Monthly Archives: November 2008

Things I’m Thankful For

Alison Morris - November 27, 2008

It seems only right on Thanksgiving to focus on things that, well, I’m thankful for. Here then is a short list:

I’m thankful that kids today are growing up with a vast treasure trove of reading material at their fingertips, in their ears, up the wazoo. It’s true that I think there is a lot of inconsequential "fluff" that’s being published nowadays, but there is a lot of truly fantastic stuff rolling off those presses too.

I’m thankful for authors and illustrators who conjure images and ideas that make my jaw drop or make me shake my head in wonder or just make me smile. It is a JOY to read books that elicit these responses. And a joy to respond these ways as often as I do.

I’m thankful for talented editors and visionary art directors and smart book designers and all the other skilled people who work their behind-the-scenes magic to turn collections of words and pictures into wonderfully convenient, sometimes life-changing things called "books." Just because we readers don’t see you people doing your work or see your names on the colophon doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate what you do. We can tell when books lack your insight and influence. (Oh BOY can we ever tell!!)

I’m thankful for the incredible number of people I’ve met in the children’s book world (and the book world at large) who impress me not just with their intelligence, but with their generosity of spirit. I’m bowled over by the number of truly NICE, interesting, entertaining people who work in this business, and I’m forever meeting new folks who belong to those ranks.

I’m thankful to be part of a staff of fantastic booksellers who will pitch in and do anything required in order to get the job done, make our store better, make our customers happy. There is no substitute for working with people you respect, admire and enjoy, and I feel all of these things for my coworkers at Wellesley Booksmith. They’re the reason I’ve been with this same store for almost eight years.

I’m thankful, too, that I feel the same way about the hard-working men and women in the larger community of booksellers that I’m blessed to be part of. The booksellers I’ve come to know through NEIBA, NECBA, and ABC are quick to lend a hand, give advice, grant support, and provide one another with entertainment. It’s incredibly comforting to know that your work is being cheered on and supported by a network of like-minded, similarly employed people throughout the country, or even the world. 

I’m thankful that there are so many book-buying customers who actually make retail ENJOYABLE. Can you imagine such a thing? I can because I see customers like this every day. (All booksellers do, or our jobs would be misery!) Good, enthusiastic, supportive customers are our bread and butter. But they’re also our cake and ice cream. Our wine and cheese. Our sustenance and our pleasure.

Finally, I’m thankful that so many of you are reading this. Right now. And that so many of you have become regular ShelfTalker readers, though for the most part I don’t know who you are or where you are or what it is that you enjoy most about it. I’m content to remain in the dark about these things, so long as you continue reading. And posting great comments. And occasionally stating things that make me spew tea across my computer keyboard.

Thanks especially for those moments.

Endpapers on Parade

Alison Morris - November 25, 2008

I’m a big fan of unusual endpapers. I love opening to a book to be surprised by some unexpected piece of artwork or intricate pattern. A year ago, Drawn posted a link to a fantastic online collection, to which you’re encouraged to upload others and add them to the mix. What follows are some of endpapers I’ve admired in recent years.

Note: A few of these endpapers are ones I scanned months ago, before I’d learned how to resize a photo in the blog tool and link it to a larger version, so you’ll have to settle for seeing those in their small sizes here. The scans that have a blue line around them, though, are ones you can click on and view larger. (Ah, technology…) In many cases the books were larger than even Gareth’s big scanner, so what you see is what I could fit on the scanner bed!

First: a few examples of books that have the same clever endpapers in both the front and the back. One of these is Squirrelly Gray by James Kochalka (Random House, August 2007). You’re seeing one half (i.e. one sheet) of the front end papers here. I wish Random House or James Kochalka would license this pattern to a giftwrap company as I would LOVE to wrap these bushy-tailed, buck-toothed beauties around people’s birthday presents!

I like these colored pencil sketches on lined paper from The Sounds Around Town by Maria Carluccio (Barefoot Books, February 2008).

I love the floaty feeling generated by the endpapers for I’m the Biggest Thing in the Ocean by Kevin Sherry (Dial, May 2007).

And now, a selection of endpapers that are NOT the same in the book’s front and back. Here, for example, are the endpapers to The Beauty of the Beast: Poems from the Animal Kingdom selected by Jack Prelutsky, illustrated by Meilo So (Knopf, March 2006). I don’t know whose idea it was to show these patterns and textures up close (which is not in keeping with the interior artwork, where no images have this level of "zoom"), but I LOVE IT.

Next up, the endpapers from When I Grow Up by Sandy Turner (HarperCollins, April 2003) which is now out of print in the U.S., sadly. (Interesting sidenote: until I was adding links to this post I didn’t know that Sandy Turner was a pen name for artist/illustrator David Hughes.)

Here are the front endpapers of Velma Gratch & the Way Cool Butterfly by Alan Madison and Kevin Hawkes (Random House/Schwartz & Wade, October 2007).

And here are the back endpapers of the same book, showing a fitting progression from the front.

I love, love, love Piano Starts Here: The Young Art Tatum (also published by Schwartz & Wade, January 2008) by the remarkable Robert Andrew Parker, who just turned 80 this year. Note that the endpapers at the front of the book give you the perspective of a concert hall crowd, whereas those at the back give you the perspective of a musician at a dance hall. 

And here’s a clever way to print the endpapers in your next F&G, as HarperCollins did for the F&G of Diary of a Fly by Doreen Cronin, illustrated by Harry Bliss. Can’t read what the fly is saying below? It’s "I can’t wait for you to see my really fun endpapers!"

Have you seen any great endpapers in the recent or more distant past? If so, tell us what books we should open to find them.

Following LaVaughn to ‘This Full House’

Alison Morris - November 24, 2008

A few weeks ago I finished reading This Full House (HarperTeen, February 2008), the conclusion to Virginia Euwer Wolff’s Make Lemonade trilogy. And what a deeply satisfying conclusion it was!! I loved, loved, loved this book. LOVED it! I feel genuinely privileged to have been able to watch LaVaughn age and change and grow into the young woman that she is by the end of this trilogy. (Though how sad I am that there won’t be more books about her!)

Fellow bookseller Pat Pereira read This Full House soon after I did and the two of us compared notes. We both felt the story could have suffered for the fact that it requires its readers to embrace the plausibility of one very BIG coincidence. But it didn’t, which is a testament mostly, I think, to Wolff’s ability to make you care so deeply for her characters that you’ll accept whatever happens to and around them with little or no reservation.

In short, I thought this book was about as close to perfect as they come. It moved me, it thrilled me, it worked the same magic on me that True Believer, the first in the trilogy, did (and that was some incredible kind of magic). I am reluctant to write a true "review" here, because I don’t want to give away anything that happens in the plot, lest I deprive someone of the pleasure of discovering it for themselves. Instead I’m pasting here the words I jotted down in the few minutes just after I’d closed the cover on my ARC, while the cadence of Wolff’s free verse was still with me (though, ALAS, I possess none of her talents for this writing style!).


Fifteen years we have waited
to see what becomes of LaVaughn
with her upright ways
and her oversized heart
and her never really knowing
how to say just what to say.

Now here she is,
back at last,
striding in with her
new knowledge,
bright mind,
big love, 
wild ideas.
What will happen to her too full heart?

I did so not so much read this book
as press hope into its pages.
I hoped, hoped, hoped 
that this girl was going to
rise above it,
figure it out,
get it right,
make it good,
grow up happy.

It’s hard to love a character this much,
to wish her a million wishes.
It’s easy, though, to love
a book that makes this happen,
a writer who is this talented,
a trilogy that builds this house,
and a story that fills it so completely.


Off the topic of This Full House but on the topic of the Make Lemonade trilogy, I just want to mention the fact that the cover of True Believer (one of my all-time favorite YA novels) features one of my all-time favorite cover designs. It looks both elegant and intriguing — romantic without being cheesy. It made me want to pick up this book immediately and read it (which I did). After I’d done so, the cover wowed me even more… (Genius!) There is more plot revealed in this picture than I ever could have guessed!

I also want to acknowledge the difficulty of designing covers for the books in this trilogy, in which the race of its main characters is never revealed by the author. Are they white? Black? Asian? Latino? Whatever you want them to be. It took me two books to figure that out. And a third to realize what a cover design challenge that must be.

Back in 2001, Horn Book editor Roger Sutton asked Wolff about this "no particular ethnicity" issue and much, much more in a great interview he did with her. You can (and should!) read it on the Horn Book’s website.

Launching a Thousand (Wedding) Ships

Alison Morris - November 20, 2008

In between the long working days, Gareth and I have been trying to find an affordable venue for our wedding, which we hope will happen in August or September of next year. This is only step one in a LONG list of things we’ll have to accomplish in order to pull off this ritual and already we’re starting to understand why people choose to just elope! Nevertheless, we’re sticking with it. And not losing any heart over the matter, DESPITE the number of dreary similes and metaphors that crop up whenever someone on the web or in a book mentions the topic of wedding planning. Until earlier this week I thought every person on the planet compared planning a wedding to "working a second job" or "launching a military operation" or "assembling a big puzzle" or [insert cliché here]. 

Gareth, though, recently described things this way: "Planning a wedding is like drawing a 250-page graphic novel of The Odyssey," WHICH is how he’s been spending his time while I’ve been working long hours at the store, gearing up for the holidays. 

It turns out, though, that when he coined this simile my fiancé was referring to more than just the level of time and difficulty involved in both these tasks! I laughed when I read the other similarity he noted on his blog this week and hope you’ll click here to get a chuckle out of it too. 

Let it never be said, though, that our wedding reception in any OTHER way resembled the gathering at Odysseus’ homecoming!!! (UGH! WORST PARTY EVER!)

The Best Little Catalog in Town

Alison Morris - November 19, 2008

Each year the Association of Booksellers for Children puts together a fantastic full-color catalog of books selected by our group’s members as some of our favorites of the year. The front cover sports the bold heading ABC’s Best Books for Children and features a book-related illustration from a book published during that particular calendar year. (Click on the photo at right.) This year’s cover illustration comes from Ladybug Girl, by Jacky Davis and David Soman (Dial, March 2008) and couldn’t make a better, more eye-catching introduction to the pages that follow — pages that contain approximately 250 great book suggestions, hand-picked by we experts in the field.

ABC member stores are each entitled to up to 5,000 free catalogs for just the cost of shipping, which (if you ask me) more than offsets our membership dues. For a small imprinting fee a store can also have its custom imprint added to the catalog, making each one a sales tool that points customers directly to your store.

The biggest difference between this catalog and many of the other full-color affairs you’ll find available in bookstores is that in the latter, publishers generally pick the titles THEY want to promote and those are the titles that wind up featured on the catalogs’ pages. The trouble with this system is that we indie booksellers often have different ideas about what we think is going to work for our customers, and different opinions on the matter of what books "deserve" a place both on our shelves and in our marketing efforts. In the case of the ABC catalog, WE bookstore members pick the books we like, then we (meaning our fearless leader, Kristen McLean) go to the publishers and ask them to pony up sponsorship for some or all or at least one of their selected titles. The process results in a much less commercial and much more customer-friendly set of selections, making these catalogs a much more finely-tuned selling tool than most I’ve seen.

I recently asked Kristen to sum up the process for me, and she explained it this way:

We start with bookseller recommendations, then cross reference the list with major review media to make sure we haven’t missed anything (PW, SLJ, Horn Book, NYT, Kirkus, YALSA, VOYA), check in with key online book groups to see what folks are talking about (NECBA, Adbooks, The ABC New Voices Committee, and others), look at notable and award-winning books from the past year, and finally we throw in some spice in the form of unique small press books and other sleepers combed from the more than 6,000 or so books that pass through the ABC office in catalog or hard form every year.

In the end, we wind up with a list of about 600 or so books that we love, and we think represent the best out there. This list then is returned to the publishers in the form of a wish list for inclusion, and then publishers come back to us with their choices of what they will support with marketing dollars.

In the end the catalog includes about 250 fantastic books for kids from birth-18 years in a variety of categories, all vetted, and all great for the indie market.

Then, once we have the right mix of books in the right categories, we write all of the copy (40 hours easy), collect the jacket images, proof the publication information, define the layout and elements, and send it off to the designer. We also manage the store ordering process (120 stores/70 individual imprints), invoice and collect from the publishers, and oversee the printing and shipping process.

All in all, this project represents about 400 hours of labor spread out over 4 months, not including the designer or printer’s time, but it is well worth it I think.

I couldn’t agree more with that last statement. Our customers LOVE thumbing through these catalogs and asking us to point them in a particular book’s direction. Teachers and librarians beg for more copies to take back to their schools when we hand them out at book talks and conferences. The catalogs look professional, which makes US look professional, which makes people trust us all the more to be experts at making quality book recommendations.

For the first year our store is inserting the catalog into the local newpapers of our surrounding towns, which we’re hoping will drive more people our way in search of great children’s books. If nothing else they’ll be exposed to a selection of great books, while gaining an education about the benefits of shopping locally and supporting independent businesses. (Messages to that effect appear throughout the catalog.)

Keen to learn more about this, one of my favorite, favorite sales tools? Visit the catalog information page linked to the ABC website and read the catalog FAQ’s.

To see the pages of this year’s catalog up close, download a PDF of the 2008 catalog

To catch up on last year’s expert recommendations download a PDF of the 2007 catalog.

Better still, take a stroll through your nearest ABC member store (you’ll find a list on the ABC website), and ask them for a finished copy!

A Toastastic Book Trailer

Alison Morris - November 17, 2008

I find the whole "book trailer" trend pretty interesting. Using a visual media to sell someone on the idea that they’d like to read a (typically) not-so-visual book strikes me as a bit odd, and potentially misleading. If a book trailer is done too well, you want to "see the rest of it" — in other words, you start wishing you could watch the non-existent "movie" of which you’ve just been given a clip. If a book trailer is done too poorly you don’t want to read the book at all. One of my favorite novels of the year, for example, is one I might never have read if I’d actually believed it was half as clichéd and cheesy as the trailer that was created for it. (Ugh.)

But every now and again I see a book trailer or ad that impresses me. And today that ad was this one, which was created a year ago for The Book of Spam, written and packaged by Dan Armstrong and Dustin Black (Atria Books, 2007). This ad is an example of what these two call "Toastvertising."

Spam still lacks allure for me, but the cleverness of this ad makes me wonder about the cleverness of this book overall. My thinking is that anyone who could conceive and create an ad this clever ought to be able to create a pretty darn entertaining book, even on a topic as strange as processed meat. And if in the end that thought gets me to pick up the book, then the trailer has served its purpose, no? 

If you enjoyed the book trailer above, you might also enjoy watching this video, which shows how it was made.

I recommend more authors and publishers consider using breakfast food in their trailers. It’s just so much more entertaining than bad actors.

Wall Scrawl: Harry Hearts Whom?

Alison Morris - November 13, 2008

It’s time again for another question copied from the walls of our our store’s "graffiti stall."

Put yourself in the role of literary matchmaker: What two characters, from two different books, would you pair with one another?

My favorite of the responses currently scrawled on our wall is probably Encyclopedia Brown + Hermione Granger. Or possibly Oskar Schell (of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer) + Matilda (of, of course, Matilda by Roald Dahl).

But I’ll bet you can do better.

New Adult Books To Give to High School Students

Alison Morris - November 12, 2008

Here at the store, my fellow children’s booksellers and I have been putting a lot of thought into our holiday gift lists, which we assemble in similar format to our summer reading lists in a big combined booklet for all ages (adults, teenagers, and kids). The high school portion of the list is often the piece that I find hardest to put together. Since the focus is on books that would make good gifts, we try to choose newer books (usually hardcovers) and try also to make the bulk of our selections ones that parents or grandparents or long-distance aunties will think sounds appealing.

This gets tricky with the high school set. Since so many adults are oblivious to the existence of, let alone the quality of, good young adult literature, I feel compelled each year to include some titles from the "adult" section of the store (meaning the books for grown-ups, not the books behind a black curtain in a dark corner — we don’t have one of "those" sections). Sometimes, too, I’ll find that our young adult section doesn’t seem to be home to, say, a good, new recommendation for 12th-grade boys that doesn’t sound too edgy or sexy or young. Or I’ll find that our staff (myself included) has been reading a lot of heavy, depressing books, as much of what’s published for young adults (especially at the older end of YA) seems to fall into that category. While I can include a couple titles that are less than "cheery," on our holiday gift list I can’t fill the list with those or we simply won’t sell ANY.

But, as many of you reading this probably experience as well, in order to keep up with what’s happening on the children’s and YA end of the literature spectrum, I simply don’t have time to read much on the adult side. This means that choosing YA-appropriate books from our adult section is a challenge for me. Sometimes a couple of our booksellers will have suggestions, but often they’re stumped by these requests. If you don’t currently live with teenagers or know a lot of teenagers or read a lot of books for and about teenagers, it’s often hard to know if a book is teen-friendly or if it will have teen appeal.

Enter Susan Taylor. Susan was the adult book buyer at our store for several years, during which time she shared an office with me, later with both me and Lorna. She now works for Market Block Books, an affiliate of the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza, in Troy, N.Y.

Susan is, for lack of a better term, a reading FIEND. I have never in my life known anyone who could devour books at such a high speed as Susan, let alone remember those fast-read books in such detail. On top of that, she has great taste and great insights into what readers will and won’t respond to in a story. When I worked with Susan she would often tell me, on a Monday, about the three or four books she’d read over the weekend. Sometimes one of those would have been a middle grade or YA novel, which obviously had a lower page count, but usually those books were adult books. And often the weekend books were in addition to the two or three books she’d read during the work week. And, yes, Susan also had a social life, so, no, she wasn’t communing with books all weekend. As I said, she’s a reading fiend.

When Lorna suggested we contact Susan for adult/YA crossover suggestions, I applauded this brilliant solution to our brainstorming dilemma. And when Susan responded with (as expected) a list of what I can only assume are great recommendations, I asked her permission to share it with you.

Here, without further ado and in no particular order, are Susan Taylor’s seven suggestions for great new high school-appropriate adult books.

The Little Book by Selden Edwards
(Dutton, August 2008)
Time travel back to fin de siècle Vienna. I have no interest in Vienna, but this was great. It reminded me of The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay, one of my favorite novels ever; it has the same type of heroic protagonist with the same sort of boarding school/wise mentor trappings.

Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron
(Grand Central Publishing, September 2008)
Heartwarming animal story entwined with a tale of small-town renewal.

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
(Harper, May 2008)
Told by a dog, the story of his life with his master and his family. Loyalty and good win out over duplicity and bad; trials and tribulations abound, but justice prevails.

American Savior: A Novel of Divine Politics by Roland Merullo
(Algonquin Books, August 2008)
What would happen if Jesus returned and ran for the presidency of the United States? Morality tale clothed in satire. I loved Merullo’s previous book Breakfast with Buddha; that’s why I read American Savior immediately.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
(Dial Press, July 2008)
Epistolatory novel, fast reading, set right after WWII.

The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti
(Dial Press, August 2008)
Cross John Irving with Oliver Twist, add a dash of magical realism, and you’ll get this entertaining novel of an orphan’s search for a family.

Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream by Adam Shepard
(Collins, October 2008)
A college graduate decides to see if the American Dream is still attainable. He picks a city, takes a bus there with the clothes on his back and $25, and tries to make a go of it. His goal: an apartment, a working vehicle, and $2500 in savings in a year. Inspirational!

Would you also recommend these books for high school students? Can you think of others that should be added to this list? If so, please comment!

Janet Potter’s Greek Island Bookselling Adventures

Alison Morris - November 11, 2008

Last month, I posted a write-up by my friend and colleague Janet Potter about her adventures as a bookseller in Dublin, where she recently completed a degree in journalism. Janet has since been working at Atlantis Books on an island in Greece, where, as you’ll see, she’s having a really, REALLY rough time of it. (Lucky sot.)

On my dreariest Wellesley days I now sit back and dream of Santorini…

Here’s Janet:

One of the staples of a bookstore interview is when the manager says, “Now you know, working at bookstores is not just talking about Steinbeck and reading at the register, it’s actually a lot of work, some of it taxing.”

This scene is then mirrored every time you tell someone you work at a bookstore and they go glassy-eyed and say “oh cooool, I’ve always wanted to work at a bookstore,” and you get uppity and reply, “now you know, working at bookstores is not just talking about Steinbeck…” et cetera, et cetera.


Nevertheless, the fantasy remains that when you work at a bookstore you get to read all the books, sell nothing but your favorites, and spend most of the time chatting with your quirky coworkers (thanks for that, You’ve Got Mail). But we all know the reality is more along the lines of restocking the SAT test prep section and being expected to know all of James Patterson’s titles in order of publication; the ideal doesn’t exist.


Well, actually, after seven years of bookselling at five different stores – I found it. It’s called Atlantis Books, and it’s in a cave house on the island of Santorini in Greece. I’ve been working here for a month.


Many of you will be familiar with Shakespeare & Company – the legendary bookshop on the Seine in Paris. Atlantis Books was started in 2004 by a group of young people who had worked at or been involved with Shakespeare & Company, and runs on the same basic principles. The shop is staffed by an endless parade of volunteers who come to Santorini – for anything from a few weeks to the whole season – and live and work in the shop.


It’s all exactly as charming as it sounds, and after a month it still hasn’t quite worn off. One of us manages to get out of bed and open the shop by 10 or 11 in the morning, and all day we take turns sitting at the desk (reading, always reading), making each other coffee, going to the beach, and giving out restaurant recommendations. Every once in a while someone goes to the bakery and gets spinach and feta pie for everyone, and in the evening we cook together, transform the cookery display table (appropriately) into a dinner table and have a dinner party in the Greek fiction section. If customers happen to wander in while we’re eating, we usually offer them a glass of wine and get them to buy Zorba the Greek. Then we close up whenever a majority of us want to go to bed.


Needless to say, most people fall in love with us the moment they walk in the door. Santorini is pretty built up for tourism, so when – after an afternoon of perusing endless snow globe vendors and paying $10 for coffee – they walk into the shop and find someone who not only speaks English but would like nothing more than to discuss the career arc of Michael Chabon, they’re delighted.

On the other hand, sometimes you just don’t feel like being the offbeat part of someone’s vacation memories. After a while, when somebody walks in and says, “this store is so great,” you just grunt and go back to your book. No matter how much you love bookselling – and everybody who is willing to live in a bookshop is pretty sure of their feelings on the subject – your 14th straight hour of customer interactions starts to drag. In the past month I’ve shouted a book recommendation from my bed, been asked about the plot of a Fitzgerald novel upon leaving the shower, and been told – by a browsing customer – that they thought my lunch was burning.


I don’t know if it would be more descriptive for me to tell you to imagine that you slept in your store’s fiction section, or that your bedroom included a staff favorites shelf. Either way, it’s an encompassing lifestyle.


And there’s something both fascinating and completely liberating about zero percent customer retention. Every day we meet people from all over the world, talk to them about our favorite books, and usually sell them a few. However, unless they return next summer, they will probably never shop here again. We will never know if they liked our recommendations, and there’s no chance if they don’t – or they think we’re rude – they’ll take their business to the chain store down the street (the only thing down the street is a big cliff that will drop you into the Aegean). Handselling is so much more fun when it’s an end in itself. If you come in looking for The Kite Runner and find out we’re sold out (which we are, we only order books once a season) – we might just recommend that you buy Factotum instead, because what the hey – we’re the hipster bookstore in Greece and we think you could use some excitement.


[For this reason, among others, Steinbeck, Salinger, and Carver are our top sellers every year. Whether to impress us or to buy something appropriate to the atmosphere, mid-20th century American fiction is our frontlist.]


If nothing else, we enj
the fact that once our customers get back home and someone notes the presence of Bukowski on their shelf next to Picoult, Pamuk, and Marquez, they can say, “oh yeah, I got that at this crazy bookstore in Greece.”


janet, behind the counterMy Grecian bookselling experience will be over in less than a week and I’ll be moving to Chicago**, and while I won’t miss telling the shop’s history and answering “How did you end up here?” 80 times a day, I will greatly miss having lived the elusive bookstore dream for a spell.


If you ever wind up on Santorini (which I recommend), and visit the shop (which I highly recommend), please – I beg you – don’t ask the person behind the counter if you can take their picture.


**Alison here: If you happen to work for a Chicago-area bookstore that’s looking for holiday help or year-round booksellers, contact Janet. She comes HIGHLY recommended (not just by me!), and she is currently looking for work. Her e-mail address is Janet DOT Potter AT Gmail DOT com.