Monthly Archives: October 2008

Characters Performing Community Service

Alison Morris - October 15, 2008

This morning a customer came in with a request we had a hard time filling, so I’m putting it out here for you all to ponder AND for you publishers and writers to put in your bag of tricks. The customer in question is the mother of a fifth grade boy, and the two of them are about to start participating in a community service group, doing volunteer work in shelters, etc. She wanted a book they could read together in which a character (or characters) did such work.

Color us stumped. We could think of lots of books in which kids did good deeds or fell into the position of offering their time to help someone, but few books that were about kids engaged in organized community service projects, in spite of the fact that this is a pretty common activity.

In the end we wound up selling her a copy of The Hero’s Trail by T.A. Barron, which talks about the different ways we define heroes and heroic deeds and includes examples of kids who volunteer service work has made a difference in the world. I think it was a good choice, in part too because there’s so much other material available to support the book, including an actual prize awarded by Tom Barron every year, plus the documentary Dream Big: The Inspiring Young Heroes of the Barron Prize. This customer left feeling like we’d more than fulfilled her wish, but I can’t help feeling we must have missed out on a few additional recommendations — either because we didn’t know about existing books or because these books should exist but don’t!

Anyone have any thoughts as to what else we could have tossed her way? If not, it’s clearly time for you writers out there to take up this cause, and at least MENTION such work as a part of a character’s life. (Much as I encouraged you to mention the existence of a wider range of sports a couple months ago, too.) 

Is This Really Greener Reading?

Alison Morris - October 14, 2008

In recent months I’ve been noticing a marked increase in the number of publishers who claim to be "going green" in one way or another. For many of them "going green" has meant creating a new imprint that uses eco-safe materials and/or donates money to environmental causes. DK, for example, has a new line called "Made with Care." They claim that these books are their "greenest books ever, made with the most ethical and environmental processes [they] could source." Meanwhile Simon and Schuster’s Little Green Books "will be made from recycled materials, and the storylines will cover subjects such as improving the environment, learning about endangered animals, recycling, and much more."

I have mixed feelings about initiatives like these that ultimately just create more "stuff" even if that "stuff" is being created out of recycled materials. Rather than create a new line of books that are specifically more eco-friendly, why not just make ALL of your existing, or at least forthcoming books more eco-friendly? This is a poor metaphor, I know, but the "create a new line of books model" is kind of like saying "Over-population is a problem so we’re going to breed a special group of children who know that overpopulation is a problem, rather than just having fewer children in the first place."

Does anyone else see a problem with this?

I was thinking about these things as I read through the picture books on Penguin’s spring list, which (like those of the aforementioned publishers and others) included some efforts at eco-innovation. One is a book to which I’m giving an award for  BEST COLOPHON I’VE SEEN ALL YEAR. It’s The Great Paper Caper by the brilliant Oliver Jeffers, whose picture books are among my favorites, and whose website is among the coolest I’ve seen. I haven’t seen the colophon of Penguin’s edition so I don’t know if they’ll adopt the same format, but the British edition of the book (published by HarperCollins) features this colophon (click on the photo to view it larger):

Awesome, no? The image of a tree is fitting for several reasons: the theme of paper recycling appears both in the plotline of The Great Paper Caper and in the finished book’s production. On his website Oliver explains that the book "is inspired by and printed on FSC paper [paper that comes from replenished forests], a noble cause, and frankly, common sense. The first edition hard back comes in four different colour covers, with a bonus disposable jacket that turns into a plane. No joke."

I applaud the cleverness of these eco-friendly touches, and (for the umpteenth time) I applaud the cleverness of Oliver Jeffers’s writing and illustrations too. My question, though, is this: If Oliver Jeffers’ new book didn’t have recycling as its inspiration and/or theme, would it have been printed on FSC paper? And if the answer is no, then WHY NOT? I’m guessing the answer is that it’s more expensive to print books on FSC paper. And that the marketing hook is missing if the book is printed on FSC paper but the book isn’t ABOUT recycling.

That just bugs me.

Moving on, I’d actually like to give out a second "award" here, though I realize this one isn’t going to be taken as kindly. With apologies, my award for the WORST TRADEMARK I’VE SEEN ALL YEAR goes to Frederick Warne, publisher and licensor for The World of Beatrix Potter (distributed in the U.S. by Penguin), for its new publishing program called "Peter Rabbit TM Naturally Better" OR (here in the U.S.) "Peter Rabbit… Naturally Better TM". Note the interesting change in punctuation as the name crosses the Atlantic.

As it’s explained on the Penguin website, Peter Rabbit… Naturally Better is "a new initiative which promotes products that are made from safe and ethically responsible sources." I have NO problem with the idea of such products (in fact I applaud them!), AND I actually think the books in this line are very nicely produced — the illustrations in the Peter Rabbit… Naturally Better board books and cloth books are very tasteful simplifications of Beatrix Potter’s original designs, and the muted color palette employed on their pages is truly lovely. But the NAME??

First of all, I don’t like the implication that Peter Rabbit needs to be "improved" somehow. I realize that the "better" in the trademark refers to the fact that these books are "better" for the planet than their predecessors, but it’s impossible not to read those words as meaning that the books themselves are somehow "better" content-wise than the originals and that, "NATURALLY," that’s the case. It’s as if we’re being told "the content and art are bad in their original state but, NATURALLY, they’re better once they’ve been redesigned or rewritten or re-imagined and re-branded (again and again and again)." On a pettier note, I also just think the name sounds cheesy. And I think that ellipsis just make things worse. It’s like there’s a pause after the product’s name in which we wait for the advertising punch line to be delivered.

I can’t begin to imagine the number of meetings that were held and names that were tossed out before Warne settled on this one, and (again) I applaud their motivation for creating this line and the finished results. But that doesn’t change the fact that I think someone could have coined a better name for this line (perhaps one of YOU can come up with an improvement?) AND that the line just adds more books to a brand that’s already chock full of them.

I think what’s really bugging me again here, though, is this attempt on the part of publishers to look virtuous and nature-loving by adding new lines of supposedly eco-friendly books. You can use all the eco-friendly materials you want in their creation, but the fact is the production of more titles requires the use of more energy. So, sorry folks, your eco-footprint does not get ANY smaller with the creation of these babies. Naturally.

Lunch Before and Fun During the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards

Alison Morris - October 9, 2008

It’s been a busy week of event preparations and crazy run-around at the store, both during the day and "after hours," which means I’m slow to report on timely matters this week. Alas!

Last Friday I attended the annual Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards ceremony, always one of my favorite book events of the year. Held in the lovely Boston Athenaeum, it has an air of orderly prestige about it, but zero stuffiness. The speeches are always blissfully short and even more blissfully sweet. The chatter afterward among those in attendance is light-hearted and lively, and the evening does not stretch out to great lengths, which is very much appreciated by those of us for whom this time of year feels like a lengthy marathon of nothing but books, books, books.

This year my Boston Globe-Horn Book "day" began earlier than usual, as I had the pleasure of being wined and dined by Little, Brown over a delightful lunch at Boston’s famed Top of the Hub restaurant. The gathering was in honor of Tricia Tusa and Nancy Coffelt, the talented duo behind Fred Stays with Me, one of two picture books selected for an Honor by the 2008 Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards committee. It was a treat to talk with both of these women, whose personalities are as warm and welcoming as the picture book that brought them together. Over lunch our topics of conversation ranged from picture books to politics (who can escape the latter nowadays?) while everyone present admired the fantastic views from the Fenway Room on the Prudential Building’s 52nd floor.

I stupidly waited until after we’d all finished eating to snap any photos for your enjoyment. I say "stupidly" because our lunch began with beautiful sunny weather and ended with heavy cloud cover, stealing a bit of the "punch" from my pictures. I think you’ll agree, though, that the view suffered little from the change.

First, a photo of the lovely Tricia Tusa…

and a photo of the lovely Nancy Coffelt.

Next, a shot of the room, so you can admire the height of its windows:

Here’s the always charming Andrew Smith of Little, Brown facing west…

No doubt taking a photo that looks very much like this one:

Note that they don’t call this the Fenway Room for nothing. (I zoomed in for the shot below, though if you look carefully you can see Fenway Park in the photo above too.)

Here’s the view looking northeast, toward Boston Harbor:

After lunch I wandered around downtown some, then made my way over to the Public Gardens, home to another famous Boston sight: the ducklings. (If you just asked yourself "What ducklings?" then you are probably in the WRONG business!) I ran into fellow children’s literature aficionados Susannah Richards and Rusty Browder snapping photos of the same local landmark—proof that even those of us who see these feathered friends on a regular basis never tire of seeing them again.

It’s unusual to get shots like these of the ducklings, because usually they are crowded with kids, patting them each on the head and taking turns sitting on Mrs. Mallard, whose head shines from the number of hands that have rubbed it over the years.

After my visit to the Public Gardens I strolled around Beacon Hill for a bit and then made my way up Beacon Street to the Athenaeum, whose entrance is marked by a studded red leather door, JUST LIKE the one at MY house!!

(That was a complete lie of course. Our studded leather door is purple. Yours too?)

From here I’m afraid there’s a break in the photo tour, as the Athenaeum does not allow your average Joe (or Alison) to take photographs inside. They DID, however, allow an "official" event photographer to capture the finer moments of the evening’s affair, and you can view the fruits of his/her labor on the photos page of the Horn Book web site. Better still, you can LISTEN to all of the speeches delivered that evening on the Horn Book web site’s audio page. (Oh the wonders of technology!) Soon you will also be able to view video footage and therefore be treated to a combination of the aforementioned two.

Highlights of the evening for me? Hmmm. I’ll choose just FIVE and list them here, seeing as how you can always just listen to the speeches themselves, and therefore don’t need me to recap ALL the highlights for you.

1. Listening to Jonathan Bean, author/illustrator of At Night, talk about his family’s bedtime rituals, and swooning over his metaphor relating ideas to birds and the writing process (or rather the idea-generating process) to bird-watching. The gis
both patience and quiet are required, and there’s no guarantee of ever seeing exactly the bird/idea you were waiting for. (He expresses it much more eloquently in his speech, of course, than I have summarized it here.)

2.  Hearing Arthur Levine deliver Shaun Tan’s speech for The Arrival, and it was every bit as inspired as his books, I think. He said that books remind us of what we already know but are in danger of taking for granted. That "as readers we are always emigrating, stepping into the shoes of others." As adults we often think the world is ordinary—children know better and books show us otherwise.

3.  Musing over Frances O’Roark Dowell (Shooting the Moon) remark that this is the first book she has written from her own experience. She has an MFA in writing poetry and, as she explained, "No one tells a poet to write what they know. They say, ‘Make it up! Make it weird!’ "

4.  Watching Sherman Alexie’s video acceptance speech for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which was extremely clever and (of course) very funny too.

5.  Learning that Nic Bishop kept aquariums of frogs in his house when he was researching Nic Bishop Frogs. He wrote that "working on this book was something like a second childhood."

I snapped one last photo for you about half a block from the Athenaeum, as I headed back to my car following the awards ceremony.  Here’s the distinctive gold dome of the Massachusetts State House, as it appears at night. If you inverted the dome and turned it to silver, it would resemble the very elegant engraved bowls that Boston Globe-Horn Book Award winners take home with them to display in their trophy cases. (You do all have trophy cases, don’t you? I mean, who doesn’t nowadays.)

And… there you have it. A few quick peeks at a wonderful ceremony, and (all told) a truly wonderful day.

I’d like to give one quick nod to the three judges who I think made outstanding choices for this year’s slate of Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards: Terri Schmitz, Lolly Robinson, and John Peters. Imagine reading all the books submitted in all of those different categories and managing not to lose your minds, your judging ability, or your good taste in the process…. I think that accomplishment in itself is award-worthy.

The Adventures of an International Bookseller

Alison Morris - October 8, 2008

My friend and colleague Janet Potter is easily one of the most talented and entertaining booksellers I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the years. She’s sharp as a tack, exceedingly well-read, highly observant, and wonderfully witty. She’s also sorely missed!

After several years of devoted service to both Wellesley Booksmith and Brookline Booksmith, Janet headed off to Dublin, Ireland where she recently completed a master’s degree in journalism AND a lengthy stint as an Irish bookseller. (She’s also been doing lots of traveling, as evidenced by the photo above, taken in front of Rome’s Colosseum.)

What’s next on Janet’s list of adventures? A bookselling gig in GREECE! (Be still my bookseller heart!) Before Janet left Dublin for sunnier shores I asked her to write about her experiences as an Irish bookseller, and here, my friends, is her typically "Janet" (read: witty and wonderful) response.

Have Experience, Will Travel
The Adventures of an International Bookseller

by Janet Potter

The fall of my freshman year of college I got a part-time job at Wellesley Booksmith, and I have almost consistently been working in bookstores for the 7 years since. To date, I’ve worked in 5 bookstores, for 10 managers and 14 assistant managers. No doubt like many of you – reading, shelving, restocking, recommending, and writing about books has become second nature to me. I sometimes answer my phone by saying, “Would you like a bag?”, and I can finally summarize the plot of The History of Love faster than Michael Phelps swims 100m.

After 6 years of bookselling in Boston, I moved to Dublin last August, where I’ve worked at two different bookstores while I finished a master’s degree. Bookselling in a different country, I’ve simultaneously experienced a world-is-flat sensation and culture shock. In some respects, all bookstores are the same, which in a way reassures me that if I ever hike to the remotest jungles of the world, I will find the local bookseller there and we will complain about customers who take too long counting change and can’t remember the titles of Mark Haddon’s books.

In other ways, working at bookstores in Dublin was like starting all over again. During my first week of work I spent about 10 minutes with a very patient customer who was looking for a book by Ross O’Carroll-Kelly. Still getting used to a new inventory system and unfamiliar with the author, I tried looking under O, under C, under K. Was it a novel? Was it a memoir? When I eventually gave up and asked a co-worker, they very smugly directed me to the bestseller shelf, where 50 copies of the book in question sat at the #1 spot. Ross O’Carroll-Kelly is maybe the most popular author in Ireland, and owns a timeshare on the bestseller list. I was mystified. It had been years since I’d had to look up a frontlist title, let alone not find it. You know that new part-timer who just started at your bookstore? The one who doesn’t know who wrote The Kite Runner? I was THAT girl.

I learned quickly that one country’s frontlist is another country’s remainder table. Luckily, I used this to my advantage, and I hope to the advantage of the Irish reading public. These people have never read Sarah Vowell! George Saunders! Richard Yates! They’re published here, but they languish on the shelf much like anything by Colm Toibin that isn’t The Master does in the U.S. The store I work in now has Gilead on clearance for 1.99, and we can’t give it away. If I ever see anybody browsing anywhere near it, I always say, “If you’re looking for a good read, this is one of the best books I’ve ever read. If you can’t take my word for it, ask the Pulitzer Prize committee.” And yet it never moves. I think the word “Iowa” on the back cover conjures up some BBC World News interview they once saw with a farmer who said he’d elect George Bush for 8 more terms, and they put it down. These poor people don’t know what they’re missing.

But with other books I’m more successful. I once encountered a very anxious woman whose teenage daughter needed some vacation books, and was tired of being given Marian Keyes every time she walked into a bookstore (Marian Keyes is like a religion here). I set her up with a combination of some of my favorite spunky female authors – one part Marisha Pessl, one part Melissa Bank, and two parts Curtis Sittenfeld – and three weeks later she was back asking me where I got my magic powers. As I politely refused her gifts and adulation, I insisted that these were merely the go-to books any American bookseller would know.

Obviously I enjoy my niche as the keeper of America’s publishing treasures – I feel a little like a benevolent deity when I stand beside a parent who’s flipping through Knuffle Bunny for the first time and saying, “ I can’t believe I’ve never heard of Mo Willems before, why isn’t he popular here?” And I can only say, “I don’t know, but we can change that, you and I.”

And I’m getting better at the Irish side of the things. The other day a guy came up to me and said, “What’s like deportees, chicken?” A few months ago I would have thought this was the setup to some awful play on words, but I now know that it’s Irish for: “I recently read The Deportees by Roddy Doyle (Roddy Doyle – also a religion) and would like something similar.” I recommended Ross O’Carroll Kelly.

How Often Is An Author’s First Novel Their Best?

Alison Morris - October 6, 2008

I love the intoxicating feeling of falling in love with a good book, and I love talking with others who’ve been just as captivated by the same reading experience. In the past few weeks I have had several gushing/bonding sessions with booksellers and librarians who, like me, have fallen under the spell of Graceling by Kristin Cashore. I know for a fact that I am not the only one who was COMPLETELY and utterly swept away by the fantastic adventure on this book’s pages and wonderfully, blissfully seduced by its romance.

It’s been a long time since I read a book in which the sexual tension between its two main characters was so deliriously exhilarating as it is in this one. It was a complete and utter delight watching Katsa, a headstrong girl "graced" with a talent for killing, fall for Po, a level-headed, kind-hearted guy who can crack wise in the best of spirits. So charmed was I by their witty, tension-filled banter that I was almost sorry to see them eventually give in to their passions and discover their love for one another. I say almost, because there was little time to feel disappointed. Mere pages after the story’s buoyant sexual tension takes a dip, the tensions in the story’s overarching plot take over and send readers barrelling their way to the finish, where plenty of surprises remain in store. 

I could go on and on about the reasons I loved this novel, but what I’d rather do here is ask you to ponder this: Based on the expectations set for us by other young adult authors, can we expect Kristin Cashore’s next novel (a companion to Graceling) to be just as good as this, her first?

I ask this question because soon after I’d first fallen under Graceling‘s spell I remarked to Gareth that, because the book is so good, I couldn’t believe it was Kristin Cashore’s first novel. He responded with the frequently made observation that an author’s first novel is often their best, at which point I looked at him askance, the wheels in my head spinning furiously. I don’t suppose I’d ever stopped to think about this "first book = best" notion in relation to children’s and young adult books before, but hearing it applied directly to a young adult novel I was enjoying got me thinking about all the others I’ve loved and how many of them were from first-time authors versus veterans. In the end I reached this conclusion: whether or not it’s often true that an "adult" author’s first novel tends to be their best, I DON’T think that’s the norm in the world of novels for young adults and children. It happens… but not often.

The matter of time invested in any writing project could have something to do with this. If you spend many years honing the language and pruning the plot of your one big novel, it stands to reason that you’re going to pour a lot of energy and expertise into the one investment — you’re going to grow as a writer over the course of those 800 pages, just as a children’s writer is going to grow after writing four books at 200 pages a pop. But many children’s and young adult authors take a long time to create their first work too, and that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to outshine their others later down the line.

Does anyone believe that the first novel written by M.T. Anderson (The Game of Sunken Places) exceeds the quality of his more recent works? I don’t doubt that Geraldine McCaughrean’s first few books paled in comparison to her award-winning The White Darkness, the brilliant Cyrano, or Peter Pan in Scarlet. Sharon Creech’s first novel was Absolutely Normal Chaos and Jerry Spinelli’s Space Station Seventh Grade. Their best? Not in my opinion.

I don’t diversify my adult reading enough these days to take a stab at the "first novel = best" rule and see if it still largely applies in the world of writing for adults. Maybe it’s time we scrapped the stereotype altogether?

Whatever the case on that end, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this one. Are you often wowed by a children’s or YA author’s debut novel then disappointed by those that follow, or do you think those novellists who start strong usually get even stronger? Could you please share some examples? And please also make a point of reading Graceling!

Wall Scrawl: Choose Your Fictional Family

Alison Morris - October 2, 2008

It’s time again for me to post a question that originally appeared on the walls of the "graffiti stall" in our store’s women’s bathroom. (See my 6/18/08 post if you don’t know the "graffiti stall" of which I speak!)

Poor, poor you! You’re a literary orphan with no parents to call your own. What fictional family would you like to have adopt you?

After giving this one lots of thought I’m going to go with either the March family of Little Women or… the Mysterious Benedict Society, which certainly counts as a "family" if you ask me.

Now it’s your turn.

Wild Wings Literary Lodgings

Alison Morris - October 1, 2008

Several years ago, our store carried birdhouses designed by Dave Vissat for his company Wild Wings Literary Lodgings. Made from repurposed library books, they were sturdy and beautiful and clever as can be — I especially loved the delightfully fitting objects Vissat chose to use for perches. Unfortunately the birdhouses were also pricey, so at the time I didn’t invest in one, but… I frequently think of them and wish that I had. A recent seach found a few Wild Wings Literary Lodgings online that I thought I’d share with you so that you can covet them along with me or (better still) secure one for your own literary lodging.

The Winnie the Pooh birdhouse to the right, above, is available from Art Effect, Figpickel’s Toy Emporium (what a great name!), and Uncommon Goods

Figpickel’s Toy Emporium and Uncommon Goods also sell this To Kill a Mockingbird birdhouse, which would have fit right in at the wedding I blogged about a couple months ago.

The same two companies carry the Wizard of Oz birdhouse: visit Figpickel’s Oz page or the Oz page at Uncommon Goods.

Uncommon Goods carries an Adventures of Tom Sawyer birdhouse, but you can also purchase it from (how appropriate!) the Mark Twain House and Museum, which I recall visiting as a child and being VERY enchanted with. (Clearly I’m due for another trip…)

And now we hit the disappointing part where I show you birdhouses that are NOT currently available online but have been in the past. (I know this might be torturing you, but it’s the only way I can showcase a bit more of Dave Vissat’s work.)

This butterflies birdhouse was formerly carried by Kate’s Paperie, but is currently sold out:

as is this birdhouse made from Wild Birds and Their Music:

and not available anywhere that I could find is this birdhouse made from The Field Guide to the Birds:

Lorna and I have been scheming for years about trying to make similar birdhouses ourselves, but (as one blogger who tried it soon discovered), it’s not as easy as you might think to produce anything that looks half so professional as the ones featured here. For one thing, it looks SO MUCH COOLER to have an actual book functioning as the roof of the house, rather than a book (or its covers) glued to the top of an existing wooden roof, like the ones you can sometimes find on Etsy. But, hey? If you’re not picky about such things, I say try making your own. And let me know how it turns out!

I recently bought a prefab, unfinished birdhouse, not thinking I’d attempt anything as elaborate as a Wild Wings creation, but that it might make fun fodder for a collaborative art project at our house. First I yanked out the pegs that came as perches, painted the whole thing (robin’s egg blue for the sides and taupe for the roof), and collaged the face of it. I then handed it off to Gareth so that he could draw birds on the sides, which he did using colored pencils. 

Eventually (as this is just "pick it up when I feel like it project") Gareth will draw birds on the roof and we’ll attach some funky perches — probably a fountain pen and a paintbrush, to represent our twin talents and favorite pasttimes. It may never look half so polished as any of Dave Vissat’s creations, but hopefully it will have the same sense of fun, as that’s just what we’re having while making it.