Monthly Archives: October 2012

High Wind Shopping

Josie Leavitt - October 31, 2012

On Monday of this week, when hurricane Sandy was screaming towards the New York City area, we got a call in the morning from a woman asking about our website. Kelly, my co-worker, started talking to Cara about how to navigate the website and in the course of the conversation, Cara shared that she was in Long Beach, N.Y., poised to get a solid hit from Sandy. Kelly helped Cara figure out where the Jason Chin books were on the website and wished her luck through the storm.
Later in the afternoon, when the winds were just starting to pick up in Vermont, Cara, a librarian at a Hasidic elementary school, called again. She ordered two books from Jason Chin. It seems that Jason had been to her school and done a great school visit. This is no surprise to me. We had Jason earlier in the year and he was great. (Here’s the post we did about his visit.) Cara’s problem was that two of the student-signed books were misspelled and she wanted to replace them.
When I spoke to Cara I asked where the school was and she said Long Beach. I asked about her weather and she said, “It’s horrible here. My school was under four feet of water from Irene, and this is worse.” She was calling on her cell phone because she had already lost power.
I couldn’t help but ask her why she was calling during a hurricane to place a book order. She laughed and said, “This order has been bothering me and I wanted to get it right. Plus, it keeps my mind off what’s happening.” I was stunned, but I understood. Her desire to get those books signed correctly seemed to symbolize hope. If the books were signed properly and back in the kids; hands, all would be well. Cara just had to get the process rolling before she could relax.
I haven’t had a chance to connect with Cara since Monday, but I’ll keep trying and let everyone know how she and her school fared in the storm. Here’s hoping she’s okay and she and New York get back to normal very soon.

Weathering the Storm

Elizabeth Bluemle - October 29, 2012

With wild weather descending on the East Coast, it might be a good time to stock up on candles and battery-powered camping lanterns, and gather some good books for reading with the family.
First, though, a little extra preparedness isn’t a bad idea. If you’ve got kids, there’s a helpful handout called the “Parents’ Guide for Helping Children in the Wake of Disaster” that addresses the kinds of questions and concerns and (often unexpressed) fears children feel during scary events. One hint: limit TV exposure to coverage of the event; that can whip even stoic adults into major anxiety, so imagine what it can do to sensitive kids, who don’t have much breadth of life experience weathering natural disasters. If you have young children, you might also want to check out the Sesame Street episode where Big Bird and Gordon get ready for a hurricane in the neighborhood.
And now, on to the reading! About 15 years ago, when an ice storm hit Vermont, the power in our town was out for seven days. Josie and I put on ice cleats and dragged sleds of firewood up to our nearest neighbor, who was at home with four young kids, her husband stranded out of town on business. We cooked on our outdoor grill, heated water for bathing on top of our soapstone woodstove, and read by candlelight. Although it was a major pain in the neck to lose power, Vermont is a better place for that than many areas; most people have wood-burning stoves or fireplaces for heat sources, are used to keeping extra supplies on hand, and neighbors are great about checking in on one another, especially elderly folks.
People complained most about not being able to use their computers, but the outages ‘forced’ an unaccustomed together time for families. Gathered together in the afternoons and evenings, they played card games, read books aloud to the whole family, sang along to guitar or piano — old-fashioned, Waltons-y kinds of entertainment long abandoned in the computer age. And when the lights came back a week later, kids cried. We heard this from so many parents, surprised by how much their kids wanted to spend time with them, and frankly astonished at how much their children loved being unplugged. They felt the peacefulness of their homes, so quiet without the electric hum of appliances and computers in every room, and the slowed pace of the days. They loved the soft light of candles. They drank in the sense of increased community. (Small towns in Vermont are not weak on community, mind you, so this was especially remarkable.) And they loved loved loved being read to. Here was a perfect excuse for teenagers to allow themselves to settle back and listen to stories they might ordinarily dismiss, books they’d loved in younger years that make for great all-ages family reading.
Here are some of the books we find customers gravitating toward during times natural or national disaster. These never seem to go out of style; they are comfort food in book form, both light and deep, and draw in members from the entire range of the age spectrum.
The Ramona books by Beverly Cleary
Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and others in the series by Judy Blume
Swallows and Amazons and subsequent titles by Arthur Ransome
The Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle series by Betty MacDonald
The Great Brain series by John D. Fitzgerald
A Barrel of Laughs, A Vale of Tears by Jules Feiffer
The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White
The Squire’s Tale and others in the series by Gerald Morris
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
By the Great Horn Spoon by Sid Fleischman
The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pène du Bois
And a Flying Pig favorite many don’t know about: The Old Man Mad About Drawing by François Place.
So in the next few days, hunker down and cozy up. May you and your loved ones and your pets weather the storm with the evidence of damage being candle stubs burned low by late-night reading, preferably together. Stay safe, everyone.

Casting a Shadow

Elizabeth Bluemle - October 26, 2012

I must have been channeling former ShelfTalker blogger Alison Morris the other night, because I was (a) trolling and (b) finding literary goodies there. I came across some particularly tasty morsels in the form of shadow puppets inspired by children’s books. Based in Rotterdam in the Netherlands, IsabellasArt features laser-cut black silhouettes, beautifully detailed.

A couple of years ago, Sarah Lamstein came for an author visit at the Flying Pig, and brought her extraordinary shadow puppet theatre to bring her book, Letter on the Wind: A Chanukah Tale, to life. (Her puppets were not from this artist, but were also striking..)The children were enchanted, and so were the adults. There is something very very old in a fairy-tale way, almost atavistic in feeling, about shadow puppets, and even the most technologically savvy kids find them magical.

Here are a few familiar characters from Isabella’s amazing laser designs:







The Etsy shop’s website gives a little info about the artist: “Isabella is a 25 year old artist who specializes in portraying myths, legends, superstition, folk songs and all other things related to folklore. She does this by depicting these stories and songs in her works of art: drawings, shadow puppets, paper-cuts, books and articles.”
These would make terrific additions to special story hours in bookstores, libraries, and classrooms — heck, even at home. And frankly, I think they would look fantastic up against a colorful wall as art; I have three beautiful full-color stick puppets from Ed Young’s gorgeous The Lost Horse: A Chinese Folktale (book still available, but, sadly, without puppets) marching across one little area of my wall at home.
Is anyone else as taken by these as I am?

Bookstore as a Village

Josie Leavitt - October 25, 2012

Good bookselling has a lot of psychology in it. It can be a very interesting way to spend the day. Everyone in retail has this dynamic with customers, but I feel in bookstores customers are much more likely to have more personal relationships because the nature of bookselling is more personal than other kinds of retail.
The man at the wine store might know his customers really well, but I doubt he gets the level of personal detail that booksellers do. There is something confessional about bookstores that has always fascinated me. People feel comfortable sharing their lives with us and we in turn, hold these stories privately and with respect. Sometimes all it takes is asking, “How are you?” and before you know it someone has shared that they’re considering divorce, or they’ve gotten a cancer diagnosis. or their child is being bullied at school.
Of course bookstores are full of knowledge, so folks come in seeking answers to questions that are plaguing them. In small towns when someone buys a copy of At Mom’s House, At Dad’s House it’s clear there’s a looming divorce. Often customers will share their need for a book, and occasionally the bookstore is the first stop on a bumpy journey. Our job as booksellers is to make that purchase as stress-free as possible.
When my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer seven years, I ordered every book about cancer I found in the Ingram warehouse. My co-workers knew something was going on before I told them, but none said a word until I brought it up. (Happily, my mom is doing just great, and made it to the five-year mark cancer-free.) There is a politeness to bookselling that dictates no purchase gets commented on. There are a myriad of reasons why someone would buy books on breast cancer, and honestly, it’s none of our business. However, in a store like ours, with customers we know well, the reasons for book purchases are shared almost immediately.
Often, the bookstore is the first stop when things happen. Good news, like a pregnancy, can bring folks in to buy books about birth and child rearing. Bad news, such as illness or divorce, brings folks in for help navigating what is about to come. In all these instances, the bookstore is the place where people come for information and comfort. Our job as booksellers is not to comment, but to be supportive and listen when folks want to share and not to pry even when we’re worried.
To me the bookstore is like its own village and there’s a real honor in being part of that. Every day people come in seeking something to change their world. Sometimes it’s as simple as an escape read for a busy parent, but often the books folks buy mean much more. To be able to provide the book that can bring solace or laughter is a heady experience and is a wonderful way to spend the day.

When a Book Lives Up to Its Hype

Elizabeth Bluemle - October 24, 2012

I admit it. I avoided reading The Peculiar for far too long. Its author, Stefan Bachmann, started writing the book at 16, and as we know, sometimes books written by teenagers stand on their own, and sometimes they owe too much to their predecessors (nota bene: this is true for books by adults, too). This particular ARC had back-cover copy by the publisher, Greenwillow, praising it as an “extraordinary debut” and likening the author to, among others, Neil Gaiman. I was, I ADMIT IT, skeptical; what teenage writer could live up to that praise? Well, it turns out, Stefan Bachmann can.
Most of the book is set in foggy, dank, industrial cities, parallel worlds to old London and Bath, whose sooty skies belch smoke and host mechanical clockwork carrier sparrows, whose Parliament is run by an uneasy mix of smug, oblivious upper-class humans and semi-exiled, sinister fay gentlemen (yes, old-fashioned gender roles prevail), and whose streets are ‘cleaned’ by automata who sweep away mud in front of them but leave puddles of oil behind. Changeling children, half faery, half human, live poor lives in cluttered tenement neighborhoods and must hide, endangered from all sides. It’s a visceral, inky, perilous world Bachmann creates, both strange and familiar. Its tone is spine-tinglingly dark and the suspense chilling, building with relentless momentum. Bachmann isn’t just good at setting; he weaves a strong story and creates memorable characters in simple, definite strokes. I won’t go into the plot, except to say that there is one, and it’s a good one, and even though I liked the story best before the two main characters finally meet, and even though the book leaves off on a cliffhanger, I was still IN by the end.
As for the youth of the author? Does not matter. Clearly, this young man is one of those rare birds born to write (like, yes, Neil Gaiman). He already knows things about craft you can’t teach. From the first sentence, his storytelling authority is without question. His sense of rhythm and cadence are impeccable. And there is nothing ordinary about a single line; without being precious or pleased with itself, his language is full of sparks, fluid, leavened—yet it seems effortless. And that, my friends, is the mark of someone who knows what he is doing.
Want some examples? I knew you would.
“Nonsuch House looked like a ship—a great stone, nightmarish ship, run aground in the mire of London at the north end of Blackfriars Bridge. Its jagged roofs were the sails, its lichened chimneys the masts, and the smoke that curled up from their mouths looked like so many tattered flags, sliding in the wind.”
“What had seemed to be proper liver-paste sandwiches tasted remarkably like cold autumn wind. The tea smelled of ladybeetles, and the lemon tart was bitter in a not-at-all lemony way.”
“‘Sir?’ he said.
The word fell like a furry ball to the floor.”
“Arthur Jelliby was a very nice young man, which was perhaps the reason why he had never made much of a politician. … So while the other officials were fairly bursting their silken waistcoats with ambition, plotting the downfall of their rivals over oyster dinners, or at the very least informing themselves on affairs of state, Mr. Jelliby was far more interested in spending long afternoons at his club in Mayfair, buying chocolates for his pretty wife, or simply sleeping until noon.”
“The great black steam engine sped across the countryside, dragging its fumes in a plume behind it, and leaving only a watercolor blur of greens and grays painted on Mr. Jelliby’s window.”
Does that sound like a semi-ripe teenaged novelist to you? Me, neither.
I’ll recommend The Peculiar to readers who liked I, Coriander by Sally Gardner, The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray by Chris Wooding, The Folkkeeper (one of my favorite all-time books) by Franny Billingsley, The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud and (heaven help them) The Strange Case of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (which frustrated me through 22 CDs’-worth of unabridged audiobook waiting for something, anything to happen, but whose depiction of faeries and the land of faery were remarkable).
I am so glad I finally picked up The Peculiar, and so delighted it lived up to the hype.

How to Make a Kid Happy

Josie Leavitt - October 22, 2012

Like many bookstores, we have a loyalty program. Our program is very simple: buy books under your name and when you’ve spent more than $100, your next purchase comes with $10 off. This program helps us get our customers’ contact info for things like our email lists and newsletter mailings.
Our program is free. I’ve never understood the point of charging someone to get a discount. It seems somewhat unfair and clearly skewed toward the bookstore making money off the customer until they’ve earned the money back and can actually start saving. We don’t even make people keep a punch card. All you have to do here is remember your last name and you’re all set.
The beauty of our program is sometimes people forget they’re in the Frequent Buyers Club, so when we tell them they’ve just saved $10, they’re practically leaping for joy. The happiest moments are when kids about eight or nine buy a book and it’s free. Yes, free. Saving $10 on an adult book purchase still means there’s a balance, but on a kids’ paperback often there’s actually part of the discount left.
Yesterday a  boy came in and picked up his special order. I told him it was free. “Free?! Dad, she said it was free!” The father was incredulous. The boy looked at me with wide eyes, beaming, and asked, “Are all the books free?” I smiled at him and explained that for every $100 his family spends they get $10 off.
“Dad, let’s just buy a lot of books here!” And that’s how a loyalty program works.

Dying of Cuteness

Josie Leavitt - October 19, 2012

Every Wednesday we have story hour. JP has been our story hour reader since she started working for us six years ago. She is wonderful. The children simply adore her and the parents and caregivers are grateful for the hour of fun she provides the kids. Works often slows to a crawl when JP is reading because we’re all listening.
This past week I was listening and just couldn’t help but laugh. This week’s story hour had three kids: Wren, Finn and Bella. They are best friends and they are adorable. I walked into work and the three of them were lined up, close, on our store cubes, hands on each other’s legs, eyes sparkling, just ready for the next story. I walked back to my office to work on a purchase order.
Part of my brain was focused on inputting the order on the computer, but part of me was up in the front listening to story hour. I could hear JP reading,”What kind of animal has stripes?” A zebra, I thought to myself, just seconds before the kids all shouted it. This went on for a while until I heard Wren pipe up, “JP, I really like your shoes.” Everyone in the store heard and all chuckled. Wren is only two and a half, but her mom owns a shoe store, so it makes perfect sense for her to notice shoes.
I went back to work and was mired in my computer when I saw Wren and Bella walking up the aisle asking each other, “Where is Josie?” I ducked out of my office in time to see them settle back into the story time area. I snuck up on them and poked my head out at them. They shrieked. We played a few rounds of hide and seek, with me just hiding behind a shelf and then popping out again, each time to delight.
I am reminded at moments like this, that there is something utterly delightful in taking a few minutes out of my busy day and playing with kids.

Generosity and a High Bar

Elizabeth Bluemle - October 18, 2012

Imagine you’re an aspiring children’s book author. You finally decide to dip your feet in the water and take a class taught by a local author. You show up on night one, paper and pen and hopes in hand, ready to learn about structure and story arcs and other whatnots of craft — and in the room happens to be one of the most famous picture book authors in the country, and she shares some brilliant insights with you and your classmates. You’d be pretty psyched, wouldn’t you?
A few times a year, I teach a picture-book writing class through the Writer’s Barn in Shelburne, Vt. (The Writer’s Barn is a beautiful community resource dreamed up by Lin Stone and the other visionaries at Windridge Publishing.) Tuesday evening marked the first meeting of the fall session, and I had my two hours all planned and set. I love teaching, and I hope people enjoy my classes and find them helpful. But I’m going to have a tough time following that first class, because it featured Judy Schachner as a surprise guest, and wow, did she inspire!
Judy had been at the bookstore for a big afternoon event, and afterward, she had a free evening. Usually, we would go out to dinner. I adore spending time with Judy; she is hilarious and smart and quirky, and we can get ourselves into trouble, loose cannons that we both can be. When I mentioned my class, she said, “That sounds like fun!” I said, “You don’t want to come to my class. Do you?” She said, “Sure!” And I got what I’m afraid was an opportunistic gleam in my eye, and said, “Would you be willing to talk to my students?” And, humble person that she is, she tried to demur, but I had my hooks in her then and finalized the deal with four irresistible words: “There will be snacks.”
I got a huge kick out of setting Judy in a chair and waiting for a while before the big reveal. After introducing myself to the class, I mentioned the Skippyjon Jones event (one attendee had been to the event, so I had to swear her to secrecy ahead of time), and then said, “The author/illustrator of those books is going to be here tonight!” The collective excited gasp was priceless. And then I got to say, “In fact, she’s already here!” There was delighted applause, and I think a few people actually levitated with joy. I’m sure this embarrassed Judy atrociously, because, ham though she seems and wonderful performer though she is, she is actually quite humble and not at all an attention seeker.
We saved our Q&A with Judy for a little later in the class, and let me tell you, she exceeded even my own expectations. Judy was phenomenal. If you have seen her school and bookstore PowerPoint presentations, you know how funny she is, and how kooky. You could almost be forgiven for thinking that she just lucks into her prodigious writing and artistic gifts. But let me tell you, Judy Schachner has a laser-sharp understanding of what makes a picture book work, from structure to cadence to word choice to voice, and she shared brilliant tidbits of wisdom and experience with the 14 lucky people in that room. They were all blown away, and inspired, and furiously scribbled notes. She gave a master class in 45 minutes.
It was a wildly generous gesture, Judy’s offer to come speak to my students. How many authors of her stature would do that? And how many would do it so well, especially spontaneously?!
I am so grateful for that unmatchable kick-off to the course — except that the bar is set pretty darned high, and I have less than a week to figure out what to do for an encore. But hey, that’s a problem I am more than happy to live with. Thank you, Judy!

Event de Ole

Josie Leavitt - October 17, 2012

Yesterday we were extremely lucky to host Judy Schachner for the launch party of her latest book, Skippyjon Jones and the Cirque de Ole. Judy’s events are always delightful. The combination of so many excited kids and grown-ups, and a slightly quirky Judy, makes for some real fun.
What I love about Judy is she just says what she’s thinking. This would be why during a PowerPoint presentation of the animals in her life she started singing a verse of “I am the Walrus,” and it totally made sense. Part of the reason so many adults without children come to see Judy is there is some real grown-up humor in all talks. Judy is honest. She showed a picture of herself from kindergarten and said, ” Me in kindergarten. I looked happy but I wasn’t.” No one expects a children’s author to say things like that to little kids, but it’s a fact with her. The kids probably were delighted with her honesty and the adults were laughing.
I loved hearing her talk about how she starts each book. Every book gets its own journal. In this journal, Judy sketches, cuts out things and pastes them in the book, odd facts are recorded, melodic words are written down, etc. This journal is a treasure trove of ideas and it’s just bursting with creativity. She also said she always starts with the title. The title is what focuses the work. And, in sharing the story of all her of animals, she said the stories wrote themselves.
Kids were a little restless as the event began and I was having a hard time getting their attention to begin the event. I finally got them when I said, “I’d like to talk about the snacks now.” Eighty little faces turned towards me. We had gotten a Skippy cake for the launch. Sandy, my co-worker was in charge of the cake. I know this might sound silly, but it would have never occurred to me to pre-cut the cake and that would have been a huge waste of time. She was totally set when the barrage of kids came up to get their cake.
The kids and adults were riveted by Judy’s reading of Cirque de Olé! She is one of those authors who can really perform a book, getting the audience members involved with repeating fun phrases and clapping along with the songs. Even the tiniest attendees were wide-eyed and smiling with delight, and shouting Olé! unselfconsciously. It was great.
One of the cutest things I saw was a nine-year-old boy who was among the oldest kids there, who convinced his mom to buy all the hardcovers, “so I can have the whole set.” He clearly loves these books and has found memories of them growing up.  The Skippyjon Jones books have this effect on many of their readers, young or old.

Ask And You Shall Receive

Josie Leavitt - October 15, 2012

This past Saturday, I had the kind of computer debacle that retailers hate. Somehow, I had done something that caused my three point of sale computers to stop talking to each other. When this happens, modern retailing comes to a grinding halt.
I had updated my anti-virus software in the morning (note to self: never do this activity on a weekend) and then all hell broke loose. Only one computer worked, but it was the server in the back room. This meant that all bookstore activities had to take place in the office. No one could check on inventory, make a sale, or take a special order unless they were in the back where you can’t even see customers.
I was trying to keep my cool while I called my bookstore tech support people. I was told there was nothing they could since the problem had nothing to do with their program. I hung up totally frustrated. And cursed to my staffer that I needed a tech support guy I could call on a Saturday.
A customer overheard this exchange and started talking to me about the issue. He seemed very knowledgeable about networks and whatnot.
He was about to pay for $54 of books when I asked him if he had a minute to take a look. He said that he did. I gave him back his credit card as he headed to the back office. Within 10 minutes he had figured out that the problem was the upgrade. While he couldn’t fix it entirely, he did fix it enough that I could actually use all the computers at the store. I happily gave him all his books for free.
He ran out of time, but he suggested I try three things. The best piece of advice he gave me was to come in early and do it when I had time. After a few failed attempts, I finally got it right and now all the computers talk to each other and I no longer have a migraine.