Monthly Archives: November 2010

Small Press Spotlight: Purple House Press

Elizabeth Bluemle - November 30, 2010

For some time now, I’ve meant to start a recurring feature highlighting some of our favorite small presses. We independent booksellers are always working to get the message out about the wonderful benefits we offer to readers; just as important is our support of smaller indie publishers, who likewise depend on us to recognize and value (and buy) the unique books they have to offer. In this economy especially, we need to put our money where our mouths are. Let’s hear it for small presses!

The first spotlight shines on PURPLE HOUSE PRESS. Our bookstore was about four years old when this small press started up in 2000. They were dedicated to bringing back rescued treasures from out of print. I was immediately delighted by their selections; several of their books were favorites from my own childhood. I was also impressed by the quality of the books, with their wonderful paper and top-notch production values.
From Mr. Pine’s Purple House (the book by Leonard Kessler that inspired publisher Jill Morgan to start the press in the first place) to cartoonist Gary Larson’s favorite book as a three-year-old, Mr. Bear Squash-You-All-Flat by Morrell Gipson, illustrated by Angela, to Astrid Lindgren’s The Brothers Lionheart to Clifford B. Hicks’s The Marvelous Inventions of Alvin Fernald, Purple House Press only brings back time-tested child favorites. I love their taste in books, and their carefully chosen, just-a-few-new-titles-every-year publishing schedule, which seems to ensure that all of the books they bring back stay in print.
I had a rare, wonderful, heart-stopping moment because of PHP some years ago, when I was browsing through their titles online and saw a book cover that brought back a flood of memories. I hadn’t thought about Miss Suzy in about 35 years, but when I spotted Arnold Lobel’s drawing of a small gray squirrel with two toy soldiers, my heart actually stopped beating for a second. As a little child, I had been FASCINATED by Miss Suzy’s plight with a band of mean red squirrels who chase her from her home. (She gets help from the toy soldiers.) I can’t tell you exactly why I loved that book so much, but it certainly had something to do with Lobel’s signature soft, rounded, friendly illustrations, and the slightly scary adventure with the mean squirrels written by Miriam Young.
Purple House Press’s complete catalog is small and star-studded. Enjoy browsing through books that might plunge YOU back in time to your enchanted childhood self. Booksellers, librarians, teachers, and book buyers everywhere — please consider bringing these gems to your shelves and introducing them to a whole new generation of young readers.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go make a Purple House Press order. I’m not kidding. Money, meet mouth.

The Competitive Season Has Begun

Josie Leavitt - November 29, 2010

I’m not a competitive person, normally. But something about the holidays brings it out in me. I see it as my personal challenge when someone comes in the store with a list of folks they have to get presents for, to recommend books they will love. I want everyone to leave my store happy and surprised.
Customers often come in with a particular book in mind, say a movie-tie fairy/princess book for a niece they don’t know that well. Immediately I have a problem — we don’t carry movie tie-in books. We carry the real thing.  So my challenge is two-fold. First I must get them away from thinking about the brand of the book, and then once I’ve hopefully done that, I must get them as in love with The Barefoot Book of Dance Stories as I am. Convincing someone that your book choice is really good takes skill. Pure enthusiasm and knowledge of the book usually wins the day for me. I’ve noticed, even though I’m 46, I seem to hop a lot when I’m excited about a book, plus I tend to wear a floppy Santa hat during the holidays, so I make for an interesting sight while exclaiming over a book.
I want folks to leave the Flying Pig thrilled with their purchases. This is the one time of year I have to get folks who are new to my store to see why shopping at an indie is a more satisfying experience. Every customer should leave happy and be making a note to shop with us for their everyday purchases as well.  For all indie bookstores the holidays are a chance to make and keep new customers, and to keep thrilling your regulars who’ve come to count on you for that book for Aunt Betty and the surprise book for their spouse.
We used to have an employee who would spend a lot of time just looking at the books, slowly moving from case to case. I asked him what he was doing and he said he was taking them all in. Later I discovered he had a somewhat photographic memory, so he knew where everything was. All booksellers need this skill. Handselling only works if you can actually put a book in the customer’s hands. While we’re thrilled to order books for folks, it’s also really important that people leave satisfied with a book in their hands.
I find the biggest challenge is thinking outside the box when it comes to book recommendations. Oftentimes someone will come to me and say, “My Uncle likes woodworking. And I want a paperback.” We don’t have a woodworking section, plus it’s always a danger to get someone a specific craft book because you don’t want to duplicate a book in his collection, so now I’ve got to ponder. I don’t have all day to ponder, I have about 10 seconds and then I must produce a book. I remember that a staffer loved Shop Class as Soulcraft. I booktalk it, the customer is pleasantly surprised. And it goes on like this all day.
By the end of the day, I’m tired and probably hoarse, but I’m hopping around because I think I did okay.

Happy Black Friday

Josie Leavitt - November 26, 2010

I’ll admit that I almost forgot to write this post last night, because I was so full of holiday cheer. How quickly the cheer goes to right back to business. Off to work I go, ready to battle the hordes (I hope) of holiday shoppers. I even dreamt about making the perfect recommendations to customers who were ultimately thrilled; even in dreams, though, there are tough customers.
So, to all of you out there working very hard this weekend, and for the next four weeks, have a great season! And for you shoppers out there, go indie and you’ll walk away with some real treasures for everyone on your list.

Happy Thanksgiving

Josie Leavitt - November 24, 2010

Today’s post is going to be brief, because like most of you, I have a ton to do and I have to work today. Thanksgiving is a day of giving thanks, but for booksellers, or anyone in retail, it’s a day of gathering your strength and gearing up, mentally and physically for the next four weeks.
Getting ready for a major holiday, one that involves hours of cooking and hosting people, and in my case furiously cleaning the house, while also heralding the start of the busiest time of the year for the store, is a tall order. So, today I will divide my time between work for a few hours and then home for more work.  All this so I can get up early Thursday, call my mother and ask again how many minutes a pound should I cook the bird so I spend the day filling the house with yummy smells and good friends. Thankfully, there is some downtime on Thanksgiving, some time to take a deep breath and realize that the next four weeks are the most important for my store’s bottom line. Time to make a list of the books I fear I can’t live without during the holidays and time to learn to be zen about the chaos that is the next month.
I have one staffer who literally dances like she’s shadow boxing, as the holidays approach. She embraces the lunacy, the bizarre requests, the secret phone calls, the shipments that go missing, etc. I am going to emulate her attitude tomorrow when I’m cooking and it doesn’t go well. So if I forget to take the giblets out of the turkey or realize that I don’t have any vegetables to serve, can’t get the lumps out of my gravy and my dog won’t stop barking at my friend’s kid, I’ll just dance around the kitchen, have a laugh and enjoy my friends.
I hope everyone has a Happy Thanksgiving!

Anatomy of a Newsletter

Josie Leavitt - November 23, 2010

Every year, during the week of Thanksgiving, we are frantically finishing our yearly 16-page newsletter, Pig-Tales.  This year we’re not mailing it, choosing instead to go green and make it available on our website and via email.  It seems that no matter when we start the process, things always come to a head during the week of Thanksgiving.
Our process is seemingly simple: choose the best books of the past year, with an emphasis on those from the past six months, for kids and adults. Oh, that’s so much easier said than done. We go through the books we featured on the website, on staff picks shelves, and what our staffers are just loving. Our newsletter is a  glorious excess. At last count we had reviewed over 114 books, and we’re not done yet. Picture if you will, Elizabeth (the only one who can do the graphics), surrounded by piles of books on the couch, not just piles, enormous towering stacks facing our new indulgence, a new monitor big enough that it can’t be comfortably viewed from the desk, so it sits on the coffee table where she works, quite comfortably from the couch. Elizabeth is doing the final run-through. Double-checking and re-checking the staff reviews and placing them with their cover art. It’s a blur of book reviews and covers. Staff members are proofreading pages thought to be done. Edits are being made and while I sleep, so are minute changes in spacing that will make the newsletter read more clearly and smoothly.
Our newsletter is a labor of love and a point of pride. We publish one newsletter a year. Folks count on it to guide their holiday shopping, year after year. Our first newsletter ran four pages, long before the day of just emailing a PDF to the printer. Back then it was a multi-step process that took days before the newsletter could even go to press. Now, it’s an email, a quick proof and the same day we’ll have hundreds available at the store for pick-up and a click away on any computer.
The newsletter is divided into sections: Gift books, Teacher’s corner, then we break up the sections by ages straight through adult fiction and non-fiction.  One thing I love about the newsletter is the chance to herald our favorite books. The books our staff loves. Sometimes we feature different genres — this year, dystopian novels get some special attention. Our graphic novel section has expanded considerably. The Vermont section is always chock full as we have so many talented writers in the Green Mountain State.
One of my favorite aspects of the newsletter is the staff reviews. Every staff member has been sending reviews of their top books for the past year. I love seeing what they highlight and love. Having five people contribute reviews makes our job a lot easier. Plus, there are now seven different voices to be read in our newsletter as each review is attributed. This has a nice long-term consequence as customers will read a review that they particularly like and then they’ll seek out that staffer for help the rest of the year.
While Elizabeth toils at home doing things I could never do, my newsletter job is two-fold: make sure we’ve got all the books in the store that we’re listing (no easy feat with a few titles that seemed to have gone out of stock the minute they made the cut), and to start the co-op ball rolling. This feels too easy compared to the hard, hard work of creating the 16-pager, so I’ve been cooking a lot of hearty mind- and body-sustaining food.
So, we soldier on, trying to meet a deadline that can only be met by the nicest printer in the state of Vermont, who promises a six-hour turnaround on Wednesday. Newsletter time lets us know it’s the holidays and for 13 years people have come to rely on Pig-Tales to guide their holiday choices. Crazy deadlines aside, that makes us feel pretty good.

Let the Subterfuge Begin

Josie Leavitt - November 22, 2010

I love this time of year. It’s not about the money, although that certainly helps. I’s about a little bit of lying to children, underhanded shopping and a frantic throwing of presents under the counter.
I’m not talking about horrible lies to children. I’m talking about Santa lies. “Maybe Santa will bring you that” is a phrase I hear many times a day now. It’s a distract-and-delay strategy that works well this time of year. The lying comes in (not about Santa, I’m not getting into the whole Santa thing here) with the “maybe.” There’s no maybe about. My role as a bookseller is to remember these present idea for children when the parents come back alone to shop, or to have them thrown at me to bag and label for a later date.
This year, for the first time, I’ve noticed more adults than ever looking at me pointedly and saying, “I really want that new Sondheim book.”  So, not only do I need to remember the kids’ books, now the adults are entrusting me with their holiday wishes. This year, I’m keeping an adult Christmas wish list in the back of my special order book, so adults can get their favorite holiday books, too. And, just like children, the adults visibly relax when they see me write down their wish list titles.
Normally, I prefer it if customers don’t throw things at me, but this time of year I love it. The realization that the perfect is right here, right now, and has to be saved, charms me and I’m happy to be a part of making that happen. I’ve done it today for grown-ups (one actually asked her partner to leave the store) and for a child securing something for her Mommy she probably can’t afford, for when she comes in with her dad later in the week. And I’ll do it straight through Christmas Eve.
The real subterfuge comes in when families do all their holiday shopping together. Then I’ve got Mom throwing things at me to get separately bagged and rung up, while the kids are colluding in the corner about Mom’s gifts. Siblings working together fill me with hope. Quickly wrapping presents makes me nervous because I’m afraid I’ll label them wrong and ruin everyone’s first night of Hanukkah.
I know it’s the holiday season by how many books on my special order shelves are in bags. Some of these bags have little toys, games or stuffed animals in them. Every day brings new shopping challenges and another chance to catch a thrown gift.

Keeping It Local and Selling Books

Josie Leavitt - November 19, 2010

This year we advertised in the Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility annual coupon book. This book is for sale for $10 and it contains over $2,300 in savings at participating stores. The booklet looks great and it’s been distributed throughout Vermont and actively marketed as a great present for socially responsible shoppers who value shopping local, as it’s paired with Local First Vermont. Think stocking stuffer with a heart.
This book, printed on heavyweight recycled paper, looks and feels great. One on the nicest things about it is all the participants have the same size ad, and every page is visually appealing with just one store listed. The coupon book hit stores in the last two weeks and I’ve never seen such a great response to our coupon.  Every day, at least two coupons get redeemed. And more often than not, these are new customers to our store. Sometimes coupons can look bad, or shoddy.
People who use this booklet are the same people who make a point of shopping local, even if it means driving past a chain store to do so. Indies need this kind of person to keep us alive and thriving. These folks will tell their friends about your store if they’ve had a good experience. Reaching your target market so efficiently is a boon to any business. I don’t have to sell these customers about the importance of shopping local. They save money on their purchase and I make a new customer who might not have heard of my store before.
But not every customer comes in already knowing about the power of shopping local. For those customers I recommend posting any of the myriad of promotional signage available about the reasons why shopping local is important. This time of year is the best time to reach new customers who are coming to your store because of the holidays. They might not be a regular, yet. So part of a bookseller’s job is selling the bookstore as well as the books. And, part of selling any indie is customer education about what independent stores mean to the community and state.
During the busy holiday season, lots more people are waiting in line and it’s smart to give them sometime interesting and informative to read. The American Bookselling Association has great promo material that supports Indiebound. One of my favorites is the 3/50 Project. Their printable pdf is clear and looks great and really catches people’s eye. Its message is so clear: Pick 3. Spend 50. Save Your Local Economy. Almost all states have a shop local campaign and it’s worth finding out more about yours. Professional-looking signage from these organizations can be the catalyst to good, educating conversations with customers who want to know more. And this can be the path to securing customers.

Secrets of a Library of Congress Cataloger—Plus Contest!

Elizabeth Bluemle - November 18, 2010

When I want to look up book info, my gold standard is the Library of Congress Online Catalog. I trust that the information will be accurate and easy to find, and I especially appreciate the one- or two-line book summaries found on copyright pages and online subjects/contents listings everywhere. These summaries usually give me everything I need in order to quickly confirm details about a book, providing the main character’s name and age, the main premise of the book, its time period and setting, along with anything particularly distinctive about the form or genre (a novel in verse, a multiple-person narrative) that might not otherwise be predictable. In short, the LOC is a fact-checker’s dream.
I have enjoyed and wondered about these summaries since the early 1990s, when I was a school librarian in NYC. I marveled at their succinctness, their economy, their ability to neatly encapsulate a book. Authors are often asked to summarize their own books in a sentence, and find it one of the hardest things to pull off well. So who were these magic people able to leap complex books in one or two well-crafted, lean bounds? (**See end of article for a contest where you try your own hand at writing a summary; winner receives glory and a very cool prize.**)

What is Anne of Green Gables (aka Anne-on-a-stick) doing at Ruth's desk?

Finally, I just had to find out. Some sleuthing (okay, really an email to a pal at Candlewick, the ever-helpful Elise Supovitz) led me to Senior Cataloging Specialist Ruth Polan, who was surprised and possibly gratified that someone had noticed her work and wanted to know more. She graciously agreed to an interview, which we conducted both via email and on the phone. Ruth was so much fun to talk with, lively and funny and full of great information. She answered all of my most pressing questions, and also surprised me; for example, although it makes sense given the nature of writing, I hadn’t realized how much the individual personality of each cataloger manages to seep into the summaries they write, and how much thought they continue to give them long after the book is out.
So, for anyone who has also wondered about the largely invisible but vital agency behind this tool we book people use nearly every day, I now present to you the wonderful Ruth Polan!
How long have you worked for the Library of Congress?
I’ve worked here for a staggering 33 years! It doesn’t seem that long, as my work here has always been interesting, challenging, and fulfilling. I worked first as a descriptive cataloger, from 1977 to 1985. I was in the LC Intern Program in 1986, and then became the coordinator for microform cataloging, a short-lived position that I held from 1986 to 1989. I transferred to the Children’s Literature Section as part of a Library reorganization in 1992 and have been here ever since.
What led you to working there?
In library school at UCLA I intended to specialize in children’s literature, but I became fascinated with what I considered the intellectual challenges of cataloging (I had an amazing cataloging instructor, Betty Baughman, who really knew cataloging theory and history as well as the practical aspects). I ended up specializing in cataloging of children’s literature. I got a job as a children’s librarian in a small public library when I graduated. The following year, a couple of my fellow students from UCLA were going to LC to be in the Intern Program, and a few more of us decided to go along and try to get jobs in Washington, D.C. We were young, unencumbered, and it seemed like an adventure, which it was. Three of us drove a 30-foot U-Haul truck, towing a VW Beetle, from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. in the middle of the summer. Whew!
What exactly does a Cataloging Specialist do? And are you in charge of a fleet of catalogers?
No, I am not in charge of anything! Cataloging Specialist is just bureaucratese for someone who has a lot of experience and can handle the more difficult cataloging chores. We do training, make policy decisions, handle queries from within and outside of the Library, and the like.
How DO you craft those amazing one-line summaries of books? Does any of the info come from the marketing materials and summaries publishers provide, or is each book read by the catalogers before the summary line is written?
Ah….. our summaries. We are very proud of them, and we work very hard to make them as well-written and informative as possible. We have some guidelines that we follow, which I will try to summarize:
The summary should be a brief, non-critical one-sentence annotation that describes the content of the work being cataloged without making any judgmental statements about its quality. The general rule of thumb about length is 20 to 25 words, but we retain the right of flexibility, taking as many words as are needed to describe the work adequately and accurately. Sometimes a second sentence is added to reflect special features of the work (“Includes related activities” or “Features movable flaps”).
In cataloging fiction, the cataloger tries to mention the name and age of the main character, where appropriate, as well as the setting, time period, and key elements of plot or theme. Effort is made not to give away too much of the story, particularly the ending.
We will make use of info from the publishers if it is helpful. In the past we made an effort to read each galley, but we are so swamped with work and have so few catalogers now that we just cannot do that anymore. We make use of summaries from the web (various specialized websites), information supplied by the publisher, etc. We try to read at least the first and last few chapters to get the flavor of the book.
How many summaries are written daily, and by how many people?
I really don’t know how many are written daily. I can do between 3 and 10, depending on the length and kinds of books at the top of the stack. We handle a large range of material, from simple picture books to young adult novels, graphic novels, and everything in between. We have a staff of 5 1/2 catalogers. One is still in training, and one is half-time with us and half-time with another section. When I joined the section, we had 12 catalogers. We have lost people to retirement, sickness, transfers, and one person actually resigned! We are anticipating more people retiring in the near future – our longest-serving staff member is leaving at the end of the year, which will be a huge loss. We are trying to do less with more, and it’s very difficult. We used to provide summaries and juvenile subject headings for both fiction and nonfiction, but several years ago we had to stop doing nonfiction altogether. We are now looking at other categories for which to provide more limited cataloging treatment.
[Librarians take note! Ruth also mentioned that the Library of Congress has started a program with other libraries and with publishers to be a partner in cataloging children’s literature. Interested library systems can inquire about partnering with LC in cataloging through the ECIP Cataloging Partnership Program by getting in touch with Diane Barber at the email address or phone number here: dbarber @ 202- 707 –  5176 or Caroline Santucci, 202-707 – 3317 and csus @ The strange spacing is to thwart bots.]
Is there a style bible you use? What kinds of words do you avoid?
We use the Chicago Style Manual, but we have a variety of other reference tools that we go to, from Strunk and White (especially the nifty new edition illustrated by Maira Kalman!) to our own internal guidelines. In 1971 one of the catalogers who dubbed herself the “annotator in residence” wrote a memo to the director of the Processing Dept. concerning our guidelines. She wrote the following:
Verbal policies…. “adhered to assiduously by the children’s catalogers, are as follows:
– To refrain from the use of complimentary or uncomplimentary adjectives in the annotation that refer to the story, the content of the book, or the author’s viewpoint. This eliminates such verbiage as “cute,” “exciting,” or “delightful.”
– To refrain from the use of phrases that might be construed to be editorial. This includes such statements as, “A biography of America’s greatest woman poet…” and other subjective statements.
– To summarize as concisely as possible the plot, the type of story, or the content of the book (if non-fiction). If the format or the author’s viewpoint is an unusual one we might make note of that such as an Englishman writing on the Revolutionary War.
– To avoid “showy” writing, multisyllabic words, wordiness, and phrases or terms not in common usage.”
With the above guidelines in mind, the ….catalogers … strive to create an annotation that is unobtrusive in style or language and which in concise and clear sentences states the idea, plot, or content of the book.”
Are the summaries always written before the book’s publication date?
That’s a hard one. Our goal is certainly to always provide cataloging data before the book is published, sometimes the publisher does not send the information to us enough in advance of the publication date. Sometimes we get the application information in the same month as the publication date, and we cannot supply the data in cases like that. We have a large backlog right now of about 500 titles, so we’re running about 2 months behind. Sometimes, on the other hand, we get the information to the publisher in ample time and for whatever reason, they decline to publish it in the book. And sometimes they don’t send in for CIP cataloging (Cataloging in Publication) but print in the book that CIP data is available, when in fact it’s not.
Do publishers get to see the summaries and/or have input?
Yes, after our cataloging is completed, it is sent to the publisher. If they have questions or concerns they can contact us and suggest corrections, which we will try to accommodate. Sometimes they ask us to make changes and we have to say no because they would violate our policies, but we try to be cooperative.
[A colleague of Ruth’s, Diane Barber—Acting Assistant Chief, U.S. General and U.S. and Publisher Liaison Divisions, Acquisitions and Bibliographic Access Directorate, Library of Congress—added that “it’s important that publishers request CIP data for children’s titles when the story line is firm, so that accurate summaries can be provided for libraries.” Sometimes, the LC will receive information that changes in between the submission date and the publication date, and the publisher doesn’t always remember to alert the LC to those substantive changes.]
Is there a division between children’s books and adult books – between genres – between fiction and nonfiction?
Yes, we in the Children’s Literature section only catalog children’s books, and now, as I’ve said, only fiction at that. Well, actually, we also do folklore and legends, and fairy tales as well. The children’s nonfiction, unfortunately, is usually treated the same way as adult nonfiction, which is to say it is cataloged by “adult” LC catalogers. As for genres, we do graphic novels, novels in verse, picture books, science fiction, fantasy, folk and fairy tales — in other words, all genres that fall into the loose definition of children’s and young adult fiction. As a matter of fact, the former AC (Annotated Cataloging) Program just changed its name to the CYAC (Children’s and Young Adults’ Cataloging) Program, to better identify our scope.

What was the most complicated / challenging book you ever had to summarize?

This may not be THE MOST complicated or challenging book, but it’s definitely one of them. I had the privilege of cataloging Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech, which went on to win the Newbery Award that year.  It was a thrilling read (those were the days when we did read the whole galley) and, as with every one of her books that I have read, I cried as I read it. I was fairly new to summary writing at the time, and I couldn’t figure out how to write the summary as one sentence. It’s a complicated book, as it has a story within a story, and I don’t think I was experienced enough to do it justice. I’ve never been happy with my summary, and I still think that the very lovely and kind colleague who was training me should have been stricter with me.
Here it is:”After her mother leaves home suddenly, thirteen-year-old Sal and her grandparents take a car trip retracing her mother’s route. Along the way, Sal recounts the story of her friend Phoebe, whose mother also left.”
I cringe whenever I read that. Not only is it two sentences, but they are not very felicitous ones at that. The book is lovely and I am not proud of the job I did.
Do you have a favorite summary that you’ve written?

I can tell you that we try to write “in one voice” — that is, we try not to inject our own personality into the summaries, but sometimes it’s difficult. Sometimes I try to have a little fun with them. [There are several examples of this below.]
When I write summaries for books that I really think are good, I often try to convey some of the “atmosphere” of the book in my summary.  Here’s one where I tried to do that (the title is Billy Bones, by Christopher Lincoln):
“The secrets of High Manners Manor, carefully guarded in a closet by Billy and his skeleton parents, begin to unravel when the orphan Millicent arrives and the two children start uncovering ghosts, apparitions, and scurrilous lies that have been festering in the house for far too long.”
You can see that this summary violates several of our guidelines (it’s kind of long and there are certainly multisyllabic words), but I still like it.
Here’s another one I wrote for a book that I adored (The Pillow Book of Lotus Loewenstein, by Libby Schmais):
“Quirky sixteen-year-old Lotus Lowenstein’s diary reveals that although she lives in Brooklyn and is failing high school French, she loves all things Gallic and dreams of living as an existentialist in Paris.”
That one doesn’t quite succeed in conveying the humor of the writing, but I hope it would make someone curious enough to read the book.
What else might inquiring minds like to know about cataloging and the Library of Congress? Anything that might surprise us?
I have to emphasize (this goes for all my answers, both written and oral) that I am speaking for myself alone, not for the Library of Congress in any official capacity.
The worst thing about the job is that we actually have to write summaries for picture books WITHOUT SEEING THE ILLUSTRATIONS!  Talk about hard to do! Sometimes we will read the text and not realize that the main characters are animals and not humans.  After all, they have kids’ names, go to school, talk to their parents, play sports. Unless there’s some clue in the text, like maybe: “The ball fell just beyond Jimmy’s outstretched paw” we wouldn’t know unless the publisher tells us. And then we feel kind of stupid when the book is published and the story is about a family of cats.
[So heads up, publishers! Please remind your staff members to send in brief summaries along with manuscript text submissions!]

Ruth Polan, Library of Congress Senior Cataloging Specialist, unveiled!

It’s very exciting to find out that you cataloged/wrote a summary for a book that goes on to win an award or is an honor book. As I said above, I did Walk Two Moons. I also did Christopher Paul Curtis’s The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963. It was his first book, as you know, and when I finished it I put it down and went to the woman who was the head of the section at that time and I said, “I have just discovered a fantastic new talent.” I’m still convinced that if it hadn’t been his first book he would have won the Newbery with it. I couldn’t stop talking about it to my colleagues, and I made everyone read it when it was published. At that time we had a children’s literature book discussion group that met at lunchtime once a month, and I insisted that we had to read this great book. Anyway, my point is that it’s kind of a thrill when you pick out the good ones in advance of their even being published.
Ruth subsequently shared other summaries she particularly likes, and I can’t resist sharing them with you, as well. Her commentary is as entertaining as the summaries themselves:
Here’s one where I really tried hard to capture the vividly icky atmosphere conveyed by the author. I don’t feel that I was entirely successful, but I tried. The book is Inside the Slidy Diner by Lauren Snyder.
“A little girl describes the creepy decor, people, and events at the greasy diner she lives in, where Ethelmae, the owner, sweeps up sticky buns from the filthy floor and serves them, and the house specialty is “Lumps and Dumplins”–with a secret ingredient.”
Here’s a Daniel Pinkwater book where I included a little inessential extra (the name of the teacher) because, well, who can resist Daniel Pinkwater’s names?
“Flash Fleetwood finds a very quiet gorilla which he names Phil, and, to the delight of the second grade students, their teacher Mrs. Hotdogbun says he may attend school along with them.”
I didn’t do this one, but your book got this very nice summary that includes your words:
“A young boy who likes to ‘wokka-wokka, shimmy-shake, and shocka-shocka’ gathers his neighbors together for a surprise celebration.”
One more where I used some phrases from the text but didn’t enclose them in quotes, but for some reason I did enclose babyberry pie in quotes. It’s Heather Vogel Frederick’s Babyberry Pie:
“In illustrations and rhyming text, gives the recipe for making “babyberry pie,” from picking a baby from the babyberry tree and popping him in the tub to putting powdered sugar on his nose and toes and tucking him into pie crust covers.”
This is from a book called Lines that Wiggle. I used phrases from the very rhythmic, alliterative text:
“A variety of monsters and other creatures demonstrate some of the different things that lines can do, from curving and curling to zigging and zagging.”
lccn: 2007031969
Kathi Appelt. The Underneath.
An old hound that has been chained up at his hateful owner’s run-down shack, and two kittens born underneath the house, endure separation, danger, and many other tribulations in their quest to be reunited and free.
[SPOILER ALERT!] The publisher asked me to change the summary to avoid giving away the ending.  My original sentence ended with something like: “…. before being reunited.”

This is by a colleague who has since retired, but I like it because she clearly used the fun-sounding ice cream cone’s description from the book.
lccn: 98046185
Margaret Mahy. Simply delicious!
A resourceful father engages in all kinds of acrobatic moves to keep an assortment of jungle creatures from getting the double-dip-chocolate-chip-and-cherry ice cream cone he is taking home to his son.
lccn: 2005029781
Alisa M. Libby. The blood confession.
Cursed at birth, the beautiful and ruthless young Erzebet becomes obsessed with achieving eternal youth and begins to bathe in the blood of virgin girls in order to preserve her beauty. Based on the life of the “Blood Countess,” who lived in Hungary in the 1500s.
An example of a second sentence, in addition to a creepy topic! I was fascinated by this book, and couldn’t stop reading it and thinking about it.
lccn: 2002031590
Andrew Matthews. The flip side.
Robert, a British fifteen-year-old, is confused when he plays the part of Rosalind while studying Shakespeare in school and discovers parts of his personality that he did not know existed.
lccn: 2002000590
Lisa Williams Kline. The princesses of Atlantis.
Twelve-year-old best friends Carly and Arlene write about twin princesses during the final, cataclysmic days of Atlantis in a story that parallels the growing tensions the two friends are experiencing in their lives.
I think I did a much better job here of describing the parallel stories than I did with Walk Two Moons. I was more experienced by 2002 when I did this one.

Me, circa 1982, rockin' some wings.

lccn: 2008025326
Robin Friedman. The importance of wings.
Although she longs to be an all-American girl, Roxanne, a timid, Israeli-born thirteen-year-old who idolizes Wonder Woman, begins to see things differently when the supremely confident Liat, also from Israel, moves into the “cursed house” next door and they become friends.
The wings in the title refer to the hair styles we wore in the 70s. [Yes, Ruth, I have to confess that “wings” are all too familiar to me. I wore them. See photo.]
lccn: 2004001400
Lucy A. Nolan. Smarter than squirrels.
Recounts the adventures of a rambunctious dog who thinks her name is Down Girl and her next door neighbor, Sit, as they try to keep the world safe from dangerous squirrels, the paper boy, and a frightening creature named Here Kitty Kitty.
This series of books is hilarious. I don’t think I managed to convey that so much in the summary, but I tried.
Two more “second sentence” examples.
lccn: 2009039748
Tom Angleberger. The strange case of Origami Yoda.
Sixth-grader Tommy and his friends describe their interactions with a paper finger puppet of Yoda, worn by their weird classmate Dwight, as they try to figure out whether or not the puppet can really predict the future. Includes instructions for making Origami Yoda.
Margaret Read MacDonald. How many donkeys? : an Arabic counting tale.
When Jouha counts the ten donkeys carrying his dates to market, he repeatedly forgets to count the one he is riding on, causing him great  consternation. Includes numbers written out in Arabic and in English transliteration, as well as the numerals one through ten, and a note on the origins and other versions of the story.
lccn: 2009016244
Kristin Clark Venuti. Leaving the Bellweathers.
In Eel-Smack-by-the-Bay, put-upon butler Tristan Benway writes a memoir of his years spent working for the chaotic and eccentric Bellweather family in their lighthouse, as he prepares for his long-awaited departure from indentured servitude.
I think this speaks for itself.
lccn: 2010012572
Ellen Potter. The Kneebone boy.
Otto, Lucia, and Max Hardscrabble, whose mother has been missing for many years, have unexpected and illuminating adventures in the village of Snoring-by-the-Sea after their father, who paints portraits of deposed monarchs, goes away on a business trip.
This one too.  When there are eccentric names that help set the tone and atmosphere of the story, I try to make sure I get at least one or two of them into the summary.
lccn: 2006000557
Frank Cottrell Boyce. Framed.
Dylan and his sisters have some ideas about how to make Snowdonia Oasis Auto Marvel into a more profitable business, but it is not until some strange men arrive in their small town of Manod, Wales with valuable paintings, and their father disappears, that they consider turning to crime.
lccn: 2009045047
R. A. Spratt. The adventures of Nanny Piggins.
When Mr. Green, a stingy widower with three children he cannot be bothered with, decides to find a nanny for his children, he winds up hiring a glamorous ex-circus pig who knows nothing about children but a lot about chocolate.
lccn: 2009008216
Micol Ostow. So punk rock (and other ways to disappoint your mother).
Four suburban New Jersey students from the Leo R. Gittleman Jewish Day School form a rock band that becomes inexplicably popular, creating exhiliration, friction, confrontation, and soul-searching among its members.
lccn: 2009018365
Andy Behrens. The fast and the furriest.
The overweight and unathletic son of a famous former football star discovers that his equally fat and lazy dog is unexpectedly–and obsessively–interested in competing in dog agility contests.

lccn: 2008052331
Jayne Lyons. 100% wolf.
At the time of his first transformation, a young werewolf of noble and proud ancestry is driven from his pack when, instead of turning into a fierce wolf, he changes into a little black poodle.
lccn: 2009025071
Troy Cummings. The Eensy Weensy Spider freaks out! (Big time).
Frightened after the scary waterspout incident, the Eensy Weensy Spider needs some encouragement from her friend the ladybug before she will try climbing again.
And that concludes our interview. Thanks so much to Ruth for her time and helpfulness and great good sense of humor. How much do we love those summaries?!
*** CONTEST***
Forget the Bulwer-Lytton; here’s the Summary Smash!

Craft an original one-sentence summary—you may not build yours upon the LC or publisher summaries—for any of these three books: Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, M.T. Anderson’s Feed, or E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. First-place winners will receive Kindles, Nooks, or iPads. Hahahahahaha! No, they won’t. They will win something of incalculable value: fame, glory, and the undying admiration of hundreds, nay thousands, of PW readers.
Grand Prize — Take the Ruth Polan Challenge: Come up with the one-line summary of Walk Two Moons Ruth most wishes she’d written, and we will send you a copy of Walk Two Moons signed by both Sharon Creech and Ruth Polan!

Winners will be announced in next Thursday’s Shelftalker.

Under-the-Radar Book of the Week: SCRAWL

Elizabeth Bluemle - November 16, 2010

As the year draws to a close, and I pull together the Flying Pig’s annual catalog, I think a lot about books I’ve loved that have flown under the radar, either critically speaking or with the broader reading public.
For a while, I was afraid that TR Simon and Victoria Bond’s unforgettable Zora and Me would top my under-the-radar list, but finally, the reviews started coming in, and then the New York Times featured it, so the recent surge of attention has allayed my fears. I think it’s an extraordinary book—beautifully written, wholly original, and rich in scope. I’m so glad it’s finally reaching its wider audience.
So, with Zora off my plate, I am going to talk about a terrific, funny YA novel called Scrawl. I’d met the author, Mark Shulman, at various writing conferences, so when he handed me an ARC of his debut YA novel in January, I was a little apprehensive, in that way we are in this field when someone we know gives us something to read. It can be awkward. What if we don’t like it?  So, to be honest, I put off reading Scrawl, even though I’d found Mark to be very funny and smart in person, which usually bodes well for writers, and even though it was a Neal Porter/Roaring Brook title (and therefore likely to be quite good), and even though I really liked the cover (refreshingly, not a photo of a teen). I also liked the set-up: a bad boy’s story, told from his point of view. I am a sucker for a good bad boy. Still, even with all that in its favor, the book got no attention from me for months, just guilty glances whenever I walked by.
Finally, avoidance gave way to suck-it-up-ness a few weeks ago, when I found out Mark would be at the Rochester Children’s Book Festival. It would be just plain rude not to read the book before running into him. So I picked it up and blam! read it in one sitting and loved it. I had so much fun reading Scrawl, in fact, that I’d read it again. And that is saying something for this ARC-laden bookseller.
So here’s how it goes: Tod Munn is in detention writing a journal for the benefit of Mrs. Woodrow, the guidance counselor charged with seeing him through his many weeks of afterschool punishment for various acts of bullying and mayhem. He doesn’t want to write about himself, but it was that or get sent to juvie. So Tod chooses, as the book trailer says, “to sit down every day … [and] scrawl his story in his crappy notebook in his smart-mouth way to write what it’s really like to be a bully.”
Tod has finagled his way to this indoor detention while his buddies (they call each other “droogs” à la A Clockwork Orange hooligans), are stuck doing yardwork and maintenance outside. Needless to say, this does not sit well with them, and their friendship begins to wear as Tod’s story — his real story — begins to change.
Tod is a smart, cynical, strong, confused teen who excels at self-protection, but, through the act of writing the journal — and falling for a girl — he starts to let his soul seep through the cracks. Not in an annoying, sappy way, but in a self-aware, extremely observant, and funny way. The voice is the absolute star of this book.
Other notable characters include the droogs (rough-hewn tough boys and one rich kid tough-guy wannabe, all of whom are more limited than Tod), Tod’s hardworking, unsentimental seamstress mother, his unpredictably grumpy stepdad, and, of course, the girl, a character loved by smart YA writer dudes the nation over: an unconventionally pretty, smart, nerdy-cool arty girl who knows herself, plays by her own rules, exudes confidence, and yet is reassuringly, accessibly misfit. In Scrawl, she sculpts and directs plays and manages to use the system without getting sucked in by it. She also manages to get Tod to provide costumes for the play, which leads to some harrowing and hilarious mishaps. Amid the action are very sweet moments of revelation and vulnerability.
Scrawl‘s Tod Munn is the funny brother of the main characters in Chris Lynch’s Who the Man (sadly OP at the moment), Watt Key’s Dirt Road Home, and Michael Northrop’s Gentlemen, misunderstood-bully books I also loved. Oh! And he’s chunky, and it’s just a thing, not a thing.

There’s something special about this book. It’s not that the plot elements are so brand-spankin’-new, and yes, there is some neatness to the outcome; but it’s all put together so pleasingly, with punch and wit and smarts, and in such a way that the events and characters stay with you, that I didn’t really care. The writing is swift and lively, and the scenes are vividly drawn. I’ll never forget Tod scavenging through clothes looking for costumes at the donation store, or in his chilly glass-walled porch room, or staring at the statue he admires so much.
If you or a teen you know is a fan of any of the books mentioned above, or, for that matter, Gary D. Schmidt’s The Wednesday Wars, give Scrawl a try. I think you’ll like it.
Nancy Werlin liked it, too. She said in a blurb on the ARC: “Scrawl is a fabulous, riveting read. Tod is probably the most interesting bad boy I’ve ever met in YA fiction, and Mark Shulman is certainly one of the best new voices.” I agree wholeheartedly.
I hope to add more favorite under-the-radar books in the upcoming weeks. What are yours?

Happy Birthday to Me

Josie Leavitt - November 15, 2010

Having to work on your birthday can be a bummer, but when you work at a bookstore it’s actually a lot of fun. Bookstores are like small neighborhoods, especially when your store is in a rural setting and you know everyone.
My birthday was Sunday and all day I had customers commenting on the gorgeous flowers on the counter (given to me by a staffer). Little kids were wishing me happy birthday (some I didn’t even know) and lots of folks were patient as I fielded happy birthday calls at the store. This was my 13th birthday at the Flying Pig. And with each one, more and more customers wish me well. Kids who weren’t born when we opened are dropping off cards and sending birthday wishes.
It’s days like this that remind me what a small and lovely community I’m privileged to work in. These people have become my extended family. They are the people I see every day when I get my coffee and my lunch. We all know each other’s names and are happy to share a hug in good news and in bad. I enjoyed the little pieces of cake that were dropped off and promised to share the pie that someone made for my surprise party. One thing that strikes me as funny every year is how no one, not one person has gotten me a book for my birthday or Christmas since we’ve been open. Of course that makes sense, but it saddens me a little, because my friends always introduced me to books I might otherwise have missed.
While 46 might feel old to me at times, the customers made this day one of true celebration, and that always makes you feel young.