Monthly Archives: April 2013

Catch and Release

Josie Leavitt - April 29, 2013

My bookstore is in the country. As spring finally takes hold we’ve got flowers, grass and buds on trees. It’s all just so lovely. Except for the flying bugs. These bugs range from tiny and irritating when out walking because they form a black cloud that usually causing me to jog through it, to the stink bug larger, slightly ominous stink bugs that alternately delight and terrify small children. See the photo to understand why. They move slowly, which belies the speed with which they can fly.
I was working on Saturday when a very earnest four-year-old girl came up to me asked, “Have you seen the bug?” I’m not a fan of bugs and tried to hide my discomfort as I looked around for a bug large enough to cause a young child to talk to a stranger.  The fact that she referred to it as “the bug” (not “a” bug) felt to me like she was on the hunt for something massive. Something that could lift up a bookcase with its wings.
We looked for it. Well, she looked and stood behind me, hoping not see it first. She saw it and excitedly pointed it out. “Okay, now what should we do?” I asked. This kid was like a junior game warden. “Get a cup and a piece of paper.” I jogged to the back room and got a clear plastic cup which is very helpful for bug catching — this way you can see that bug is safely in the cup before you proceed. Because honestly, there’s nothing scarier to me than almost catching a bug and then having it fly at you when you didn’t even know it could.
We trapped the bug in a cup and then slid the paper between the floor and the bug. The little girl directed me well and was a very calming voice amid my slightly growing panic. I should have used cardboard, not regular paper. There was no firm seal on the cup and the bug was on the move.  We hustled out of the store and set the bug free.
Feeling proud I stayed on the deck and watched him only to see him land a bush and then fly right back towards the store. I kept the cup close by the rest of the day.

A Series Plea

Elizabeth Bluemle - April 26, 2013

My Dearest Publishers, Editors, Jacket Designers, and Marketing Folks*:
We need to talk again about how you can make booksellers and librarians and — most importantly, your kid customers — extremely happy. Every week, we booksellers spend a lot of time with your series books: shelving them, tracking them down for customers, restocking them, and looking up the on-sale date of the next eagerly anticipated volume. All this serial contact means encountering certain frustrations again and again, and there are a few very simple things you folks can do to bring joy and delight to the land:

  • Standardize your title/series treatment with Bowker, Ingram, Baker & Taylor, etc., so that when we fetch new titles into our systems, they don’t need editing. You would not believe how many variations of book and series title treatments we see. Titles might show up with or without the series name; if the series name is part of the title, sometimes it precedes, sometimes it follows, the individual book title. Sometimes the series title is abbreviated. Sometimes the numeral (e.g., Book 5) appears; sometimes it doesn’t. I’m not entirely certain that this is completely under publisher control; it’s possible those companies specify different preferences or make their own edits. But I suspect it’s more a case of lacking a single style sheet through the years. if that’s the case, then please, for the love of all things holy in publishing, standardize your in-house format for series. I cannot tell you how many hours I have spent editing our own series titles so our staff can find books quickly and easily. When a child says, “I need book 16 in the Magic Tree House series,” or “What’s book 9 in the 39 Clues?” or “What’s the next book after Scorpio Rising in Alex Rider?” etc., we want to answer them right away from our impeccable, easily searchable inventory records.
  • List your series numbers on the spines! There is nothing easier you can do to help customers, booksellers, teachers, and librarians — and yet there are STILL holdouts. I cannot think of any positive reason to omit this very simple and helpful piece of information from a book’s spine. And please make it easy to read, as high contrast as good taste allows.
  • Please list the entire series, in order, in a list in the front matter of the book. Parents spend a lot of time hunkered down in the fantasy section, flipping frantically through books trying to find the magical list of what’s in the series. (Obviously, those lists in the early volumes will be incomplete as each new volume comes down the pike, but they could conceivably be updated with subsequent printings.) Oh, and that antiquated convention of omitting the title of the book you’re holding in your hand from that front-matter list of the books in the series does not serve your readers. Include all the titles, and please do so in a way that makes it crystal clear what is the order of the series.

I think if the publishing folks who work on series titles spent a week (heck, even one afternoon!) working at a bookstore, you’d quickly understand the day in, day out, non-stop demand we have from customers, both kids and adults, needing series help.
Thanks for listening! Enjoy the gorgeous weather.
*Marketing folks — We know you’re not responsible for any lapses in series design efficacy, but you are included here in the hopes that you will use your prodigious influence to encourage change where needed!

Authors, Plan Your Summer Vacation Now

Josie Leavitt - April 25, 2013

Perhaps it was the 76-degree weather today, but I started thinking about the summer. Our Vermont location often finds visitors from all over the world during this delightful, and short, season. Often these visitors are authors, traveling with their families. Know that we are always thrilled to meet authors; without you, we would have nothing to sell. It’s embarrassing to get blindsided and get caught with low stock that we would love to have you sign. Below is my wish list for all the traveling authors who like to visit independent bookstores.
– If you know that you’re likely to visit a store, give us a call and introduce yourself. Tell us when you’re going to come by and that you’d love to sign stock. Most bookstores need a week to get stock. Two weeks gives us a chance to order from your publisher and get a better discount.
– Customers who might have an author staying with them: please pop by the store and let us know. We had a lovely customer interaction a month ago. A good customer came by the store and told us that Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife, was going to be visiting him. She didn’t want to a full-on store event, but wanted to sign stock. The customer gave us a month’s notice and we got a case of the book for Paula to sign. Less than a week after she signed there are only three signed books left.
– If you just happen to pop by wanting to sign stock, please don’t be disappointed if we are out of your book. This happens and being scornful (as has happened, in the past) is not helpful when there’s nothing to be done. We are keeping track of around 30,000 books we stock in store on any given day.
– Please don’t get mad if we haven’t heard of you and have yet to stock your book. All stores are bound by space and time limitations. Tell us about your book and then let us decide if it’s a good fit for our store.
– Please carry your favorite pen with you. Bookstore pens are forever running out of ink at the most inopportune times. I hate the furious scramble behind the register while everyone looks for a Sharpie that has ink.
– If you’d like to do an in-store event while you’re here, please don’t call two weeks before you arrive. Good events take six weeks to plan correctly. The schedule can be moved up, of course, but less time means less marketing and that usually translates to fewer attendees.
– Allow us a moment to gather ourselves. Every once in a while some one comes to the bookstore who is a staff favorite. We get a little breathless when this happens. We do pull ourselves together, eventually.

E.L. Konigsburg and Me, Elizabeth: Forty Years of Inspiration

Elizabeth Bluemle - April 24, 2013

E.L. Konigsburg had a glorious mind and she wasn’t afraid to use it. I was an advanced reader at a young age and drank in her smart, unusual books like refreshing, even necessary, water. She was brilliant, her characters were smart and/or interesting without being precious, and her stories carved out new territory time and again. Like Ursula Le Guin, Natalie Babbitt, Lloyd Alexander, Richard Peck, Katherine Paterson, Madeleine L’Engle, E.B. White, Kate DiCamillo, and a few other fine, unique writerly souls our nation has produced, Konigsburg’s work spoke to childhood fascinations and concerns, both subtle and plain, with a rare wit and a surprisingly supple creative genius.
Her books have woven a path throughout my life, as they have for so many readers. My first Konigsburg was Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth, and I read it several times, a little prickled/haunted by the shifting friendship dynamic in the book and the mysteriousness of Jennifer’s witchiness. It was a book unlike any I had read, and I loved it. From the Mixed-Up Files was next, and it knocked my ever-living socks off. I was a kid growing up in Arizona at the time, far, far away from the Metropolitan Museum, and yet I was Claudia. At some point later on, I discovered the beautiful (and less well known than it should be) The Second Mrs. Giaconda, a gentle speculation about the model for the Mona Lisa. I loved Konigsburg’s more obscure books, too; George and Up from Jericho Tel, and Father’s Arcane Daughter. I loved that she wrote about Jewish kids and families, something that was almost unheard of in books when I was growing up. As a school librarian, I taught a little medieval history to sixth graders through the fabulous A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver, and The View from Saturday still recalls our first year of bookselling at The Flying Pig; Ms. Konigsburg helped connect us to many a child (and teacher) that year. I can’t think of a five-year span in my life where I wasn’t moved or inspired by at least one of her books. She has wowed me for forty years; there aren’t many authors with that kind of longevity and a perpetually high bar, a quality that never wavers.
If you’re a fan, try to get your hands on a copy of TalkTalk: A Children’s Book Author Speaks to Grown-Ups (Atheneum, currently OP, I think). It’s a collection of nine brilliant, articulate speeches Konigsburg gave over the course of nearly four decades of writing. Her breadth of knowledge is so evident here; she was a wondrous light in children’s literature.
Somewhere in my own mixed-up files is a handwritten letter from Ms. Konigsburg in response to one I wrote her back in the early 1990s. I had intended to write to her for many years, but what finally spurred me to pick up my pen was not a literary epiphany, but the fact that Jell-O had finally created a flavor (I think it was cranberry) that one of her characters thought up in one of her books. I thought she might like to know, before I proceeded with the fan content about her writing in my letter, that she was also a crackerjack food innovator.
So many people and publications have written tributes about Elaine Konigsburg this week. For more personal anecdotes, my friend and colleague Sharon Levin posted a charming memory in her brand-new blog called Life, Literature, Laughter about E.L. Konigsburg’s kindness to her as a child. And the Horn Book posted this article, which also links to thoughts from Roger Sutton. Publishers Weekly’s informative obituary is here, Rocco Staino’s School Library Journal tribute is here, and the New York Times’ obituary is here.
I am sad that she is gone, and grateful that she left behind so much richness. To celebrate E.L. Konigsburg’s life, I am going to re-read at least one of her books this week. If anyone else is doing the same, which will you revisit, or set out to discover for the first time?

Balance During a Hard Day

Josie Leavitt - April 22, 2013

Like many people, I was glued to my television Friday morning with the live coverage of the manhunt for the remaining Boston Marathon bomber. I don’t normally watch TV in the morning, but it was riveting, alarming, and downright scary.
About the time the CNN reporter said, “We’re going to delay coverage, so what you’re watching isn’t happening live, it’s on a delay.” I realized that the S.W.A.T team on a roof looked poised to kill someone (which did not happen). I sat there drinking my coffee mystified and scared that they were going to show someone being killed on live television.
My phone rang and I muted the TV and remembered that a fourth-grader was supposed to call to interview me about being a stand-up comic. His librarian shops at our store and suggested he call me to learn more about stand up for his research paper. I answered the phone and a clear, piping voice said, “This is Jeff. May I ask you some questions about comedy?”  I was immediately struck by several things: this ten-year-old was poised and he loved comedy.
For the next 20 minutes he asked me great questions. Where does the funny come from? That was harder to answer than I would have thought and I fear I rambled a bit, but he was a pro and just followed along with me. We talked about comedians we liked. He asked how I got started: Elizabeth made me promise the first New Year’s we were friends, in 1993, that I would stand up once, anywhere. And that’s all it took. Jeff was riveted. I think he couldn’t imagine someone doing stand up for twice as long as he’s been alive.
His enthusiasm was infectious. I turned the muted TV off halfway through our call. It just seemed wrong to have the possible carnage on in the background while having such a lovely, innocent call. Jeff likes to sing and he is a fan of Weird Al Yankovic and we talked about the skill needed to craft parodies of songs. I ended the call by telling him that he might want to take a stand up class over the summer because he should pursue his passion.
I could feel him beaming through the phone, and that helped me all day as my return to the adult world was full of news of lockdowns and shootings.

Writing Up to Children

Elizabeth Bluemle - April 18, 2013

I couldn’t resist diving right into the ARC for Kate DiCamillo’s new novel, Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures, even though it’s not coming out until September and I have stacks of ARCs from more recent months waiting to be read. This isn’t going to be a review of the book, yet; I’ll save that for closer to the pub date. However, even just a few pages in, it is clear that, once again, Kate DiCamillo proves herself to be one of those rare authors who write up to children, understanding that kids’ intelligence, curiosity, and ready sense of humor will be piqued by encountering a wide range of characters, experiences, and lively, rich language.
Nothing flattens a book more than the attitude that children shouldn’t encounter words they don’t already know — which, if you think about it, is a pretty silly cul-de-sac to drive down. Some years ago, when my younger nephew was five or six, I met the family for dinner at a restaurant. When I walked in the door, my little guy ran over, gave me a big hug, and said, “Auntie Boo, you look pulchritudinous this evening.” (Then he asked me if I knew what the word meant. That was pretty adorable, too.) He and his mom had been reading a Dick King-Smith chapter book, and my nephew had absorbed new vocabulary with delight.
I suspect it can be be hard to get words like “pulchritudinous” green-lit for the 6-8 crowd, and I understand there are some good reasons. Fancy language that draws attention to itself in a way that distracts from the story being told is a nuisance. But no one takes as much joy in delicious words as a child. When I travel to schools as a visiting author, one part of my presentation to elementary school kids is a slide of words I love, “catawampus,” “deliquescent,” “discombobulated,” and a couple dozen more. This is always a place where kids start reading the words aloud, rolling them around to see what they feel like.
Along with Kate DiCamillo, M.T. Anderson and Polly Horvath are contemporary American authors who don’t pull the plug on their vocabularies (or ideas) when writing for children.
Who else, dear Readers?

When I Pretend I’m Not Me

Josie Leavitt - April 17, 2013

Okay, I’m going to be really honest with all of you. I need to confess something. Sometimes, when I answer the phone at work and someone asks, “For the owner or manager,” I pretend I’m not here. Is this terrible? Yes. Would my grandmother be horrified? Most definitely. Why do I do this? I’ll tell you why.
Working in a bookstore can be a frustrating day of not quite getting in the right rhythm. I can come to work with the best intentions to get a project done or do some orders, and all it takes is one customer to derail my solitary work because I’m on a quest to find an eager student teacher the perfect book for a unit on algae or help another customer with just the right book for her budding artist granddaughter. This spontaneity is one of the joys of retail, because you just never know who is going to walk in with a request that’s challenging but so much fun to track down.
I don’t like solicitors calling and taking up my time. Each call starts the same way asking for the owner or person in charge of paper supplies. If I say, “Why yes, I am the person who makes decisions about copy paper,” I can kiss the next fifteen minutes goodbye. And whenever someone cold calls and says it’ll only take five minutes, they’re wrong. It takes far more than five minutes for them to explain what they’re selling and for me to politely say I’m not interested at the moment. I have nothing but respect for folks who have to make cold calls all day. I can imagine nothing worse sometimes than to get hung up on over and over again.
There is a way people who don’t know the owner or manager ask for the owner or manager that let’s me know I can punt this call or suggest they send an email. I punt the call by saying I’m neither the owner nor the manager. I know this sounds horrible, but this way I don’t get stuck on a call that’s not important and I give the caller a better way to get the information to me. This is a good theory until someone asks for the manager for an event.
This has only happened once. The phone rang, this lovely woman asked in a halting way for the manager. I said I was not the manager but would happily take a message. She got halfway through her message about wanting us to sell books for David Sedaris when he came to Burlington. I had to sheepishly confess that, well, in fact I was the manager. Thankfully, the woman had a sense of humor and didn’t think I was a total oddball.
We had a wonderful event and I learned a valuable lesson: don’t answer the phone.

Sounds of Sunday

Josie Leavitt - April 15, 2013

I walked into work a few minutes late yesterday to a totally full store. I caught the eye of my staffer who nodded that she was okay. I pretended to be a shopper as I saw no customers I knew. It was a lovely and novel way to experience the store.
The first thing I noticed were just how many small children were in the front of the store. The aisles were full and each of the kids’ sections had kids. The picture book section was strewn with baby socks and shoes and coats, but no actual babies. The babies were all over the store, adorably teetering or crawling around sections looking for siblings and parents who had found some books of their own to look at. I know I’m a sucker for a cute baby, but cute babies making cute baby noises just about kills me.
One little tot, no more than 11 months old, had found her dad and was being carried around with one sock dangling from the only foot that had clothes. She kept burbling “Ah.” No one was quite sure what the “Ah” was in reference to, but she kept “Ahhing” for the entire time her family was shopping. It was like every book cover elicited a response. A toddler had discovered the gift section and just kept exclaiming, “Oooh. My. Nice.” with every toy she picked up. She picked up a car bath toy and started saying, “Mom” and changed it to, “Dad, come see.”
Teenagers in the young adult section were largely self-sufficient. They only approached the register to order the next book in the series. One ordered a Nancy Farmer book and a young man wanted us to have book two in the Cherub series, which we did, and gave to him. His guttural response, “Sweet,” told me he loved this series. He was probably 13 and that was the only thing I heard him say after that, because he was reading.
Sundays at the bookstore are often full of families browsing and just enjoying. There’s no rush to the day and many people just come in to take a look, talk about books and then move on with their day. And that makes me very happy.

The Best Mo Willems Book You Haven’t Read

Elizabeth Bluemle - April 12, 2013

It’s hard to imagine a Mo Willems title sneaking under the radar, but somehow, one of my all-time favorite Willems book is also one of his least well-known, at least to customers at the bookstore. At least, until I get through with them.
Hooray for Amanda & Her Alligator! (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray) is a charming, generous-spirited book of “6 1/2 stories about 2 surprising friends”—namely, a bright-eyed, impatient, funny little stuffed alligator and his human, a wry girl named Amanda. A literary and thematic heir to the George and Martha picture books by James Marshall, Hooray…! has mini-chapters, each of which manages to address an everyday concern of children (having a hard time waiting, being less skilled than someone else, feeling jealous or insecure, etc.) in a very light-hearted and—even more importantly—supremely light-handed manner. With chapters like “A Surprising Surprise,” “An Un-Surprising Surprise,” Chapter 2 1/2: An Extra Surprise,” the emphasis is on delight.
This book is an all-time great read-aloud for ages four to ten. I can’t count the number of times I’ve read it to families in the store, though I can count on one hand the number of times someone has heard or read it and then not bought a copy; it’s just that appealing.
Willems really understands what galvanizes young children, both as readers and as characters. Alligator is irrepressible, but with an occasional sensitivity peeking out from underneath his toddler brio. Alligator expresses anxiety by fiddling with his tail; it’s the sweetest, simplest little gesture. and reveals a world of worry without Willems ever having to say more than simply “He fiddled with his tail.” Whether he’s waiting impatiently for Amanda to come home and play with him, pouncing on her head while she’s reading a library book (the titles of the books Amanda reads throughout are fantastic), or trying to snub an unwanted visitor, Alligator’s an expressive critter. His full-body frowns or bouncy joy come across in just a few lines on the page; so many of his expressions and actions make readers laugh out loud.
To my mind, Hooray for Amanda & Her Alligator! is about as perfect as picture books come — its text and art are lively, deft, funny, touching, and smart. Everything is done so economically here, using just the right words and a few smart strokes of the pen to convey the maximum humor and heart. I use this book with my picture-book writing students because it accomplishes so much with so deceptively little. A writer on children’s literature, Jerry Griswold, talks about five common elements of classic children’s stories in his book, Feeling Like a Kid: the elements are snugness, scariness, smallness, lightness, and aliveness. Hooray for Amanda and Her Alligator! has all of these and one more: timelessness.

Prepping for Summer Reading

Josie Leavitt - April 11, 2013

Okay, it’s hardly feeling spring-like in Vermont, so why am I talking about summer reading? Because now is the time smart booksellers plan for the annual summer reading season. There is always more that can done to prepare for the summer reading lists that help drive readers into the bookstore.
We all know the ritual of summer reading. These days though, summer reading lists are intense, long and often accompanied by substantial work that sometimes needs to be turned in — during the summer! Gone are the easy days of “read three books.” Kids come in with page upon page of books sorted by the genres they must pick from. There is even a reading list for kids as young as first graders. The challenge for bookstores is how to make the books from most lists accessible and, more importantly, how to make the reading seem fun.
There are a myriad of ways for a store to get organized for summer reading. The first thing to do is get hold of all the school’s lists. This can be a daunting task depending on the number of schools in a store’s area. This is the time of year to start calling around for the lists. It may feel early, but there are eight weeks of school left. We keep all the lists in a folder for easy reference. So many kids come in without their list, the day before they leave for camp, that parents really appreciate our having the list to refer to. The real reason to get the lists this early though, is to take advantage of backlist promotions.
By planning ahead, it’s easy to get many of the summer reading books for a better discount than normal, if there’s a promo going on. This little bit of planning ahead could mean that for every summer reading book you sell, you could make an additional 4% per book. Do a brisk business with reading lists and that can really add up. Also, the more direct publisher orders you do, the more you’re adding to your coop pool, and that’s always a lovely thing. And, planning ahead means you’ll have the books in when kids start coming in for them.
We dedicate a bookcase to summer reading. It’s arranged alphabetically by author, so families can zip in and get the title they’re looking for. This makes it easy for the kids to see all the books and pick the one(s) they’re most likely to read and enjoy. We also all try to read some of the ones we might not be familiar with so we can recommend as many books as possible. So often parents come in, while getting ready for camp, with this five-page list, and are just as bewildered as their children. It’s really helpful if we can go through the list with them and help find the best books for their child.
Some stores send home flyers with an order form. Which works well for a lot of communities. We have never done that, but we have set up a summer reading list section on our website. This has proven to be a very smart idea. So often customers go someplace else for the summer, but they want to shop local with us. The website list makes it easy for them to do that in one easy place. Schools can use their local store and their website as a way to make money, by making the entire summer reading list part of an in-store book fair, so every time a customer orders a book from that list, the school gets 20% back in store credit to use at the store.
I’d love to hear from other booksellers and librarians what they do to get ready for summer reading.