Monthly Archives: June 2010

The Elephant in the Room

Elizabeth Bluemle - June 10, 2010

art by Kevan Atteberry

Publishers, how ivory are thy towers? According to statistics—not to mention a quick glance around any trade show floor—pretty shockingly ivory, maybe along the lines of 98%. The number of publishing, editorial, art direction, sales and marketing professionals of color in our field is tiny, and that’s not good for anybody. This discrepancy between the real world and the publishing world limits the range of books published, the intellectual scope of discussion, and—for the bottom-liners—greatly stunts the potential market.

 art by Addie Boswell

The truth: we in the book trade have fallen shamefully behind our own culture, and our own times. We can remedy that with open dialogue, new paradigms, and concerted effort. And—we have to remedy it. When adults shout racial epithets at our country’s elected leaders, when bullied children are hanging themselves out of despair and shame, when children’s faces in art murals on the sides of schools are criticized for being “too dark,” when racism is still alive and vicious in this country, we can’t politely avert our eyes.
It is our responsibility—as people who create, produce, and distribute the lion’s share of books that reach and teach and entertain children—it is our highest calling to provide written, illustrated worlds that embrace and prioritize all children, books that resemble the playgrounds and classrooms and homes of this country and the rest of the world. And in order to do that, we must open the gates of our publishing houses to a greater variety of voices and cast aside outdated assumptions of what people will or won’t want to read, will or won’t want to edit or publish or sell.

art by Sharon Vargo

So how do we do it?

art by Erin Eitter Kono

The good news is that there is a growing movement afoot among children’s book people—mainly authors and artists, but also editors and agents and booksellers and librarians—to address these imbalances and make real change happen. Social networking and blogs and the Internet have made it possible for like-minded people to find one another, and for people to respond quickly and vocally to unacceptable practices, like book-cover whitewashing. Having our first African-American president has also brought race into the public dialogue more openly than it has been since the 1970s.
The population of the United States is becoming more and more diverse, rapidly. Every indicator points to now as THE TIME for racial progress and equality to make its next big advance. It’s time to face up to things, the time to move forward, the time to form new models for business and commerce.

art by Elizabeth O. Dulemba

I’ve titled this blog post “The Elephant in the Room,” because discussions of race among mostly Caucasian, primarily liberal, adults are so often fraught with perceived landmines and sincere attempts not to be or seem racist that real dialogue seldom gets beyond square one.

However, just as a recent study about children’s attitudes toward race indicated that adults’ avoidance of the topic (however well-meaning) led to increased racial stereotyping and negative perceptions on the part of the children, so does our avoidance of the issue in our own field do harm rather than good.
Illustrator Anne Sibley O’Brien is currently running a three-part series on race in the Society of Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Bulletin. In the May/June 2010 issue article, “White Mind (Part 1),” O’Brien notes: “Being a dominant group member is like having a free pass that members of outgroups don’t have, but with no awareness of having it.”  She cites a Harvard brain research study showing “the presence of implicit bias as a universal human experience. When we think about people like ourselves, [the scientists] report, a certain part of our brains light up; when we think about people different from us, a different part lights up.

art by Jerry Craft

This kind of bias is completely unconscious, Banaji states, present in people who are absolutely positive they don’t have it and who are committed to treating everyone fairly (and think they do). According to Banaji’s studies, 80% of whites show bias for the white race; people of non- majority races do not show this bias for their race. These implicit biases can drive our behaviors without our awareness.” She continues, “From writing and illustrating to hiring publishing staff, editing and marketing to selling, buying and reviewing, White Mind affects children’s books today. Unless we become aware of and develop strategies to directly challenge these patterns, white norms will continue to prevail.”
Professor and author Zetta Elliott‘s article, “Something Like an Open Letter to the Children’s Publishing Industry,” articulates the frustrating refusal of industry leaders to address this issue. “Their silence has been deafening. What can they say? That they collectively lack the daring, the moral clarity, the fiscal incentive to do right by our kids? Perhaps they will say, ‘The market can’t sustain more books by and about people of color. There simply isn’t enough demand.’ And so they will continue to promote their endless books about Harriet Tubman and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., knowing that educators and librarians across the country need *something* to display when Black History Month rolls around…”

art by Claudia Rueda

Citing studies showing that Black and Hispanic kids suffer disproportionately from homophobic bullying, with higher rates of suicide and suicide attempts, she concludes: “What I am trying to say to children’s publishers is that the lack of books for children in our communities IS A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH. I am not asking you to level the playing field as a “favor” to people of color. I am asking you to work with us in our efforts to transform children’s lives. Isn’t that why you chose this field in the first place?” Amen.

She continues, “And, of course, there is a desperate need for ‘slice of life’ stories that don’t (only) focus on racial or cultural conflict; I’m partial to wild geese and willow trees, but those aren’t the books editors and agents seem to champion. People of color make up a third of the population, and before too long, we’ll reach 50%. In 2050 will we still be petitioning the children’s publishing industry to be more responsive to our needs – OUR urgencies?”

art by Grace Lin

It’s pretty clear where we are and where we need to go. What I’d like to do is open the conversation by offering some positive, creative steps we can all take to make the world of children’s books—behind the scenes, in addition to between the covers—catch up to the amazing, diverse, infinitely rich world those books are meant to reflect and celebrate.
You’ll notice marvelous art throughout this post. When I started thinking about what I wanted to say about racial representation not just in books, but in the halls of publishing houses, I knew I didn’t want mine to be the only voice, and I knew I wanted to use art. Sending out an appeal to artist friends and colleagues brought 13 interpretations of the “elephant in the room” theme. Our grateful thanks and admiration to artists Kevan Atteberry, Addie Boswell, Jerry Craft, Katie Davis, Nancy Devard, Elizabeth O. Dulemba, Laura Freeman, Erin Eitter Kono, Grace Lin, Nicole Tadgell, and Sharon Vargo for devoting their time and energy and care on these pieces, which they have contributed to this post freely. Clicking on their artwork will take you to their websites; please visit and explore their other fine work. A special thanks to author/publisher Cheryl Hudson (Just Us Books), who not only helped me connect with several artists, but whose ongoing effort to support and uplift authors and artists of color and readers of all races is a true inspiration.

art by Nicole Tadgell

Explore the DIPNET Publishing Equalities Charter.

Assess your company with clear, honest eyes and minds. Contact the AAP’s Diversity Recruit & Retain Committee for assistance with hiring, recruitment, and mentoring efforts. Consider creating an in-house group to address equality policies and practices in your house.

Believe that this issue affects the future of publishing every bit as much as emerging technologies. As someone said, the world is a salad, not a melting pot, and becomes ever more so. Want to sell more books? Market books to the real world, as it is now, and as it’s becoming.
A truly diverse, exciting publishing program cannot be achieved with a 98% Caucasian workforce. Check out when hiring.

art by Nancy Devard

Be broad-minded in your view of diversity. It’s not just a black/white issue, but includes all races, colors, creeds, and religious beliefs, as well as age, gender, sexual orientation, and class.
From the UK Publishing Equalities Charter: “Provide specific training/development to staff from under-represented groups to enhance career progression into middle/senior management.”
In her article, “Demanding Diversity in Publishing,” Zetta Elliott quotes the above and adds, “Recognizing that ‘publishers, trade associations, booksellers and other organisations related to the publishing industry’ vary in size, the charter suggests that each ‘champion’ two to four actions per year, and welcomes ‘any other suggestions that promote equal opportunities.’ Most importantly, signatories to the charter agree to complete an annual survey, which will enable progress to be MONITORED.”

art by Katie Davis

Re-evaluate WHY books with brown faces on the cover sometimes, even often, sell less well than books with white faces. As a bookseller who has worked in both extremely diverse and extremely homogenous environments, I am convinced that this is a result of misdirected marketing. A more diverse talent pool will help you get the message out about your books in ways that reach more people.
What do you want to accomplish with your role as publisher?
Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, blogger and author of 8th Grade Superzero, notes: “…the industry is failing *everyone*, not just under-represented groups, when it continues to promote and present a largely homogenous, narrow perspective. I hope that children’s publishing in particular will recognize the opportunity here to play a role in creating a more just society in which every voice has value… Looking at the current state of things, a reader doesn’t even have to be particularly thoughtful to see that this just doesn’t make sense. (Or cents, even. It’s hard for me to believe that a more inclusive industry would not be able to reap tangible rewards.)… By each of us taking responsibility to do *something* that will increase diversity in publishing, we can demonstrate a real understanding and effect real change.”

art by Laura Freeman

Give books by or about people of color more than one or two “slots” per season. That leads to the inevitable predictable deluge of books about slavery and Civil Rights. These are important books, of course. But imagine if we only published books about pilgrims for white children, and you’ll quickly see that this approach is absurd. Children are HUNGRY to see themselves in books about regular kids doing everyday things. Or as fantasy heroes. Where is the black Twilight? Or the Asian Harry Potter?
Don’t assume authors and artists and editors of color only want to write and illustrate and edit books about characters of color.
In committee, describe books by authors and illustrators of color, and/or about characters of color, the same way you would books about and/or by white people. That is, use active language that compels the reader. Talk about the story, not the race of the characters.
Revisit your assumptions and biases. We all have them, and have to work to set them aside. For example, if you believe a book with a brown face on the cover isn’t “for” you or your family or friends, you will have a hard time supporting that book in a way that it will reach a broad audience.
Avoid stereotypes not only of people, but of settings and assumed experiences. Not all nonwhite kids live in urban environments, obviously, and even when they do, there’s a rich diversity of experiences and voices within those settings that aren’t yet reflected in books.
Recruit, mentor and support editorial assistants of color. Consider visiting classrooms to introduce children and teenagers to the world of publishing and the variety of jobs available.
Work harder to communicate honestly and openly with authors of color when you have questions about their work. Politeness often makes us shirk conversations that would be fruitful.
Never, ever advocate whitewashing a book cover. The moral cynicism of this action is a terrible betrayal of your authors and readers. It bankrupts your reputation and is not easily forgotten. In this age of instant social networking, it will be discovered and shared.
Resist the habit of speaking about a book featuring a character of color as a book only FOR people of color. If Shabanu, a Newbery Medal winner, had been written by an author of color, would it have been pitched differently? And possibly missed its deservedly broad, cross-cultural audience, not to mention its award?
Challenge buyers to broaden their vistas. This is tricky, because you don’t want to seem to be questioning a bookseller’s understanding of her/his market, but if you can convey your own enthusiasm for a book rather than introducing it with apology or phrases like, “This might not sell in your store, but…” you can model for booksellers better ways to talk with their customers about the books. Focus on the story, the heart, the humor. That’s universal.
See PUBLISHER notes for thoughts on marketing books with a colorful cast of characters.
(See “no cover whitewashing” above.)
Ask yourselves, does the family in this picture book have to be white? White is not the default race, and every week—if not more often— I have customers both white and of color asking me for books with diverse families. And this is in VERMONT.
Watch out for the “white kid in front” habit. It drives me nuts to see a multicultural cast of characters all grouped deliberately behind the white kid, who’s the central active figure on the cover. White people WILL buy books with diverse casts of characters; please give all readers more credit.
Books are books. The good ones cross universal lines; they aren’t black-interest books, white-interest books, Chinese-interest books. They are books. Believe in your own passion for stories and literature and nonfiction, and hand the best books to kids of all colors, about people of all colors.
Encourage customers to step outside their comfort zone, especially by focusing on the story, not the race of the protagonists. “This kid is given a quadrillion-dollar bill and Secret Agents are trying to get it back.” “Bobby used to have a girl best friend, but now they’re in fourth grade, and things are changing. Everything starts going wrong; he can’t even hug a tree without getting stuck to it.” “Alvin, descended from warrior farmers, is afraid of everything. Now he’s in a public school and exposed to a neighborhood full of potential disasters.” Hook ’em with the good stuff; they won’t care two hoots about race.
Become familiar with a wider array of books, especially from small presses specializing in multicultural books.
Let your customers know that you carry a strong selection of multicultural books. Even in homogenous (white) neighborhoods, you’ll often be surprised by how many people appreciate and buy the books you’ve made available to them.
Let your sales reps know you’re interested in broadening your selection. This is a fruitful conversation.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, even though this post is long. Please join in the conversation about what we can do better, where we can join forces, and how to make change that lasts. Anyone interested in joining a group of book people talking this issue, please email me, Elizabeth, at for an invitation to an online discussion group.
LINKS OF INTEREST (special thanks to Christine Taylor-Butler for sharing several of these links, not to mention many, many conversations about this issue) [Note: updated June 13, 2010]:
A World Full of Color, the tagged, sortable library I put together of 500+ titles in print featuring kids of color where race is not the driving force of the story. Publishers, please continue to send me new titles to add to the catalog.
Zetta Elliott’s “Demanding Diversity in Publishing” and Something Like an Open Letter to the Children’s Publishing Industry.
Association of American Publishers (AAP) Diversity Recruit & Retain Committee. “AAP’s Diversity/Recruit & Retain Committee works to attract talented, diverse voices to the book publishing industry with its “Book Yourself a Career” campaign. The centerpiece of the campaign is the website, which serves as a comprehensive database of internships and jobs at all levels in the industry and serves as a “one-stop-shopping” resource for information about book publishing. The campaign includes a college outreach initiative which publicizes the website on college campuses, focusing especially on schools with high academic standards and a diverse student population.”
DIPNET “The Diversity in Publishing Network has been established to promote the status and contribution of social groups traditionally underrepresented within all areas of publishing, as well as support those seeking to enter the industry. DIPNET is an initiative funded by Arts Council England and managed at Booktrust. DIPNET aims to redress the balance of equality in the UK publishing sector.” This is a British organization. We need this in the United States. Anyone?
Amy Bowllan’s School Library Journal blog, Writers Against Racism.
ColorOnline,  Susan’s blog. “Our blog focuses on women writers of color for adults YA and children. Let’s talk books, culture and literacy.” (She gets extra points for creating her reading wish list at Powell’s, rather than a non-independent bookstore. Thanks, Susan!) has a wonderful list of blogs about “reading in color.”
Reading in Color: “Reading in Color is a book blog that reviews YA books about people of color (poc). There is a serious lack of books being reviewed by teens that are YA about people of color. I hope my blog is one step closer to filling in this void.”
Multiculturalism Rocks! “A blog on multiculturalism in children’s literature.” Run by Nathalie M. Vondo.
POC Reading Challenge Blog: “The persons of color reading challenge has been put in place to highlight and celebrate authors and characters of color.” Also on this blog is a handy round-up of Multicultural Book Awards.
Multicultural Book Awards list, compiled by ColorOnline.
Black Threads in Kid’s Lit: “Exploring African American Picture Books and other Fanciful Topics.” For a very interesting look at the Coretta Scott King Award by the numbers, click here.
RAWW (Readers Against WhiteWashing) Also started by LaTonya Baldwin, mover and shaker!
Reading in Color: “Reading in Color is a book blog that reviews YA books about people of color (poc). There is a serious lack of books being reviewed by teens that are YA about people of color; I hope my blog is one step closer to filling in this void.”
White Readers Meet Black Authors — “Your official invitation into the African American section of the bookstore! A sometimes serious, sometimes light-hearted plea for EVERYBODY to give a black writer a try. Typically, I update on Tuesdays.”
Crazy Quilts: “Ramblings of an urban high-school librarian. Single. Old. Very old. On a good day, I even wear the traditional library bun.”
Coloring Between the Lines, Anne Sibley O’Brien’s blog: “This blog looks at issues of race and culture in relation to creating and using children’s literature, as seen by a white author-illustrator of multiracial, multicultural books.”
Mitali Perkins’ Fire Escape, “a safe place to think, chat and read about life between cultures.”
Natalie M. Vondo’s Multiculturalism Rocks: “A blog on multiculturalism in children’s literature.”
Assistant Professor Debbie Reese’s blog, American Indians in Children’s Books: “Critical perspectives of indigenous peoples in children’s books, the school curriculum, popular culture, and society-at-large.”
Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s website’s multi-paged Diversity section.
Black-Eyed Susan’s: “Books and other passions.” Multicultural books.
Race Bridges for Schools: “Storytelling, events, and tools to bring the races together.”
G.R.I.T.Z. Kidz Club: “[A]n online book club for kids, teens, parents and adults who work with youth, who desire to discuss and learn more about literature written for young people (with special emphasis on African American and Multicultural Literature).”
K.T. Horning’s thoughtful essay on children’s book publishing in 2009, particularly the Multicultural Mandate section (which also contains the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC)’s statistics about the numbers of books by authors of Latin, Asian-Pacific, African and African-American, and American Indian descent.
The Brown Bookshelf: “The Brown Bookshelf is designed to push awareness of the myriad of African American voices writing for young readers. Our flagship initiative of is 28 Days Later, a month-long showcase of the best in Picture Books, Middle Grade and Young Adult novels written and illustrated by African Americans.”
The Happy Nappy Bookseller: A cornucopia of multicultural book reviews, news, and interviews.
Asia in the Heart, World on the Mind: “[A]bout: children’s and YA books set in Asia, children’s and YA books with Asian characters, children’s and YA books with characters of Asian descent, Asian children’s and YA book authors and illustrators, and children’s and YA book authors and illustrators of Asian descent.” “[A] website about books written in English for young readers. It embraces multicultural books from or about anywhere in the world, with a particular focus on the Pacific Rim and South Asia. PaperTigers offers a wealth of book-related resources for teachers, librarians, parents and all those interested in the world of children’s and young adult books.”
Just Us Books: Wade and Cheryl Hudson’s publishing company. Their mission is “to produce the kind of positive, vibrant Black-interest books that they wanted for their own two children.”
Shen’s Books: “…a publisher of multicultural children’s literature that emphasizes cultural diversity and tolerance, with a focus on introducing children to the cultures of Asia. Through books, we can share a world a stories, building greater understanding and tolerance within our increasingly diverse communities as well as throughout our continuously shrinking globe.” On this site, Renee Ting blogs about books and creates “Multicultural Minutes,” video discussions with authors.
Lee & Low: “An independent children’s book publisher focusing on diversity. It is the company’s mission to meet the need for stories that all children can identify with and enjoy.”
Children’s Book Press: “Nonprofit publisher of multicultural and bilingual literature for children.”
Kensington’s Dafina imprint publishes books by and for people of color.
For a much more complete list of publishers devoted to multicultural publishing, please visit the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) Small Presses of Color listing. See also their statistics on books by and about people of color.
The Arizona Mural controversy.
Celebrate Black History All Year Long — a PBS Parents Expert column by Cheryl Hudson.
White Privilege: Opening the Invisible Knapsack, by Peggy McIntosh. (Thanks to Neesha Meminger, whose blog led me to it. Neesha also has an excellent post on bullying.)

The Very Short Retail Life of Bree Tanner

Josie Leavitt - June 8, 2010

Well, the release of the novella The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner, the latest missive from Stephenie Meyer, has been a bookstore dud. I read the listservs for ABC and NECBA and according to booksellers on those lists, sales have been pretty disappointing.
One bookseller even had a midnight release party with bands, pizza and giveaways, only to end the night having sold two, count ’em two, books. Other bookstores reported sales of no greater than four. We’ve only sold three. Why is this, I wondered.
Well, it seems that the book, all 192 pages of it, has been available as a FREE download since noon yesterday. So let’s do some math here. Buy the book for $12.95 at your local indie or wait a mere day and a half after the on-sale date and read it for FREE. Let’s guess what the kids are going to do. However, I totally understand and applaud Stephenie Meyer’s impulse to reward her readers. But if she wants to help actually sell the book and ensure the Red Cross gets its a dollar for every book sold as promised, maybe waiting for a month after the release date would have been a nice compromise. I know there was a push to have folks read the book before the movie, but some sort of distance between the book’s release and the free download would have been great. Maybe, just maybe, this novella would have been better as a web-only read — think of the money the publisher could have saved on not producing a book that doesn’t stand a chance competing against a free download.
What really irritates me is that I was not told when I placed my order for 50 books that it would be available FREE fewer than 36 hours after my strict on-sale date. This kind of competition, directly from the publisher, is frustrating and disheartening. It’s hard enough to compete with the steep discounts of Target, Walmart and Amazon, but to have free downloads available to anyone with a computer fewer than two days after I get the book makes me want to weep.
My only consolation is the book isn’t too heavy, so our five boxes of returns won’t strain my back.

Watch Them Grow

Josie Leavitt - June 7, 2010

Every day there are milestones in a child’s life. Owning a bookstore for 14 years means we’ve seen our fair share of them. The first of course, is customers having babies. There’s nothing as fun as a good customer having a baby. It’s exciting and, selfishly, it means another little reader has come into the world. So far, not one woman has gone into labor at the store, although this past year, we had two women come to the store on their due dates to spur their little ones along.
Elizabeth once had a child take his first steps, ever, toward her in the picture book section. This little guy was determined to walk (there’s nothing quite as adorable as the tenacity of a child desperate to walk) and Elizabeth held out her arms while the mom was looking at books, and over he walked. And once he figured it out, he kept walking to her, much to the mom’s delight.
Last weekend a girl lost her tooth at the store. I looked up from the register and this girl was calmly holding a tissue to her bleeding mouth. At first I thought she had somehow walked into something, but her grandma explained what had happened. Grandma, who was taking care of the girl for the weekend, quickly thrust a fairy book at me to hide, saying, “It’ll be from the Tooth Fairy.”  Nothing like having the Tooth Fairy shop at your store.
One of my favorite moments are when kids put it all together and actually read for the first time at the store. This has happened about five times and every time it just delights me. There’s nothing like the expression on a parent’s face when they realize their kid is actually reading the title of the books they’re looking at. Once it happened and the child was absurdly young, maybe four, and she just walked around pointing out words. The mom and I just watched, mouths agape and stunned.
Last night I went to dinner with friends and my waiter was a young man who has shopped at the store since the first week.  Will was an earnest four-year-old who loved books. His mom was reading him Maybelle the Cable Car and Will couldn’t enjoy the story because he was distracted by all the female vehicles. He asked his Mom, “But who will watch the little children?” Oh, out of the mouths of babes. This young man is now 17 and a very competent server. I resisted the urge to ask for water incessantly and send food back just to bust his chops.
To watch a child grow in store visits is a very lovely thing. This past spring has seen so many college graduates, home for the summer, popping by to say hi and catch up, each one with stories about how much they loved the store when they were growing up. It just makes my day. Of course there is that weird bookstore time warp that allows the children to grow and mature, while I stay the same age I was when I opened the store.

Drawings and Photos from Our Week in Paris

Alison Morris - June 4, 2010

What with BEA interrupting our routines last week and me playing post-honeymoon catch up, I am finding far too little time to write up posts about either trip. I have, in fact, been so busy that until last night I had no idea what an amazing job my husband (illustrator/graphic novelist Gareth Hinds) has been doing of recapping our honeymoon on his blog!
One quick note: I met a lot of ShelfTalker readers at BEA who knew that I’m married to a guy named Gareth but weren’t aware (until they met him) that he illustrates books. That’s the fault of my feeling it would be downright obnoxious for me to link to Gareth’s website or use his full name every time I mention him in a husband context. It would be like putting air quotes around his name every time I said it in conversation, or following every mention of his name with “You know — my husband? Gareth HINDS? Candlewick has published his graphic novel adaptions of Beowulf, The Merchant of Venice, King Lear, and The Odyssey, which is coming in October, is truly wonderful, will appeal to readers of all ages, and will be welcomed with open arms by every teacher who has ever had to introduce his/her students to Homer? Yeah. That’s him!” I’m afraid that, in general, that just isn’t my style! Now that I’ve done it once, though, you should all be up to speed.
In any case, while you wait for me to tell you more about our European adventures (the book-related bits, at least) and/or BookExpo trip, take a look at Gareth’s blog, which at this point covers the entirety of our week in Paris and will soon also include recaps of our week in London. All of the drawings/paintings you find there were done by him, and the photos (with just a few exceptions) were taken by me.
If you start reading from the blog’s main page be sure to click on the “continue reading” link to see a post in its entirety. To read the Paris posts in chronological order, you can follow these direct links:
Paris – Day 1
Paris – Day 2
Paris – Day 3
Paris – Day 4
Paris – Day 5
Paris – Day 6
Paris – Day 7
Paris – Day 8
Do you have favorite Paris spots that we missed in our travels? If so I’d love to know what they are, so I can add them to the roster for next time (whenever that might be)!

A Great Idea

Josie Leavitt - June 3, 2010

This past week before BEA officially began, a publisher invited 12 booksellers to their offices for 4 hours to talk about books. The publisher of a division, the higher-ups in marketing, and the head of sales were all in attendance and they were all ready to listen. We talked about their books and how they could help us sell them more effectively. This discussion wasn’t just about them, it was also about us, the booksellers, and what we needed from the publisher to make selling their books easier, more profitable and more enjoyable.
I must confess, these kinds of meetings are my favorite kind of meetings. Things can actually happen at these. People in a position of power, eager for bookseller input, listen in the hopes of making things better.
The meeting began by age, with picture books. Are they selling? If so, in what format? What I found the most intriguing were what the other booksellers from all over the country had to say. Where I have a hard time selling hardcover picture books, some stores only sell them and their market expects that from them. Another store doesn’t discount anything, at all, ever. Oh, how I wished that were my store. Different regions have different behaviors and the publisher was learning that just as I was.
Chapter books came next, and again the responses were varied. I sell them by the fist-full in paperback, but not so much in hardcover, while other stores sell mostly hardcovers. One thing we all said that there needs to be a longer format picture book that is packaged more like a chapter book. Longer picture books are lovely books, but there’s a been a shift with consumers who think any picture book is too “babyish” for their seven or eight-year-old who just wants to leap ahead into chapter books, but would still adore a longer format picture book. We strategized with the publisher on how to create a market for this very important genre.
One thing I can’t convey is the energy in the room. These booksellers were a fabulous mix of fairly new to seasoned store owners. Ideas were bouncing around and one person’s idea spurred someone else’s great idea. I learned different ways to treat the oddball books you love that aren’t easily categorized. One store has a section, “Keeping Austin Weird, One Book at a Time section.” I adore this idea. It says so much about the section that, if I lived in Austin, I would always check out that section first.
The gratifying part of this whole session for me was being heard. I got to vent about excessive packaging on galleys, others got to vent about other issues near and dear to them. The publisher was incredibly amenable to helping the store work with libraries more, going so far as to suggest sending galley sets with multiple copies for libraries or school groups to use. This is the sort of useful thing that publishers could do more of to help indies secure the school and library markets.
We had a minutes-long discussion about what customers prefer as giveaways: buttons or stickers. I prefer stickers, while other stores waxed rhapsodic about how well buttons work in their stores. I think this confused the publisher: what will get used more? Well, it really depends on the store, and that makes it hard for the publishers to know how to spend their promo dollars for things that will get used. I know it sounds silly to talk about buttons versus stickers, but this highlights the challenges we all face: how can we use the promo items we’re given in a way that works for us? How many times has my store gotten pencil packs that I’m supposed to be give out every time someone buys that book and forgotten to give out the pencil? The bottom line from all the booksellers was: make it simple for me and my staff, whatever it is.
We talked about middle grade mysteries next. It was interesting because this conversation turned into a wide-ranging discussion about middle grade novels in general. We concluded that the lines between YA and middle grade have become blurred and middle grade is often starting to feel like YA-lite. We all expressed desire for a chart of some sort that let us know what the content really was, so we can sell with confidence any middle grade novel. Every publisher is different and not all middle grade novels are necessarily age-appropriate when it comes to content. This publisher was incredibly receptive to helping create a content/theme chart for stores to use. This was particularly welcome at stores that sometimes have non-children’s booksellers covering the kids’ department.
The last thing we hashed out was how to make the last week of December more profitable. While the publisher was insistent that the last week of December could be a great time to release a hot new title, all the booksellers tried really hard to dissuade them from this idea. A hot book, one that could sell for the holidays, should come out before Christmas and Hanukah, so we can sell to folks who are looking for present ideas. By the last week of December booksellers are understaffed, exhausted and generally dealing with returns and exchanges. This was a fascinating discussion because for the first time, the booksellers and the publisher were on opposite sides. But through really talking it out and everyone listening, we all came up with ways to make a book release the last week of the year work for all parties. And we’ll have to wait until later in the year to see if it works out.
The publisher left the meeting invigorated and the booksellers felt heard in a meaningful way. This was a win-win for all involved. One way for publishers to have more “face time” with booksellers is to come to the regional association meetings and set up meetings with a panel of  booksellers. I think it’s important for publishers and booksellers to meet periodically to remind each other that we are all working toward the same goals.

New England Children’s Booksellers’ Spring Top Ten

Elizabeth Bluemle - June 2, 2010

Twice a year, members of the New England Children’s Booksellers Advisory (NECBA) council to NEIBA (New England Independent Booksellers Association) read and review as many middle-grade and young-adult ARCs (advance reading copies) and galleys as possible. We post our reviews on the NECBA listserv (which is open to all NEIBA and NECBA members) and collate them at the end of each season in pdf form for stores to download or link to on the NECBA website (which is open to the public).
It’s a great way for colleagues to share what they’re reading with one another, useful both for smaller stores that don’t receive as many ARCs, and for larger stores that receive almost too many. The Review Project helps spread the news about quiet gems that otherwise might slip under the radar, and dishes the straight dirt on super-hyped books.
Of the hundreds of MG and YA novels published between January and June 2010, we’ve reviewed just shy of 80 titles. Some of the season’s offerings receive several reviews and ratings from booksellers; others receive none. Often, books that don’t need much handselling help don’t end up in the Review Project — which results in an interesting and unpredictable Top Ten list. We indie booksellers like championing unusual finds.
The Review Project was begun several years ago by enterprising souls such as Carol Chittenden, proprietor of Eight Cousins Children’s Books in Falmouth, Mass. As she wrote in one of the first-ever Project introductions, “This list is our attempt to identify as many high-quality titles as possible from among the numerous releases of middle-grade and young-adult fiction between January and June of the year. [Ed. note: We do a second round-up, of July-December titles.] From these titles a Top Ten list has been selected as a service to our general bookstore colleagues who are less familiar with the genre. As is ever the case, contributions are uneven, with some publishers supplying a very large fraction of the galleys, and a few reviewers supplying a very large fraction of the reviews. Such reviews are, by their nature, never soon enough or inclusive enough. Nevertheless, this list is bound to alert the reader to at least one or two — and probably more — excellent titles s/he otherwise might have missed.”
The Review Project has always been fiction-oriented, but with the groundswell of enthusiasm and support for trade nonfiction from readers and bookstores across the board, we’re hoping to expand our reach to include marvelous MG and YA nonfiction titles beginning with the Fall Review Project this year.
Now all we need is about two extra months of uninterrupted reading time, about six times a year. <grin>
NECBA’s 2010 Spring Review Project — TOP TEN TITLES (Warning: some reviews contain spoilers)

Countdown, by Deborah Wiles
From the NECBA review by bookseller Suzanna Hermans of Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck, N.Y.: “In this fantastic debut historical novel, 11-year-old Franny is growing up in the early 1960s. Against a backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, she deals with a mysteriously absent older sister, an uncle who is suffering from undiagnosed PTSD, and a changing dynamic in her circle of friends. I loved this book. Franny is a great character, and Wiles has set her in an incredibly interesting time period…. What makes this book completely unique is the non-fiction component that Wiles integrates into the book. Between each chapter there are pages and pages of real images from the 1960s: photos of Kennedy and Khrushchev, propaganda art, real newspaper headlines and quotes, among many others. These serve to help the reader imagine life in the 1960s and see the same images the characters see…. This will make a great companion piece to The Watsons Go to Birmingham. Since this is the first in a companion trilogy about the 1960s, I can see Wiles giving Christopher Paul Curtis a run for his money in his stranglehold on 1960s middle-grade historical fiction. I wouldn’t be surprised one bit if Countdown took home an ALA Award of some sort next January.”
As Simple as It Seems, by Sarah Weeks
From the review by NECBA bookseller Kat Goddard of The Bookloft in Great Barrington, Mass.: “Over the course of this lovely story, 11 year old Verbena Colter finds out that she is adopted and that her birth father is in jail for murder, finds out that her birth mother caused her to be born with fetal alcohol syndrome, loses her best friend to a rival and is cast adrift in a leaky boat with a multi-allergic nine year old boy, who doesn’t know she is only pretending to be a ghost.  Those dramatic events may seem like the plot of any common juvenile page-turner, in Sarah Weeks’ competent hands this book is anything but. Perfect for 8-11s (especially those with a less dramatic background) this is a story of learning who you are and where you fit in the world. It is also a story of learning to appreciate what you have. Since book buyers rarely come in to the store asking for a book that will gently teach these valuable lessons, you can also describe it by merely saying it is a book about friendship and growing up. With no current events, violence, or romance this is a book I can easily sell now and forever.”
Crunch, by Leslie Connor
From the review by NECBA bookseller Carol Chittenden of Eight Cousins Children’s Books in Falmouth, Mass.: “Not since The Penderwicks have I so happily abandoned other chores for the pure pleasure of reading a well written middle grade book to the end. Synopsis: 14-year-old Dewey Marriss, second oldest of five siblings, is in charge of the family bike repair business while his parents take their annual “vacation.” (Mom accompanies trucker dad on one of his hauls to Canada.) Lil, at 18, is in charge of the household; smart Vince, 12, is anti-social; and the 5-year-old twins are sweet but dependent. It’s a functioning family group, but a sudden fuel crisis keeps the parents away and makes the bike business boom. Dewey is determined to demonstrate that he’s just as responsible and capable as Lil – but in ten days’ time, demand overwhelms capacity, and Dewey has to face some limits. He also has to face a parts shortage, a crabby neighbor, Sprocket the billy goat, unreasonable customers, a dog that upchucks when it gets too excited, and a growing larceny problem for which there are multiple suspects. Readers may well want to move in with the Marriss family long before the satisfying ending, though they might just as easily come to see adventure and opportunity in their own quotidian routines.”
Middleworld, by J&P Voelkel
From the review by NECBA bookseller Kenny Brechner of DDG Booksellers in Farmington, Maine: “Max leaves his Bostonian digs to seek his parents who, he finds upon landing in (mythical South American country) San Xavier, are lost in the jungle. He teams up with a very funny, acerbic Mayan girl, Lola, and together with some allies square off against the long hand of the descendants of evil missionaries. Max and Lola are a great duo, and Max’s lighthearted but self -honest narration lends a good, comfortable feel to the story. We like the good guys, we loathe the bad guys, and we can’t wait to find out about the Yellow Jaguar Stone in book two. And if Zia does turn out to be Lola’s mother, and even if, after his Uncle gives up his lucrative smuggling side line to  just concentrate on the family banana business, Uncle Ted’s now disused multi-million dollar secret smuggling lair suddenly comes in handy in the future, well why shouldn’t it?  A strong current will carry heavy debris downstream that would sink in more placid waters. Middleworld has an exuberance to it, a swift current which not only makes it a pleasure to read, but buoys its clunkier elements. The Voelkels plainly love Mayan culture, and their knowledge and passion for it makes this timely tale of the end of days in the Mayan Calendar, and the world’s great peril, something to be cared about not out of the perfunctory need to save the world, but because the Voelkels’ Mayan world is fun and engaging. This truly is a book that can be handsold with impunity.”
Cosmic, by Frank Cottrell Boyce
From the review by NECBA bookseller Sue Carita from The Toadstool Bookshop in Milford, N.H.: “Twelve-year-old Liam has stubble on his chin, is very tall and often 
mistaken for a grown-up. This gets him into all sorts of funny 
situations and he certainly takes advantage of them!
 When he “wins” a chance to be part of a brand new, totally thrilling, 
for real, amusement park ride into outer space, he plays the adult 
charade to the hilt, taking along Florida, his gutsy young classmate, as 
his daughter. Besides being very funny, the story explores what it 
means to be a dad.  All sorts of fathers accompany their 
”prize-winning” kids halfway around the world to the site of the launch. 
All of them are very gullible, competitive, and lacking in real father 
skills. Liam, the only “parent” allowed to accompany the kids, outshines 
them all as he uses his common sense and very useful computer game 
skills to bring the kids’ rocket safely back to Earth. The ending comes 
rather fast (whew — I was ready!) and seems a bit trumped up, but this 
suspenseful, charming and funny story is even better than Boyce’s Millions and Framed.
As Easy As Falling Off the Face of the Earth, by Lynne Rae Perkins (978-0061870903; Greenwillow)

Another fine review from Sue Carita: “Ry, sixteen, is on his way to archaelogical camp when he learns that the camp has closed. When the train stops, he jumps off to make a cell phone call to his grandfather, who is newly arrived at Ry’s house to dog-sit. Parents have gone to Caribbean for sailing vacation. No cell coverage for Ry, train takes off, and he is marooned in the middle of nowhere. Ensuing chapters tell of Grandpa’s fall into sinkhole which causes a sort of amnesia, then his link-up with a couple of dotty sisters, his parents’ terrible mishaps on the islands, and black and white comic book pages show what is up with the two dogs who have run off. Ry manages to link up with Del who is a good-hearted modern day jack of all trades. They set off together to find the parents, starting with an old patched-up truck, then a rickety homemade airplane, and a sailboat. Misguided journey aside, this wacky tale includes happenings both funny and harrowing, but Perkins keeps it light in tone. Ry wants adventure and he gets it! Determination, very blind faith and bull-dogged stubbornness bring the story to an improbable conclusion that will relieve readers hanging on for the ride of the year! Lots to think about- and enjoy.”
A Conspiracy of Kings, by Megan Whalen Turner
From the review by NECBA bookseller Kathleen “Totsie” McGonagle of Buttonwood Books and Toys in Cohasset, Mass.: “A Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whalen Turner is the fourth book in her series about the fictional kingdoms of Eddis, Attolia and Sounis and about the wonderful characters that populate those territories. The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, and The King of Attolia are the first three books in the series. Each is complete in itself, but when one reads the books out of order, the continuity is lost and plot points from previous books are revealed. It would be my suggestion to read them in order. A Conspiracy of Kings focuses on the kingdom of Sounis. Sophos, the unwilling heir to the throne of Sounis, is more scholarly than combative. Due to much civil unrest in the kingdom, Sounis is kidnapped and his appearance temporarily altered after a severe beating. The original plan by his captors is to smuggle Sophos through the country in plain sight, and then to hide him with one of the rebelling barons. He is to be a pawn to be bartered when appropriate. An opportunity to escape from his captors materializes and Sophos joins the farm hands and hides within their world. The time spent within the laborers camp affords Sophos several opportunities to reflect and mature. When the growing escalation among the rebel groups threaten to kill his father and subject his country to a foreign power, Sophos must emerge from his anonymity and claim his title as king. Fans of writer Megan Whalen Turner will be delighted with A Conspiracy of Kings. It complements and completes the characters introduced in the earlier books. Filled with adventure, romance and complex characters, fans of medieval style fiction will spend many delightful hours lost in its pages.”
How I, Nicky Flynn, Finally Get a Life (and a Dog), by Art Corriveau
From the review by Carol Chittenden: “Nicky, age 11 ¾, narrates with a hilariously nervous internal monologue about getting his bearings in a tough Boston neighborhood after his parents split and left their affluent suburban life. His mother is a little impulsive, and brings Reggie, a German shepherd home from the pound to their tiny Charlestown apartment. Nicky is appalled, but forced to care for Reggie, and discovers that Reggie is a trained guide dog. Gradually boy and dog bond. But Nicky’s so busy suppressing his rage at his parents’ breakup that he spins all kinds of white lies at school, at home, and around the community as he tries to figure out why Reggie is no longer an official guide dog. And Nicky’s VERY good at dreaming up excuses on his feet, until the whole web comes apart, releasing Nicky’s tensions, cleaning up a number of ragged relationships, and giving a fine dog a good home.
The author has integrated fascinating material about guide dogs and visual disabilities, so the book would be a great teaching asset – but he’s also constructed it so tightly, with plenty of snappy dialogue, it’ll keep readers hooked on the story, and would make a terrific screenplay as well.”
NECBA bookseller Ellen Richmond of the Children’s Book Cellar in Waterville, Maine, adds: “I, too, really like How I, Nicky Flynn, Finally Get a Life (and a Dog). Nicky’s voice is distinctive and believable throughout. He’s a kid trying to deal with circumstances that he doesn’t like and that he can’t control. Though he doesn’t see it, his mother is struggling, too. Her impulsive adoption of Reggie is just one attempt to help convince Nicky (and herself) that they’ve got a great new life. Nicky blames his mother for all his miseries, from having to walk Reggie to being bullied at school and not seeing his father (even on scheduled weekends). His quest to learn Reggie’s history gives Nicky some focus other than his anger. Nicky’s lies are not born of meanness, but are (as Carol said) dreamed up on the fly, in a sticky situation. One plot point that seemed a bit forced is the sudden conversion of Nicky’s arch nemesis into a friend and ally, but that’s a minor complaint. Threatened with Reggie being returned to the pound, Nicky and Reggie go on the lam; Nicky is forced to face some truths that white lies will not help. I appreciated the upbeat, but not unrealistically perfect, ending.”
The Tweenage Guide to NOT Being UNPopular (Amelia Rules 5), by Jimmy Gownley
From the review by NECBA bookseller Elizabeth Bluemle, of The Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne, Vt. (that’s me): “Here, Amelia and her nerdy buddy posse are struggling with the age-old issue of popularity, and I love how Gownley hits it — giving them a solid sense of themselves with just enough doubt (and yearning to be popular) to ring very true. The book opens with sarcastic, smart-mouthed-but-mostly-goodhearted Amelia and her friend, “Rhonda with the lumpy hair,” dressed in dorky space-age costumes, running from an angry mob of classmates. They escape up a tree, and the backstory eventually unfolds, along with subplots about cheerleaders, existential questioning (can the advice “be true to yourself” apply to jerks?), and the uncomfortable reality of facing one’s own worst behavior (ignoring the kids even nerdier than oneself, spouting off mean truths about people in a fit of impulsive anger, etc.). Fortunately, Amelia has a sympathetic young aunt and a solid, kind mom in addition to her goofball gang of friends, to help her figure it all out.
Gownley salts and peppers his stories with tongue-in-cheek homages to other cartoonists and literary influences, from Bloom County to Archie to Harriet the Spy. I think of Amelia’s gang o’ buddies as a latter-day Peanuts, the subversive, brilliant Peanuts comic strips Charles M. Schulz was writing in the 60s and 70s. This is one of the best graphic novel series out there for kids—and for adults with vivid, funny memories of childhood.
Note: This is number 5 in the series. While it absolutely can be read as a stand-alone (I’ve read books 1 and 2, but not the rest, yet), it’s probably most enjoyable for readers who have watched Amelia’s trials and tribulations from the beginning.”
Finnikin of the Rock, by Melina Marchetta
From the review by NECBA bookseller Sandy Scott of The Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick, Vt.: “Finnikin’s kingdom and its people were ravaged by traitors who murdered the royal family and set in place a new king to rule. During the five days of terror that accompanied the coup, however, a powerful witch was burned at the stake, and her parting words were a curse upon the land that kept those who had left from returning and those who remained from leaving. Finnikin was among those exiled to foreign lands, and he has spent most of his teenage years traveling with his mentor, the King’s First Man, trying to help his fellow exiles and find a glimmer of hope for the return of his homeland. When he is contacted by a messenger who tells him to retrieve a girl named Evanjalin from a cloister, a girl who has the gift of walking through the dreams of their scattered countrymen. She tells him that she knows the true heir to the throne still lives and that they must find him and return to their kingdom to take it back.
Evanjalin and Finnikin’s world is brutal and the complexity of the characters in this book reflects that brutality. Good men and women commit murder; one character who tries to rape Evanjalin is later redeemed; the people who have been oppressed rise up and take bloody revenge on their oppressors. The murders, and especially rapes (though not written in great detail), are why I would recommend this for teens. Finnikin of the Rock is a riveting story that will appeal to readers who want excitement, mystery, and romance and don’t mind the violence. I’d recommend it to fans of Graceling.

So, dear readers, there you have it. What are your Top Ten of the January-July 2010 season?