Monthly Archives: November 2011

Rochester: Gold Standard of Children’s Book Festivals

Elizabeth Bluemle - November 10, 2011

Every November, around 45 children’s book authors and illustrators converge on Rochester, N.Y., prepared to greet 3,000-5,000 children and parents, teachers and librarians at an all-day festival. The Rochester Children’s Book Festival, now in its 15th year, is held at Monroe Community College, and it’s a miracle of solid planning and seamless execution.
The festival takes over rooms on two floors of the college. Downstairs is a craft room, where volunteers guide kids through all kinds of creative activities based on the books of the authors and illustrators upstairs. The festival’s second floor has several spaces: the main room with tables piled high with books set up for all of the visiting artists, next to a smaller room where the Lift Bridge Book Shop, which handles all of the sales for the festival, showcases additional merchandise like bookmarks, toys, light-up pens and other book-related temptations for young readers. There are also rooms for presentations and readings throughout the day.

Betsy Lewin greeting fans (photo by Elizabeth Vande Velde)

The atmosphere is bright and cheery and fun all day long, as attendees pour in through the front entrance and make their way around the aisles, stopping by the tables to explore all of the books. Three giant screens high on the walls show a loop of the visiting authors and illustrators and announce upcoming readings and lectures; between those screens and the excellent program guide (created by Herm and MJ Auch, who also design and maintain the festival’s website and manage the info for every author and illustrator), visitors are in no danger of missing out on anything.

Festival Directors Elizabeth Falk and Kathleen Blasi

The Festival’s directors, children’s book authors Elizabeth “Sibby” Falk and Kathleen Blasi, volunteer their time — which amounts to an unimaginable number of hours each year. What a labor of love! The volunteer coordinator, writer Barbara Underhill, directs 105 helpful folks, who do everything from unpack and set up books to shepherd authors to their presentations and readings and bring them coffee, water, snacks and anything else they need at their tables (staplers, tape) throughout the day. There’s an entire private section dedicated to lunch and snacks for the authors and illustrators, who sneak away for quick breaks during the day.
Some of this year’s line-up included Betsy and Ted Lewin, Jane Yolen, James Howe, Bruce Coville, Mary Downing Hahn, Cynthia DeFelice, Tedd Arnold, Ellen Wittlinger, and many, many other fine, famous, and fun folks. A full list (along with their individual websites) can be found here.

Author and Festival founder Vivian Vande Velde chats with young readers (photo by Elizabeth Vande Velde)

The Lift Bridge Book Shop gets a huge nod of appreciation for its amazing handling of the book sales. You booksellers know how complex offsite sales can be, and they have it down to a science. They have forms for participants who have brought extra copies of their books to sell. They note down what time a particular title of an author’s sells out. They have printouts of which titles and what quantity of stock left over at the end of the day, if any, they’d like you to autograph. It’s frankly the most impressive piece of offsite bookselling organization I’ve seen, and it’s wowed me three years in a row. (I have to say, I’m always delighted to be sitting on the author’s side of the table instead of the bookseller’s, at this event. We are treated so well, and have the easiest job of all: meeting and reading to kids and adult book lovers and signing their books.)
One of the most heartwarming things about the festival is its broad reach. Author Vivian Vande Velde, who founded the Rochester Children’s Book Festival 15 years ago, heads up an impressive program started by Carol Johmann called “Festival to Go,” which brings authors and illustrators into city schools. Sibby Falk explains: “There’s a volunteer group in our area called Altrusa. They buy books of the authors who go into the schools and donate those copies to the school’s library. With budget cuts, many or most of the city schools don’t get author visits and this brings them to the schools for free – again, all volunteer.”
I think it’s the volunteer spirit that makes this festival feel so special. A fly on the wall at the author gatherings on Friday and Saturday nights would have heard again and again how much we all love this festival, how special an ambiance it has, how full of joy and the love of books everyone is, from the tiniest wide-eyed toddler clutching a new book to the hardest-working bookstore staffer packing up after a long day.

Photo by Elizabeth Vande Velde

A postscript – after we all got home, we received wonderful news from Sibby and Kathy, who thanked us all so graciously for being part of the weekend, and then added, “We wanted to share with you that a community literary center in Rochester, Writers & Books, recently awarded the Rochester Children’s Book Festival their Writers & Books Big Pencil Award, which is presented to ‘individuals and organizations that have impacted the appreciation of literature and contributed significantly in the advancement, creation, and understanding of literature in the Rochester community.’ ” There was a collective email whoop of celebration from all of us, who had witnessed firsthand what this event means to its community.
The book – the physical book – is alive and well (and selling) in upstate New York. May all cities create children’s book festivals as full of spirit and the lively love of reading as Rochester.

The Little Things Mean a Lot

Josie Leavitt - November 9, 2011

Yesterday, I spent pretty much the entire day receiving doo-dads and trinkets. Boxes and boxes of them piled high in the back room needed to be entered in the computer, priced, and organized. The beauty of my job is that I have a partner who loves to set up these sidelines, so I just get them ready.
Sidelines have become a bigger part of the store’s inventory since we moved to our new location five years ago and finally had space for them. Every year we carry just a few more than we did the year before. The margin for these continues to best that of books and lately, there have been specials to help offset shipping which can be exorbitant.
This year, I’ve noticed that people have already begun buying holiday presents, including stocking stuffers. This amazes me. It’s barely November and some folks are already done with their Christmas shopping. If I bought a stocking now, there would be no way I’d remember where I’d hidden it come Christmas Eve. More power to the folks who plan that far ahead.
We’ve never had our doo-dads out this early, and it feels good. As I was putting them on the table and pricing them, co-workers came over and started playing with them. The best way to sell something is to be enthusiastic about it yourself. And literally within moments, someone had purchased a stocking stuffer.
While we’ll always be a bookstore, there is something really fun about carrying sidelines. They increase our sales margin, they can make the store seem more lively. and, more importantly, they’re fun.
We sell a parrot pen that’s a voice recorder. Ask my staff how many times between now and Christmas they’ll hear me sing, “Happy holidays” into the pen to demonstrate how much fun they are and they’ll say about a hundred. But just about every time I do that, someone buys a pen, and that makes for a very happy holiday.

A Visit from the Patersons

Josie Leavitt - November 7, 2011

This past Saturday we welcomed Vermont legend Katherine Paterson and her esteemed husband, John, for a lively event about their new book, The Flint Heart, their adaptation of Eden Phillpotts’s fantasy story from 1910. The Patersons were thrilled to be talking about their latest collaboration. They loved the story right away and together they edited it.
One of the questions that Katherine anticipated and included in her part of the presentation was, “What was it like to writing with your husband?” Katherine paused and said,”It’s a lot more fun writing with him than wallpapering with him.” This comment drew chortles from the crowd.
John explained how Margaret Mahy was instrumental in their writing the book. She choose The Flint Heart as a book that should be treasured for the next hundred years, when John posed that question to her. The Patersons then investigated the original work and together they made it the easy-flowing, great read-aloud that is. One thing John said was the original had chapter upon chapter of fairy listings and a detailed description of the flora and fauna, which he excised from the text to make it flow better. Katherine then worked to make sure the whole story hung together.
After their presentation we were all in for a glorious treat. Katherine read a chapter to us. We’ve had lots of folks read their works before, but never with such conviction, joi de vivre and grand fun. The audience was rapt. Kids leaned cozily against parents, adults just tipped forward in their seats. Really, it was a memory in the making.
Katherine spoke about her other new book — honestly, how many authors go on tour for two books simultaneously — Brother Sun, Sister Moon: Saint Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Creatures, which was just named one of the top 10 illustrated books of the year by the New York Times. Katherine told a fascinating story about this book and a big chain store, which she gave me permission to retell here (I’ll always love her a little more for this). 
It seems the buyer “thought the art was too sophisticated” so they passed on the book entirely. Really? Does a buyer ever just pass on anything written by Katherine Paterson? So, since the release date of June, the book has not been in any of the chain’s stores. Until Thursday. Apparently, being chosen as a New York Times Best Illustrated gets you a direct line to the store shelves. Katherine thought the whole thing was amusing, especially now since they’ve ordered hundreds.
Katherine let me take a moment and explain to the attendees what this scenario points out. Chain stores are not bad. What’s bad is one person is making decisions for hundreds of stores. So one buyer, as Katherine tells it, didn’t like the book, so no one who shopped at a that chain would be able to buy it because of that one person’s opinion. That’s a really powerful set-up.
The independents have more eyes looking at things and are not making decisions for the entire country, therefore they can take more chances on books. Each indie knows its market and can decide for itself whether or not to carry a book. The real problem arises when chain stores are essentially controlling editorial content: change the title, change the cover, put more photographs of real kids on every YA novel, etc. Anyway, Katherine was gracious about me and my soapbox and all but one of our copies of Brother Sun, Sister Moon sold at the event.
As customers browsed among all Katherine’s books, I was struck not only by the breadth of her writing, but the reaction people have when they regard her titles. Moms were touching Bridge to Terabithia  and then their hearts, as if relieving the book again. A young man of 10 or so had a stack of five books; they ranged from a picture book to a chapter book, a middle grade novel and a young adult novel. His mom made him focus on one book, and he choose the one that he had been clutching the hardest, The Flint Heart. And then the mom made a quick secret list of what he’d been holding and thrust it at me to set aside. All in all, a good day.

The Holiday Book(s) Your Family Can’t Do Without

Josie Leavitt - November 3, 2011

I know it seems early to be thinking about Christmas books, but folks have been hankering for them at the store the past few weeks. So, we dutifully set up a small display (I refuse to go whole hog until the first hard frost) the other day. As I looked at the books I started thinking about my family favorites. The books we read as children and the books I read every year with my family.
I think the book that we always go to is A Child’s Christmas in Wales. My partner and I take turns reading the book aloud while one of us cooks or wraps presents. The gorgeous language captivates us each time. It’s a lovely tradition and one we try to take time for every year.
The Story of Holly and Ivy with its glorious illustrations is a lovely picture book to share during the holidays. Every year it seems we always run out of this book about an orphan searching for family, a doll yearning for a girl, and a couple wishing for a child to share Christmas with.
One of our store’s bestselling holiday picture books is also one of our favorites. Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree tells the story of a too-tall Christmas tree and the folks, and mice, who each get part of it as their tree. The rhyming text is great for littler kids and the illustrations are best described as jaunty and fun. This book is perfect with hot chocolate with marshmallows that are just starting to melt.
One of my all-time favorites is  How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I think folks sometimes forget that it was a book first, before the cartoon. The language of this Seuss classic has stayed with me my whole life – I feel like I could recite it from memory, I’ve heard it so often. A great book to read to the kids before you see the film.
I also love The Night Before Christmas. One of the beauties of this book is every year at least one or two newly illustrated versions come out, so I can add to my collection if there’s one that I particularly love. And lastly, The Tree of the Dancing Goats is one that gets read every year with my nephews, who celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah. This lovely story of friendship celebrates both religious holidays in a joyful way, and, I always try to make sure that we’ve got latkes when we’re done reading.
Readers, please share with us what some of your family holiday reading traditions are. And while it does seem awfully early to think about holiday books, by sharing now, you’ll give some of us booksellers a little more time to get those treasures in our stores.

Events and Candy

Josie Leavitt - November 2, 2011

We are blessed with customers who like to thank us. Sometimes, we get notes in the mail saying how much a book has touched a customer, or folks stop me in the market to say thanks. I love all of this. It reminds me why I work at an indie bookstore.
This past week we had two people thank us with food. The first was a woman whose daughter was finishing her internship at the Shelburne Museum. Denise had been telling her mom about the store since May when she first came in. We connected easily over books and she was very excited about our event with Judith Jones. And so was her mother, who planned a trip to visit from Virginia the weekend of the event.
This past weekend Denise and her mom (who was back to help Denise move back home) came into the store to say goodbye. But also, Denise’s mom had to share something with me. She wiped back a tear as she told me how much meeting Judith Jones meant to her and how moving she found the event. Honestly, that was more than enough to make my day, but then she said she had a little something for us. She made us a pound of homemade toffee candy with nuts and chocolate. The staff was in heaven. For her to have gone to the trouble to make toffee was as moving as it was delicious.
Then another customer came in with a note and gift. She practically fled as she handed it to me. I opened it to find a container of candy corn and a lovely note. We had sold books at the David Sedaris event earlier in the month when he came to Burlington. Part of our contract was having a raffle for four front-row seats. Debbie had won a pair. In her note she said how necessary it was to just laugh and how intense it was to have David Sedaris “right there in front of me.” I’m not sure what was going in her life, but I got the sense the Sedaris event made it all better for a little while.
These two women reminded me of the power of bookstore events. Events create richness;  people can meet lifelong heroes, spend an evening forgetting what’s troubling them, or just spend a spirited night discussing books. And if folks want to thank me with some candy, well, that’s just a sweet bonus.