to cover the cost of paying extra employees to be at the store long into the evening, plus cover the hours we spent planning this fun), or the local kids who are suddenly desperate to take up the sport of fencing and raving to their friends about our event. Our best hope is that the goodwill generated by those six hours (!) of entertainment will generate more in the long term than it did in the short. But if not? Well, we’ve got a lot of foam swords at the store, and I’ll sell them to you for less than it costs to take seven weeks of fencing!

What I’d Like to See on the Runway

Alison Morris - September 24, 2008

I don’t watch a lot of television, as a rule, but this season I am (once again) hooked on Project Runway, as is almost everyone I talk to nowadays. I was recently pondering the challenges they’ve had on the show during the current and previous seasons and it occurred to me that one challenge I haven’t seen them do and would enjoy watching is a challenge in which the designers have to incorporate text and/or letter-forms into their designs. Wouldn’t that be cool? I’d like to see Tim Gunn escort them to the New York Public Library to find "inspiration," send them off to Mood for fabrics, then tell them to "make it work!"

During the times I’ve hunted down funny t-shirts and the like to post here, I’ve stumbled across a lot of really POOR uses of text in clothing designs, and I would say very few of them could be labeled as "fashion." But there are people who have created reading material in wearable form and (to quote Tim Gunn again) "made it work." One of my favorite examples is the dress created by Robert Ryan that appears at the start of this post and originally debuted on the pages of Vogue UK. Robert Ryan does elaborate, beautiful cut-paper designs — each cut from a single sheet of paper — and this dress is one amazing example of the magic he can work with a pencil and knife. Other examples include his cover illustrations for books like Dara Horn’s The World to Come and John Connelly’s The Book of Lost Things. To see more visit Rob’s website and blog, or pick up a copy of his own book This Is For You.

I hunted around for other fashion featuring text in creative ways but apparently didn’t come up with the right string of words to Google, as my searches yielded nothing. This is all the more evidence, I say, that Project Runway ought to put some readable garments on the runway.

A Photo Tour of the Montague Bookmill

Alison Morris - September 22, 2008

The Montague Bookmill in Montague, Massachusetts, is easily one of the prettiest, most peaceful places I’ve ever purchased a book or spent an afternoon. A used bookstore housed in an 1842 gristmill overlooking the Sawmill River, it’s a little over half an hour’s drive from the town of Northampton, where I attended Smith College as an undergrad.
When Gareth and I attended a wedding in Western Mass. a few weeks ago I insisted on taking him to the Bookmill, to revisit the place that became one of my favorite studying haunts during my senior year. Who wouldn’t love a bookstore with the slogan “Books You Don’t Need in a Place You Can’t Find”? Especially when it’s in a spot that’s perfectly picturesque during every season of the year AND it now shares the mill with a café, a restaurant, an artist’s studio, and an antiques store!
Because I’m such a huge fan of this place, it gets such PERFECT light, and I wanted to be sure to share it with you in grand style, I took a ton of photographs during our Sunday afternoon visit. Most of them, though, are focused on the architecture and comfortable stylings of this place, rather than on its book selection. You’ll just have to trust me when I tell you that the selection is just as appealing as the space itself.
Here’s how the Bookmill looks when you first see it, from the rise of the road above.

And here’s how it looks if you cross that road and step onto the bridge that beats an elevated path to the bookstore’s second floor.

Cross that bridge and you’re greeted by the welcome sight of books, big windows, and comfortable chairs. Heaven! This how the second floor looks when you enter and turn to your right.

If you’d entered and turned to your left, you’d have been greeted by the sight of more rooms, filled with more books.

Straight ahead of you (photos above and below) are the art books.

The the left are the stairs that lead down to the 1st floor, flanked by a display of old typewriters.

To the right is a room that houses a number of non-fiction subjects…

and the perfect little reading alcove…

with THIS view of the Sawmill River below.

Now on to the first floor, which looks like this as you leave the stairwell. That’s Susan Shilliday, the owner of the Bookmill, walking directly in front of me toward the point of sale counter (on the left). The doorway directly in front of her leads to the fiction and poetry room — more on that shortly.

Here’s how the counter (and main entrance) looks if you enter from the ground floor:

And here’s the fabulous display of Bookmill swag on the left side of said counter. (I confess I had to own a t-shirt myself and went with the purple one.)

If you walk around to right side of said counter you’ll see this lovely sight: the children’s section — picture books on the left, middle grade and YA novels on the right.

At the back of that corner sits the most inviting pair of threadbare chairs you’ve ever seen.

And the view from that window? The Sawmill, of course.

Lest you think these the only comfy chairs on the bookmill’s first floor, allow me to point out to you the green velvet couch that sits to the left of them, with its back to the river.

And to the left of that couch? This alcove with windows overlooking the river on one side and windows overlooking the café on the other.

Back now to that doorway I pointed out above — the one that leads to the fiction and poetry room. Here’s that room.

Walk through the fiction and poetry room and straight out the door at the opposite end. Walk about ten paces then turn around. Here’s how the bookmill looks from that vantage point.

Now step about ten paces to your left and take another, wide-angle look. That’s the antiques store on your left, with the art gallery above it. See the bridge crossing the “alley” in front of you? That’s the one we crossed from the road above, to enter the Bookmill on the second floor. If you continue under it you’ll reach the entrance to the café.

But what about the restaurant? Did you notice the white tent in the two photos above? It’s sitting on the restaurant’s patio, clearly in anticipation of some summer event happening out there. A wedding perhaps? Let’s walk down the ramp and check it out.

The carved wooden sign featuring a crescent moon tells you you’ve reached The Night Kitchen. And see that guy in the window just behind and above that sign? He’s a customer browsing the middle grade novels in the children’s section. Seems fitting that the children’s section should look out over the The Night Kitchen, doesn’t it? You could sit on a bench and read In the Night Kitchen, periodically glancing out the windows that overlook The Night Kitchen. Perfect!

Here’s my reflection in the restaurant’s door.

From the patio outside said door (the one sporting a tent on the day we were there) you can take in this view of the Bookmill and the Sawmill River… beautiful!!

Now let’s go back up to that “alley” I showed you above, and walk up it, passing the store’s ground floor entrance on our right, and passing under the bridge we walked across earlier. Just pass the Bookmill’s entrance is the entrance to The Lady Killigrew, the aforementioned café.

Here’s how it looks as you enter. You can sidle up to the bar and order a cold one, or try one of the many tasty items on the Lady Killgrew’s menu.

Carry your tasty treats down the steps and take a seat in my old studying space, where you can stare down at the Sawmill.

Now go back to the beginning and do it all over again!! (But be sure to buy lots of books this next time through.)

Just As I Imagined It Would Be

Alison Morris - September 18, 2008

So the big news in my life this week is this: GARETH AND I ARE ENGAGED! He popped the question last Friday when we were at the top of Cadillac Mountain in Maine’s Acadia National Park, taking me completely by surprise.

There is presently is no fancy ring on my finger but rather a twist-tie in the shape of a ring, which was delivered to me in an actual ring box. Gareth gave me the twist-tie as a temporary substitute, figuring I should have the pleasure of choosing my own ring, but there’s a sentimental reason for it too: A year or so ago we were listening to a friend relay the story of a penniless pal of hers who was engaged to a woman demanding a very expensive engagement ring. I was appalled by my friend’s description of this woman’s demands and remarked that I thought her attitude was ridiculous. "If you truly love someone," I said, "they could give you a freakin’ twist-tie for a ring and that would be enough!!"

Let it never be said that my (now) fiancé doesn’t listen to the things I say…! 

While it’s true, the twist-tie would have been "enough," Gareth also included a little bonus in my ring box that will strike the strongest chord with of you who’ve read Shaun Tan’s book The Red Tree (one of the books I shared with Gareth on our first date when we were discussing our favorites). Inside the lid of my ring box Gareth taped a tiny print of the illustration that appears on The Red Tree‘s last page, along with the words that bring its text to a conclusion:

I can’t imagine a more fitting or beautiful sentiment for this occasion.

And there you have it — the end of my dating adventures and the start of something even better. Gareth and I have only just begun to discuss wedding plans (any advice and/or money-saving suggestions are welcome!) and we don’t anticipate tying the knot until at least a year from now. First we’ve got to find me a ring so people can stop asking if I’m wearing a twist-tie to remind myself of something! (Yes — that I’m engaged!)

Words of Wisdom from The Treasure Seekers

Alison Morris - September 16, 2008

Today I give you a book excerpt that contains some very entertaining advice for writers. What follows are the first two paragraphs of the second chapter of The Treasure Seekers by E. Nesbit.

I am afraid the last chapter was rather dull. It is always dull in books when people talk and talk, and don’t do anything, but I was obliged to put it in, or else you wouldn’t have understood all the rest. The best part of books is when things are happening. That is the best part of real things too. This is why I shall not tell you in this story about all the days when nothing happened. You will not catch me saying, "thus the sad days passed slowly by" — or "the years rolled on their weary course" — or "time went on" — because that is silly; of course time goes on — whether you say so or not. So I shall just tell you the nice, interesting parts — and in between you will understand that we had our meals and got up and went to bed, and dull things like that. It would be sickening to write all that down, though of course it happens. I said so to Albert-next-door’s uncle, who writes books, and he said, "Quite right, that’s what we call selection, a necessity of true art." And he is very clever indeed. So you see.

I have often thought that if the people who write children’s books knew a little more it would be better. I shall not tell you anything about us except what I should like to know about if I was reading the story and you were writing it. Albert’s uncle says I ought to have put this in the preface, but I never read prefaces, and it is not much good writing things just for people to skip. I wonder other authors have never thought of this.

Thanks to the Victorian Women Writers Project at Indiana University, you can read the full text of this and other E. Nesbit stories online.

The Price of a Page

Alison Morris - September 15, 2008

An entertaining discussion about the worth of a page came up in our office recently, when wonderful sales rep Adena Siegel was introducing Lorna to a book called Burdock (Yale University Press, August 2008) that features Janet Malcolm’s photographs of burdock leaves. The book retails for $65 and it’s 65 pages long.
The book is getting great praise and garnering rave reviews. Author Michael Pollan contributed a quote for the book’s cover in which he said, "Here is the heartbreaking particularity of nature, and the ravages of time made flesh. At once clinical and poignant, these photographs changed the way I look at the green world around me." (Wow.)

As a buyer, though, a book like this is a conundrum. It can get all the rave reviews in the world, but they won’t change the fact that this is ultimately a book featuring photos of burdock leaves that retails for $65. The question we buyers ask ourselves with every purchase is "Who is going to buy it?" and in the case of Janet Malcolm’s book, Lorna didn’t feel certain of the answer, which made her understandably more wary about buying it.

A great conversation sprung up in our office out of her moments of indecision in which Adena, Lorna, and I pondered the following: what is one page worth? This book weighs in at $1 per page, as cost to the consumer. Obviously "art books" like Janet Malcolm’s command a weightier sum in part because they are larger books printed on much higher quality paper using the best possible inks and more elaborate printing methods in much smaller print runs, all of which contributes to the higher price. I don’t doubt that a lot of readers will find $65 worth of inspiration, at least, in looking at Malcolm’s images, which do seem to tell their own unique and surprising stories. But, still, it’s interesting to ponder the question of whether or not most people would pay $1 per page, if the book were doled out to them in page-by-page fashion.

The question is do you think most books are worth that much? Do you think they’re worth MORE?

It’s a funny question, isn’t it? Pull one of your favorite books off the shelf and look at the page count. Would you have paid $323 to own To Kill a Mockingbird? How about $32 for Goodnight Moon?

Most picture books these days are 32 pages in length and have an average price, in hardcover, of $16 or $17. That’s 50 cents per page, for which you’re getting both art AND writing, in a larger trim size, usually full color, with a binding that will hold up moderately well over time. All things considered, that sounds pretty reasonable to me.

But then think what an amazing deal a novel turns out to be! Graceling by Kristin Cashore (Harcourt, October 2008), which I am POSITIVELY DEVOURING because it is such an incredible treat of a read, is 471 pages in length and retails for $17. That’s like paying just 4 cents for each page, which has got to be one of the year’s best bargains.

Now go back, though, and compare the price per page of a novel versus a picture book from their creators’ perspectives. Anyone who has ever tried to write a picture book will tell you that it is NOT AT ALL EASY, and looking at these numbers in part explains why — you’ve got to pack a lot more value into one page than a novelist does, using only a fraction of their word count.

Which sounds easier, writing/illustrating a page worth 50 cents, or writing/ illustrating one worth 4? Suddenly generating $1 of value per page seems almost impossible, so… I’ve no choice but to tip my hat to Janet Malcolm.

What are your thoughts on all this wacky math? What’s the most valuable book you own, given this pages-to-dollars comparison? And what’s the book for which you’d be willing to pay the most — is it worth more than a dollar per page to you?

Author Clones, Alive and Well

Alison Morris - September 11, 2008

Several months ago I did a complete double-take when a galley arrived at our store for a novel called How the Solider Repairs the Gramophone by Sasa Stanisic (Grove Press, June 2008). The cover showed a man on a beach, playing the accordion. But the man wasn’t/isn’t just any man. It’s Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket. I recognized him immediately, but no information on the galley explained how or why his picture came to be on the cover, so I momentarily doubted myself. STILL, I thought, it just HAD to be Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket. But… what if it wasn’t? What if it’s his doppleganger? Or a clone? Or just some guy who happens to look EXACTLY like him?

I was especially intrigued by this odd "sighting" because I’d seen Daniel Handler’s doppleganger once before, at a bus stop in Watertown, Massachusetts. It’s possible, of course, that it was, in fact, the real Daniel Handler I saw at that bus stop but the chances are soooooo absurdly thin that I believe it was his doppleganger. Or possibly a clone. OR some guy who looked EXACTLY like him (as best I could tell from my car as I drove by) waiting for the bus just a couple blocks from my apartment.

I have since learned that YES, indeed that IS Daniel Handler on the cover of that novel (though probably not at the bus stop), and that (here’s the best part) his appearance there is a complete coincidence, which I think is extremely funny. (The funniest bit is Daniel’s response to the question of whether or not he minded his photo appearing on the cover of the book.)

A few years ago Daniel apparently asked a photographer friend to take some photos of him but as he didn’t have much extra cash to punt her way at the time, he told her she could sell the images as stock photographs, which she did. The German publisher of Stanisic’s book just happened to pick one of THOSE photos for their edition of this book (with no idea as to the identity of the man in the picture), and Grove Press (who didn’t recognize Daniel either until a reader asked why he was on the cover of the book) liked it enough to want to use it too.

As remarkable and funny as that coincidence is, think how much more bizarre it might have been (for Daniel at least) if that WASN’T Daniel Handler on the cover of that book. Suppose it was a guy (maybe the one from the bus stop near my house) who just happened to look like Daniel Handler and who (okay, maybe this is less likely…) just happened to play the accordion too.

This possibility springs to mind namely because when I lived in New Hampshire I experienced a moment of complete awe and disbelief when it appeared (briefly, at least) that I was taking a tango class with Philip Pullman. SERIOUSLY. The first night of my tango class I walked through the door and spotted a man who was an absolute dead ringer for the author of The Amber Spyglass, which had just landed at bookstores everywhere, one of them The Dartmouth Bookstore, where I was then a children’s book buyer and where I’d seen Philip Pullman’s face staring back at me from many an Amber Spyglass promotional brochure. And now, here he was learning the basic steps of the tango, right across the room from me!!!

Of course, it wasn’t really Philip Pullman in my class. I knew it wasn’t. It couldn’t be. Philip Pullman lives in England, not New Hampshire. But knowing that didn’t stop me from staring at this guy who looked. EXACTLY. like him! It was so distracting! I could barely pay attention to the steps we were learning, because I was so bowled over by this man’s resemblance to one of my favorite authors. I glanced over at him so often that I worried that his very friendly-looking wife would notice and try to jump me in the parking lot after class, but thankfully she didn’t.

What she DID do, a week later, was completely validate my first week’s behavior. I had shown up for our second class with an Amber Spyglass promotional brochure in hand, awkwardly introduced myself to the two of them, and humbly apologized if they’d noticed me staring the week before (which they hadn’t). I explained about this hugely popular, truly remarkable trilogy of books and the fame of its author, then showed them the photo of the REAL Philip Pullman, at which point the look-a-like’s wife remarked, "Oh my gosh… You DO look exactly like him!" (score one for the bookseller) as he sat beside her shaking his head in recognition and disbelief. I then joked that maybe he’d want to come sign books at our store sometime (Philip Pullman’s books, of course)? We all laughed, he said he’d have to read His Dark Materials, I learned the couple’s names, and from then on we were good tango class friends. It was a relief to no longer have to think of them as "the other Philip Pullman, and wife," because that had just felt… creepy.

AND THEN IT HAPPENED TO ME! Yep. I was mistaken for a big-name children’s book author. But there were some odd steps that happened before I was out and out confused with her. The first was soon after I’d moved to Boston, when I was getting my hair cut at a new salon. During my first visit, Elena, my stylist, told me she had a client who looked a lot like me. She added that this was doubly odd because the woman also had a job in the children’s book business, working for a publisher, though Elena couldn’t remember which one. A few appointments later I arrive at the salon a bit early and see a woman sitting in Elena’s chair who looks VERY familiar to me, though I can’t initially figure out why or how. After she leaves Elena says, "That’s the client you remind me of!" I wrack my brain until eventually it comes me: the woman is Kara LaReau, then Kate DiCamillo’s editor at Candlewick, whom I’d met once before. When I saw Kara again at some book function or other we laughed about the coincidence.

In 2003, about a year after I was told I resembled Kate DiCamillo’s editor, I went to Bologna, where at a party Karen Lotz, president and publisher of Candlewick, introduced me to a British publisher who did a double-take when she saw me. Looking at Karen and sounding a bit befuddled she said, "Kate’s sister?" Karen and I exchanged a look of bewilderment and then the woman asked me directly, "Are you Kate DiCamillo’s sister??" After a pause Karen and I both laughed, awkwardly. "No!" I said, "Sorry." The woman shook her head, saying, "Wow… You just look so much like her…" Five months later, Kate and Kara and I laughed over this growing string of coincidences when Kate was touring to promote her newest novel, The Tale of Despereaux (soon to be a movie) and doing an event with our store. In my copy of Despereaux Kate wrote, "To Alison, from whom I was separated at birth."

Fast forward four years, during which time a few other people remarked that I looked like Kate. I’m at BEA in 2007, attending the ABC "New Voices" luncheon, when a VERY enthusiastic bookseller comes over to me and exclaims, "OHMYGOSH, HOW AAAARE YOU??!" ver
excitedly. I smile and tell her I’m fine and ask how she is, all the while thinking, "Who is this woman? I’ve seen her before, but… Did we talk at BEA last year? I know she’s a bookseller, but I don’t know her name… Should I know her name??" "It’s SO good to see you!" she says, and I’m still floundering but trying to play along out of politeness and the certainty that I’ve forgotten some delightful conversation of a year ago that I should surely have remembered judging from how nice this woman is being to me. Then she says, "I saw your new book Great Joy!! It is SO WONDERFUL!!!" and suddenly the meaning of our exchange shifts into focus. "Oh… I’m so sorry," I stammer awkwardly. "But… I’m not actually Kate DiCamillo." I’m relieved when this lovely but mistaken bookseller registers no embarrassment, just laughs and says, "OHMYGOSH, you look EXACTLY like her!! That is SO FUNNY!" 

She says the same thing another time or two when we cross paths at other parties or functions during the convention. When Kate winds up signing books a few tables down from Gareth at the show and her line is cut off about the same time as his, I sidle over to her, and fill her in on the latest case of mistaken identity, and the two of us laugh about it. Again.

We took this (slightly blurry) picture that day, of the two of us looking either very much alike or not at all similar, depending on whom you ask.

I promise you, though, that if you see Kate DiCamillo’s photograph in the jacket of any of her books or in any of her promotional materials, you are actually seeing a picture of Kate. Not me. And photos of Daniel Handler are really photos of Daniel Handler.

When you see a picture of Philip Pullman, though…? I suppose it’s POSSIBLE you’re just seeing a guy from New Hampshire.

First Book Asks, What Book Got You Hooked?

Alison Morris - September 10, 2008

Time is running out to visit the First Book website, write about the book that got you hooked on reading, and vote for the state that you’d like to see receive 50,000 new books for low-income youth. The voting ends at midnight on September 15th, after which First Book will tally the results and post on their website the name of the winning state as well as a list of the Top 50 books that got readers hooked. This is the second year of First Book’s "What Book Got You Hooked?" literacy awareness campaign, and visitors are encouraged (though not required) to make a donation of $10 to support the non-profit’s work.

One of the things I’ve been enjoying on the WBGYH site this year are the answers from "celebrities" about what books got them hooked on reading. You’ll note that included under the "celebrity" heading, alongside the names of famous athletes and actors, are a number of children’s book authors and illustrators. When was the last time you saw children’s book creators named as "celebrities"? When was the last time you saw, for example, Eric Carle’s name mentioned alongside Stephen Colbert’s? (Which makes me wonder what it would look like to see a BOOK that was a collaboration by those two… Somehow I’m just not picturing it!)

Stephen Colbert’s quote about the book that "got him hooked" happens to be one of my favorites on the Celebrity Favorites page of the First Book website. Here’s the book he chose and the reason for it:

"The first chapter book I remember reading by myself was Swiss Family Robinson. It had it all — a shipwreck, a tropical paradise, a treehouse, pirates, home made bombs, a tiger pit, and the enviable freedom of those three Robinson boys who were seemingly on permanent Summer vacation. Oh! Plus, later they find this girl who they don’t know is a girl because her grandfather has dressed her up as a boy so the pirates won’t know, and the boys treat her like another boy until they find out she’s a girl, and she’s really pretty, and the older brothers fight over her, and they have to hold her hand and stuff to help her over rivers, and that seemed cool to me."

I also loved the answer given by Ira Glass, host and producer of NPR’s "This American Life," because it speaks to the fact that not all the adults I think of as being especially smart and well-read were actually avid readers as children and teens. (It’s a reminder that there’s still plenty of hope for those reluctant reader kids out there!) Here’s what Ira had to say:

"I’m afraid that I’m someone who didn’t read much as a kid. Or at least, I didn’t read books. Mostly when I read, it was comics, Peanuts and Spidey especially, and MAD magazine. That’s how old I am. To me, reading books was something you did for school. I read Catcher in the Rye and Dostoevsky and Gabriel Garcia Marquez the way I did math problems — looking for the information that would answer the teachers’ questions. My friends and I weren’t dummies or anything. We just didn’t look to books for entertainment. In the boring Baltimore suburbs where I grew up, that was normal. It did not occur to me to take a book to heart — to feel any connection with a character in a book, to think a book had anything to do with my life at all — until I was in college. It was there that I met people who seemed to think that reading could be intensely interesting. They felt about books the way people I knew felt about movies and TV shows. The way movies and TV shows can get under your skin and stay with you and have you thinking about them for days. One of the first books I read during this period was Franny and Zooey. I just reread it last summer and discovered that perhaps Franny was not the entirely 100% admirable person I thought she was when I was 21. What I loved about the book then and now was the world the people inhabited. Coincidentally they happened to have my same last name, but that only pointed to how unbelievably different they were from me and my family and anyone I’d ever met. They were insanely smart, and urbane, they’d been child geniuses and went to fancy schools in fancy New York, and their heads were filled with big ideas about how to live that seemed actually kind of cool and interesting, though they were also smokers and drinkers and always disagreeing with their mom. The best stories always contain at least a small answer to the question "how should I live my life?" and Franny and Zooey struggles with that question in spades, in a fantastically chatty, funny, hard-to-put-down way. Those characters still seem alive to me. I had a chance to visit Princeton for the first time recently and all I secretly wanted to do was see the train station there because that’s where Franny has a big early scene with her soon-to-be-dumped boyfriend. There’s something chemical about that book that still gets to me. I love the characters the way I love characters on my favorite TV and radio shows. I’m fascinated with everything good and bad in them and I wish I were their friend and I also wish I was them and they remind me of myself and they don’t remind me of myself at all. Parts of that I guess are part of any kind of love."

For the record, Ira isn’t the only kid in the bunch who was hooked on comics or cartoons before books. Others on the First Book site who mention them (and many cite Charles M. Schulz’s "Peanuts" in particular) include Mo Willems, Sandra Boynton, Patrick McDonnell, R.L. Stine and (not surprisingly) Art Spiegelman.

What got you hooked on reading? Share your thoughts here AND share them with First Book!