Monthly Archives: August 2011

Josie and the Wonderful, Delightful, Not Bad, Very Good Day

Elizabeth Bluemle - August 12, 2011

Lest you lovely readers take too much pity on us this week, given yesterday’s post, let’s end the week by celebrating something fantastic: Josie’s recent tie as Best Vermont Stand-Up Comedian!

Click on this pic for the online article.

Vermont’s hip weekly arts paper, Seven Days, runs a readers’-choice award contest every year for everything from Best Restaurant to Best Radio Station to Best Vermont Spa. This year was the first time they’ve had a category for stand-up comedy, and Josie shares the debut honor with Rusty DeWees, aka “The Logger,” a multi-talented one-man show performer.
There’s a reason the Best Stand-Up Comic award is so new; until about eight years ago, there wasn’t much of a comedy scene in Burlington. One of the major hotels booked comics out of North Carolina, but that was it apart from some terrific performance artists like Rusty DeWees and Woody Keppel. Then, something shifted in the zeitgeist, and I have to say that Josie was a big part of that.
A stand-up comic in New York City, Josie had had a terrific burgeoning career before I dragged her to Vermont. Even though she loved bookselling, she missed performing. So a few years after opening the store, Josie started teaching stand-up comedy for FlynnArts, the education arm of Burlington’s Flynn Center for the Performing Arts. That was in 2005, and by now, something like 80% of all stand-up comics in Burlington have taken her class. Okay, I made up that statistic, but it seems pretty close. She also started a stand-up comedy performance series at the FlynnSpace called Stand Up, Sit Down, and Laugh — the Flynn’s longest-running performance series to date. She founded The Vermont Comedy Divas, a group of very funny women, and she’s put together two one-woman shows, “Piece of Cake” and “Horrified, But Laughing.”
Can you tell I’m proud? While Josie is an ace bookseller and all-around phenomenal human being, it’s my opinion that she was truly put on this planet to perform stand-up. If you ever have the chance to see her perform, I suspect you’ll agree. She’s in her element on stage: relaxed, smart, quick, funny as hell — one of those rare performers you never have to worry about, and one of those even rarer comics who has you laughing at almost every line. That’s a huge gift, and I get to benefit from it every day — which is especially lucky when you’ve had a week like we have.
So please join me in congratulating my best friend, partner, and one of the funniest people on the planet! Or, heck, come see her perform on September 13.
P.S. Funny children’s-literature link: author Kate Messner’s husband, Tom Messner, also won a Seven Daysie as the state’s finest meteorologist! He’s won the award six years in a row, and there’s no question he’s the best. Congrats, Tom! That’s one talented family.

Josie and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Josie Leavitt - August 11, 2011

I had the day off on Tuesday. I was anticipating a busy day, filled with completed tasks, both large and small. What I got was an astounding melange of ever-increasing, unbelievable calamities. I’ve included book covers throughout this post from books where characters face funny disasters, some of their own making and some they just find themselves in, because by the end of the day I felt like I had lived them all.
The day began as most of my mornings do, with breakfast at 5 a.m. for my two dogs.  My 13-year-old dog, Theo, just couldn’t settle down; he paced and paced the bedroom and would run downstairs. I followed him because I thought he needed to go out. He went outside, but nothing happened. I went back upstairs. This pattern repeated itself three times before I just gave in and stayed up. His increasing discomfort was starting to really alarm me. In the years I’ve owned this dog, he’s only vocalized pain once and that was after I ran over his foot while in an office chair. He started howling that morning, and I knew something really bad was going on.
I put Theo in the car and raced to my vet’s office, thankful that they open early. I was driving fast, very fast, and not paying attention to anything until I noticed a police car from another town, parked in a driveway. Rather than think, “Oh, I better slow down.” I just kept looking at the cruiser, wondering why a cop from three towns over would be in my town. I passed him and then he put on his blue lights. I was not surprised, really. But I did something that I had no control over. I started to cry. Not because I was afraid of the cop, but because I knew this was going to take a long time. Honestly, has anyone ever gotten in a ticket in less than 10 minutes? I found my license, but had the wrong registration. I told him why I was speeding (I’ve been pulled over four times and every time I admit to speeding I didn’t get a ticket). I actually asked him if he could just mail me the ticket, so I could keep driving. He took pity on me and let me go.
Once at the vet’s it was clear the dog was really sick. Turns out he had bloat which can be a devastatingly fast killer of dogs. Theo was whisked into a surgery; the vet told me he might not survive because of his age. I went home fearing the worst. During this waiting time I got a phone call from the spa where I had booked a fun day-off massage. They were calling wondering where I was. I apologetically explained about the dog, paid for the missed massage and thought that was the end of it. But the owner called me back to literally yell at me for not calling to cancel. Wow. Was I supposed to remember about a massage when my dog was in life or death surgery? I reminded her I paid for the missed appointment and suggested we leave it at that. But no, later that day, I actually got an angry email from her demanding to know if I’d have called a doctor or dentist to cancel an appointment in the same situation. I wrote back no and suggested that since I would never go to her spa again, she stop writing me.
This exchange brought home the point about customer service. The benefit of the doubt should always be given to customers. It’s not like I was trying to steal a massage. I just couldn’t go and forgot to call. To be berated after doing the right thing is pointless and just ruins the relationship. Had she handled it better and been more understanding about my situation, I might be inclined to go there again.  This reminded me that every once in a while people have good reasons for the things they do, even if it hurts our business.
The vet called around 11 and said Theo did great and that we could pick him up at five. This week we are moving my partner’s father’s to an assisted living facility near us, so while I was waiting to pick the dog up, I went over to his apartment to get Bob packed up a little. He’s been in the hospital, so I had free run of the apartment. I should mention that Bob is a magician, so every suitcase I picked up had false bottoms and collapsible sides. Snakes popped out of cans and I fully expected to see rabbits and doves to appear in hats.
What I wasn’t expecting was the bowling ball. I moved what I thought was a joke paint can and for some reason, a 10-pound bowling ball fell out of the paint can, onto my little toe, from a height of a foot, breaking my little toe.
I was starting to feel like my day had become unhinged. There’s that part in The Cat and the Hat that always makes me anxious. It’s right at the height of the mess-making. I never had any faith the Cat would clean up, and the kids would get in trouble for something they had no control over. My day was feeling remarkably like that.
I brought Theo home and he was doing fantastically well. That night as I hopped around the yard on one good foot with Theo (my little toe having swollen to such a degree no shoe I owned could accommodate it), making sure he was actually moving his bowels, I kept thinking of The Voyage to the Bunny Planet, and hoped that tomorrow I would have a shot at the “the day that should have been.”

Kate Messner and Eric Luper: Solid Gold Middle-Grade

Elizabeth Bluemle - August 10, 2011

It wasn’t so long ago that folks in the children’s book field were lamenting a perceived shortage of terrific non-fantasy middle-grade fiction. Mysteries, adventures, humorous and realistic contemporary stories — all were being sought after by editors. Now, I think it’s safe to say, deep inroads have been made toward that goal. In the past couple of years, I have noticed a new surge of energy and life in MG fiction. At the Flying Pig, we recently had a chance to celebrate two delightful new additions to the genre by MG practitioners Kate Messner and Eric Luper.
Both Kate and Eric are seasoned writers with several novels under their belts, but their recent releases mark new territory for both. Messner’s spunky Marty McGuire strikes a chord with her youngest MG audience yet, and Luper’s Jeremy Bender vs. the Cupcake Cadets is the YA author’s first venture south of the 12-and-up border. Both books are charming, funny, absolutely solid middle-grade novels with utter kid appeal. They embody exactly what editors have been looking for!
I feel the need to insert my FOA (friend of the author) disclaimer here. I know both Kate Messner and Eric Luper pretty well by now, and consider them friends. This can also be said of, oh, about two or three hundred other children’s book and YA authors. Children’s literature is a smallish field, and a friendly one, and when you’ve been in it as long as I have (fifteen years at the bookstore, three years as a school librarian before that), you’re bound to assemble a long list of pals. However, friendship does not dull my literary faculties, and you can be certain that I’m no easier on the books of people I know than I am of authors I’ve never met. In fact, any bias probably works in the other direction, since I’m vigilant (some might say, paranoid) about not showing favoritism. The books must stand on their own merit. All this is to say that if I like or love a book in this blog or anywhere else, I like or love the book, period. And now, back to the rest of the post.

Kate reads from Marty McGuire as Eric listens, rapt.

Luper entertains with Jeremy Bender vs. The Cupcake Cadets

Marty McGuire follows the misadventures of a wonderfully appealing, mud- and frog-loving third-grader (think this generation’s Ramona Quimby) who, despite her fervent protestation, gets cast as the princess in her class’s performance of The Frog Prince. The writing is so funny, and the characters so human and real and lovable; it really does make you feel like you’re discovering another Ramona. Kids are LOVING this book, and — one of the sure signs of writerly success — actually groan and whine when they hear that they have to wait until 2012 for the sequel. This is a gem of a middle-grade book! Give it to your Clementine and Ivy & Bean fans, too.
Jeremy Bender vs. the Cupcake Cadets steers right for a middle-grade boy’s humor wheelhouse. (Yes, that was sexist of me, but I stand by it.) Two best friends wreck something valuable on a preciously cared-for boat, and have to raise money — in the hundreds of dollars — to fix it before Jeremy’s dad discovers the mess. The solution? Disguise themselves as girls in order to enter a model-sailboat race (only eligible Cupcake Cadets may apply) and try to win the $500 prize, of course. What could be a mere riot of stereotypes or a Bosom Buddies rehash deepens as it broadens, sneaking in a lot of insight about life and friends and girls and boys, through the eyes of a sixth-grader. That’s Jeremy, I mean, and not Eric Luper. Although….

Luper (far left) and Messner (far right) and some of their fans, with celeb glasses. Photo from

A sneak peek at Messner's gorgeous Fall 2011 picture book, Over and Under.

The great thing about having Kate and Eric to a bookstore is that they both give great event. Kate is a full-time seventh-grade teacher in addition to being a prolific and talented author and blogger and Tweeter (Josie and I are convinced she’s actually from an advanced planet), so she knows exactly how to hook a room full of kids and hold their attention. At the Flying Pig event, Kate was also presenting her recent picture book, Sea Monster’s First Day, and it doesn’t hurt that part of her presentation for that story involves an

Autographing silly books is serious business. Photo by Ella Messner.

actual photo of the strange lake creature she and her family (and seventy other astounded witnesses) saw in Lake Champlain some years ago. Eric is also a gifted author. His YA novels are fantastic (Bug Boy, Seth Baumgartner’s Love Manifesto, Big Slick). He’s equally at ease with groups of kids and adults, and he gives a really funny reading. He manages to come off as both relaxed and energetic; we’re not sure exactly how he pulls that off, but it’s great for author events. He’s also really smart about book promotion and has great ideas for how to take an event to the next level.
It’s been fun for me to see the rise of a whole new crop of middle-grade authors who neither try to nudge MG into tween and teen-land nor patronize their young readers. Kate Messner and Eric Luper are wonderful examples of writers who get it right.
Who are some of your favorite new additions to the middle-grade genre?

Contemporary Books I Wish I’d Read as a Kid

Josie Leavitt - August 8, 2011

It dawned on me as I was shelving throughout the store the other day, that there are some great books for books for kids out now that I would have loved as a kid. I’m not complaining about what I read as a kid, but man, there are books I would have devoured had they been written in the 1970s and early 1980s. I liked animal stories where all the animals lived (not a huge supply of that back then), adventures, and silly books like the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle series to name a few.
First off, the concept of waiting for the next book in the series didn’t seem to exist when I was growing up. Sure there were authors whose books I always read, but there were no midnight release parties or a slow build to the release of a particular book. I think that kind of fanfare could have really appealed to me. So, I think the entire Harry Potter series would have captivated me and been something I’d reread as often as my nephew does. Imagine coming to that series as a kid? What fun to explore that world and grow up with Harry.
Rebecca Rupp’s The Dragon of Lonely Island would have me rapt, I’m sure. The Penderwicks would have my relatively boring summers feel more full of fun.  I think I would have struggled a bit with The Golden Compass, but would have loved it at the end and waited patiently for the series as I did when it came out.
In the YA genre there are so many great books that it’s hard to pick which books I would have loved, but it’s safe to say that among my favorites, the ones my friends and I would have shared back and forth (the way we did with everything by Judy Blume), there would be some Sarah Dessen, Jenny Han, Ellen Wittlinger and John Green books.
But the books that might have just rocked my world, in a good way, would have been the ones with openly gay characters such as: Empress of the World, Rainbow High, Kissing Kate and Boy Meets Boy. It’s sad to say that there was nothing for a questioning kid to read at my high school. Annie on My Mind didn’t come out until right before senior year, and my school did not even stock it in the library.
So, readers, I’m very curious about what books you would have loved to read as a kid?

Apostrophes Don’t Mean, “Here Comes an S!”

Elizabeth Bluemle - August 5, 2011

Okay, people, I can’t stand it any longer. Something’s got to give, and please let it not be my overloaded brain. One of the problems with the ubiquity of the Internet is that it exponentially speeds up the transmission of errors, especially spelling mistakes, grammatical misuse, punctuation ignorance and abuse. Clearly, these socially transmitted diseases are on the rise, and it’s up to us book people and pedants to start spreading prophylactics among the masses before it’s too late. Because — and here’s my main beef relevant to ShelfTalker’s concerns — the STDs are starting to show up in edited publications, books and online articles and ads, indicating that even the copyeditors who are supposed to be trained specialists in these matters are starting to slide down the slippery slope of popular adoption.
Far too many novels for children these days contain uncorrected mistakes like “Me and her went to the store;” “I just wanted to lay down and cry;” “Between you and I;” “He told her and I that….” There are a few exceptions, I suppose. I do concede that “It’s me” rests more easily on the ear than “It is I,” especially when the character saying it is 10 years old. But I don’t buy the argument that dialogue won’t sound believably kid-like if it’s actually grammatically correct. Read any book by Natalie Babbitt or E.B. White or Norton Juster, and you’ll be reassured that good grammar wielded well is invisible and takes a back seat to story and character every single time. Whereas I can’t even finish an easy reader in which a talking animal says “I’m taller than her.” No, you’re not! I’m not asking authors to use unnatural-sounding constructions; “I’m taller than she” would of course sound absurd to this era’s children. But “I’m taller than she is” is correct, unobtrusive, and doesn’t perpetuate bad grammar among a group of children trying to learn it for the first time. Aaargggh!
A recent book promotion ad online for an adult novel mentioned “the Brother’s Grimm” (especially irksome, since I think the author meant to reference Hans Christian Andersen), and that’s when my patience snapped. An apostrophe actually means something in a word: it indicates missing letters (as in “can’t” for “cannot” or “it’s” for “it is”), indicates possessive case (“the girl’s penchant for proper usage”), or (and this is debatable, and likely where the problem started) can indicate the plural of something that isn’t actually a word, such as “the 1980’s” or “Mind your p’s and q’s.” What an apostrophe doesn’t mean is, “There’s an S at the end of the word, so I guess I’d better throw in this random mark in case it’s correct.”
When was the last time you met someone who confidently (and properly) used the verb “lie” instead of “lay,” or knew the difference between “Molly and I” and “Molly and me?” (cf. quickie explanations of lie/lay and  I/me, she/her, he/him. Here’s one for “between you and I.“) There are countless websites trying to stem the tide of ignorance; a good one-stop-shopping site is the University of Northern Iowa’s Welcome to Dr. Grammar FAQ page. And let’s not even get into the whole your/you’re mess. Why why WHY is it so hard to understand that “you’re” = “you are?” (In fact, click here to enjoy many errors amusingly exemplified and summarily dealt with, such as loose/lose, there/they’re/their, etc.) And there are wonderful books out there that make this so easy on us writers: Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss (heck, get the kids’ version, if you want to cut to the basics). Elements of Style by Strunk & White (this edition illustrated by Maira Kalman). Or my very favorite, The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: A Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed by Karen Elizabeth Gordon.
I know I’m not alone in my frustration, and I also know that many wonderful writers have a little more of a c’est la vie attitude about grammar. (Stephen Fry has a fun YouTube video about lightening up on the grammar policing.) But there’s a difference between changing language to better serve its users, and simple ignorance that exchanges error for correct usage when both are equally easy to use.
What say you?

Tomie dePaola: Wilder Award Winner and Grand Poobah of Brunch

Elizabeth Bluemle - August 4, 2011

One small slice of the dePaola home magic.

It was everything you’d hope for from the home of an artist like Tomie dePaola: a bright, clean, beautiful, whimsical space, chock-full of colorful artwork and icons and tchotchke. A home populated with meaningful items yet somehow uncluttered, utterly restful to the eye. The group of bookish folks who had gathered there for brunch took in the artful home and the magnificent lawn and landscaping, and murmured to one another, “I think we’re living wrong.” We threatened to set up permanent camp—and that was even before we’d tasted the scrumptious brunch.

Tomie with Wilder Award committee members Andrew Medlar and Martha Vaughan Parravano.

We were in New Hampshire to celebrate the latest feather in the talented Tomie’s multiply bedecked cap: the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, which, in the words of the sponsoring American Library Association, “honors an author or illustrator whose books, published in the United States, have made, over a period of years, a substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children.” Only 18 children’s book authors and illustrators have won this prestigious lifetime achievement medal since its inception in 1954. (If you’re doing the math, you’ll quickly realize this is not an annual award. Initially, it was given out every five years, then every three. Currently, every two years, a new recipient joins the lofty fold.)
Tomie’s 200+ books certainly have made an inarguably substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children, from the endearing and enduring Tomie dePaola’s Mother Goose to the iconic Caldecott Honor recipient Strega Nona to the charming Newbery Honor book 26 Fairmount Avenue. Tomie dePaola’s legacy is so rich and well appreciated that one of the Laura Ingalls Wilder committee members present confided to me, “We were shocked he hadn’t already won this award!” One of the most pleasing aspects of the brunch, in fact, was the sheer delight radiated by the award committee members at having chosen such a worthy recipient.

Booksellers Suzy Staubach (r.) and friend add their beauty to the lawn.

I’ve never been to a book function quite like this one — it had the intimacy of a small gathering for close friends and family, yet had big book-bash flair. The guest list included booksellers, librarians, art gallery owners, local community members whose work brings them in contact with Tomie (for instance, a woman from a nearby theatre which serves as a venue for some of Tomie’s book events), a Concord journalist.


It was a wonderful gathering on a perfect, sunny New England summer day. As you might imagine from the joy and heart and warmth and beauty found in Tomie’s books, those elements ruled the brunch itself. We were abundantly fed, easily and graciously hosted. There were even four special cocktails created for the occasion (The Wilder Champagne Cocktail, for example, consisted of Proseco and Wild Blueberry, Raspberry, and Blackberry Puree) . Honestly, Martha Stewart could have taken lessons from the perfection of this occasion. Not a detail was left un-thought of; I have a hunch much of the credit here goes to Tomie’s impeccably organized assistant, Bob Hechtel.
Frankly, the only thing missing was a peacock sweeping its tail grandly along the lawn. For all I know, there was one, sleeping up in a Strega Nona tree….
Oh! And I am delighted to have learned that a new Strega Nona title will be coming out this October: Strega Nona’s Gift. Josie does most of the picture book buying for the store, so she had a chance to see this with our rep, but it was news to me.
Please feel free to chime in with your own congratulations to Tomie dePaola or any thoughts on books of his that have meant something special to you and yours.
I will leave you with a few more images from last weekend. (I took 129 photos in all; needless to say, I have had to restrain myself here.)

Love the colors and this portrait by Tomie.

Another alluring room.

Don't miss the high loft under the skylight, perfect for curling up with a book.

Impossible to do justice to this room and wall! Say, is that a flying pig in the top arch?

Note giant white candle (designed by Tomie) between benches.

Everywhere, miniature worlds in which to get lost.

So many Tomie creations all around....

Fell in love with these bluebirds.

Local candlemakers turn Tomie's art into fire.So pretty.

Must get outside!

Love tiny Stonehenge….

Guests in the gazebo.

Walkway up to the pool.

Restful gardens.

So many places to explore.

Tomie re-enacts waiting for the award phone call.

Smiling with our most congenial host. (Photo by Bob Hechtel)


“She’s Not a Strong Reader”

Josie Leavitt - August 2, 2011

It amazes me how often parents just make blanket statements in the store, in front of other customers. Yesterday, this very earnest, friendly teenager, maybe 14 or so, was busily looking at the Young Adult section. She’d bring up a book to the counter and ask if we had it in paperback. We didn’t. Or if we had the first in the series, we didn’t. It seems every teenage girl had been devouring Jenny Han and Carrie Jones this weekend and our restock shipment had not come in yet.
She resisted help at first. But after two failed attempts to get the book she wanted, she finally let me help her. I got her a wonderful stack of Libba Bray and Sarah Dessen and left her alone, only to have her mother announce to me, “She’s not a strong reader.” As if that explained why her daughter was taking her time to choose the right book.
I cannot say enough how much this irritates and saddens me. As someone who grew up “not a strong reader” until I was 10 or so, I can recall the sting of hearing that from careless teachers. But to have a parent just blurt it out in the middle of a crowded store in front of siblings must be terrible. I told the mom her daughter was picking great, age-appropriate books. She sighed and said, “She just has the hardest time finishing a book.”
I told the mom that there are lots of reasons kids don’t finish books, mostly it’s because they just don’t like them. Not liking a book and being a poor reader are not the same thing. Some kids need more time to choose books, and that can seem like indecision, which makes some parents anxious. This young woman was the opposite of “not a strong reader.” She carefully choose books, reading the back and the first few pages of each book. Strong readers do this. They are deliberate in what they want to read. She would pop to the register and ask me questions about several titles and then just as fast would retreat to the happy world of our YA section.
She paid for her Sarah Dessen book with her own money, kept the receipt, and gently hugged the book to her chest. She smiled as she left the store. I noticed that she had started  reading on the way out the door.

Untitled by Anonymous

Josie Leavitt - August 1, 2011

When I  got an email with the above subject, I couldn’t help but laugh. The vagueness was not cleared up by reading the email. My Hachette rep, bless his heart, did his best to include more information by including a sell sheet with the email. Sadly, it didn’t help clear up the matter.
The email said, “The inside story of life with one of the most controversial figures of our time.” Maybe I’m feeling a little too cynical, but that “figure” could be any one of at least 20 people I can think of. Some I care enough about to want to sell this behemoth in my store (only 10 books per carton), and others I wouldn’t want gracing the front door of my shop.
I can’t help but wonder how this no-info allowed marketing campaign is going to do anything more than irritate.  It’s a little crazy to ask all the book buyers to hope this controversial figure will sell in their market. I mean really, how can you justify buying a book when you know absolutely nothing about it? Publisher hype aside, I just cannot do it, and I may get caught short come the release date.
Of course I’m curious. But this is the different from the Oprah books of the past. Those books had a solid sales history, regardless of the author. It was the brand that sold these, so I put up with ordering a book whose title and author I did not know. It is helpful to know that there will be a massive marketing campaign. But I can’t help but feel a little bullied into buying this book, and that feeling is not making me predisposed to ordering a carton of what may be an ENORMOUS BOOK.
I can’t imagine trying to ask a customer in the store to pre-order this book. “Well, I have no idea what this is about and I have no idea who wrote it, but I think you should special order it. I hear it’s going to be a huge deal.” I can’t think of anyone who would buy the book based on that.
If you want to build hype on a book, let booksellers read it ahead of time, let us get excited about the author team and subject matter, and make us want to get this book in the hands of all of our customers. But telling me nothing about the book is just plain silly.