Monthly Archives: November 2013

When Worlds Collide

Elizabeth Bluemle - November 8, 2013

Normally, I focus on my bookselling self at the store and my author self at school and library visits and writing retreats. Obviously, there’s some overlap, since both selves are involved with children’s literature. But I’ll be honest: I’m always a little startled when someone comes to the store and asks me to sign one of my books. Of course it’s wonderful and flattering, but it feels a bit awkward to autograph a picture book and then ring it up. It’s like being both waiter and guest at a dinner party.
Today, I received a phone call from the bookstore at the end of the work day. I’d been at home working on the store’s annual holiday catalog. (It is impossible to get anything like that done at the store.) My co-worker, Sandy, was on the line. “I had to share the cutest story with you,” she said. She told me we’d had a call from a woman in San Francisco, wanting to order a signed copy of How Do You Wokka-Wokka? for her son.
Apparently, he started preschool this fall, and had a hard time separating from his mom when she dropped him off every morning. At some point, their teacher had read Wokka to the class, and this little boy took to it. Now he won’t let his mom leave him at preschool until they read the book together, because when she starts reading it, the other little kids drift over and listen and do wokka-wokka dances, and they all play. Once the book is finished, she gives him a kiss and he lets her leave without a fuss. I love thinking that the book is a comfort for him, and I will be honored to autograph his own special copy for Christmas.
Of course, the signature won’t mean anything to him; if anything, he will wonder who was allowed to scribble in his book. He is too young to understand the concept of what an author is or does; at that age, books just exist. And he may think his mother has simply taken away the preschool’s copy, since the notion of separate copies of the same book is also hard for tykes to grasp. But I love the thought that this book, which I will sign and we will wrap and ship all the way across the country, will land under the tree of a little boy who loves it for his own unique, mysterious reasons.
I’ll tell you, today, it was pretty nice to have my worlds collide.

Problems of the Uni-Voice

Elizabeth Bluemle - November 7, 2013

This past week, I’ve been to three concerts: Elvis Costello, a local singer/songwriter competition, and David Cook. Loved all three for different reasons. What bound them together was the pleasure of watching people do what they’re passionate about, and do it well. I think I’ve written here before about losing it at Eric Carle’s studio, so moved by his deep, gentle joy in creating a simple bird for a small audience of booksellers that my eyes leaked until I needed to slip downstairs and get a grip. I don’t think there is anything more inspiring than being among passionate, creative, talented people sharing their love of what they do.
The singer/songwriter competition was especially inspiring, perhaps because the performers were, for the most part, younger and more raw and courageously finding their voices. There were nine contestants — the top three finalists from each of three first rounds. They were judged on a variety of criteria: singing, songwriting, stage presence, instrumental skill, etc. All nine, more or less, were at least enjoyable to listen to. Four of them (in my opinion) had notably interesting voices that rose a cut above the others, and two of them (again, my opinion) wrote lyrics that stood head and shoulders above the rest;* their writing had poetry in it, something magical that can’t be faked. Their songs transcended the simplistic “me, me, me” of many contemporary songs. Think of songwriters, master lyricists like Paul Simon or Leonard Cohen: they’ve got Voice with a capital V. Distinctive, individual, recognizable at 1000 paces.
Which is my problem, I think, with first person present tense. Bear with me; this may make sense in a second. I know I’m a lone voice in the wilderness here; first person present tense (FPPT for short) is what so many writers are using these days. Heck, I’m using it now. And there absolutely are FPPT novels with a beautifully distinct voice. But. Sometimes I’ll read a spate of YA novels and feel as though the narrator of all of them could be the same person (what I think of as the uni-voice), and I blame that on first person present with its limited close-up lens and necessarily internal focus. I don’t want every smart, observant, wry, misfit teen narrator to sound the same.
Even in the face of first person present, I want writers to knock my socks off, the way, for example, Franny Billingsley does in Chime.

I’ve confessed to everything and I’d like to be hanged.
Now, if you please.
I don’t mean to be difficult, but I can’t bear to tell my story. I can’t relive those memories—the touch of the Dead Hand, the smell of eel, the gulp and swallow of the swamp.
How can you possibly think me innocent? Don’t let my face fool you; it tells the worst lies. A girl can have the face of an angel but have a horrid sort of heart.

Somehow Billingsley makes FPPT serve her purposes and ends up with gorgeous language and rhythm and — most welcome — strangeness in her writing.
Julie Berry’s recent extraordinary All the Truth That’s in Me has that kind of magic, as well. She plays with tense, mixing limited third past tense and first person present so masterfully it’s not noticeable unless you’re taking apart what it is she’s doing and how she does it so well. It’s almost impossible to isolate moments in this book to post here when so much depends upon what has gone before, and when sharing the most powerful, beautiful sections would be giving away too much; it’s unfair to share those with people who haven’t read the book. But here’s a little snippet. (It’s not really a spoiler to tell you that the narrator is talking about a horse.)

I hear a rustle behind me. I creep back to see, plying my way through willow branches like a swimmer. 

I can’t see her but I feel her there. The sweet dusty scent of her hide, the whoosh of her breath. It’s a wonder she didn’t flee at the explosions.

I don’t know her name, neither could I use it if I did. She is more shadow and fancy than flesh and bone. I christen her Phantom.

It’s inspiring to come upon books that make something fresh of the same old words we all use. Both the reader and the writer in me thrill to the magic of strangeness and beauty, to deep creativity.
Does anyone else encounter and feel frustrated by the uni-voice in contemporary FPPT novels? What advice do you have for avoiding it? And what first person present tense novels knock YOUR socks off?
* It must be disclosed that one of the two lyricists whose work so impressed me at the contest is Flying Pig bookseller Laura Heaberlin. She and her close friend, the other gifted songwriter with magic in her lyrics, took second and first, respectively, in the contest. Congratulations, Laura!

The Bookseller Jog

Josie Leavitt - November 5, 2013

A customer came in yesterday and said that we were holding a book for her that was a present. I looked and looked on the special order shelves and there was nothing. She was perplexed because her brother had told her to come in today, her birthday.
Janie gave my her brother’s name and I looked him up. But the inventory record showed that he hadn’t bought a book from us. I started scratching my head and Janie was about to call her sibling when I saw that I had his phone number. This led me to believe that he’d been here or phoned in an order. Sadly, I could find no special order for her or her brother.
Rather than keep her in the store while I tried to figure out what on earth had happened, I told Janie that I would call the minute I knew something. I started scrambling. I hate calling customers about orders until I’ve exhausted everything I know about looking up their book. I noticed he was entered in the computer system (we never sell our list, it’s a great way to enter folks in our frequent buyers club) in October. “Ah ha!” Now, I had something to go on.
Lo and behold, after looking up that day’s receipts in the computer I saw that he paid for a $100 gift card, which for some reason isn’t tracked as a purchase. With the information, I looked in the special drawer where we keep these things and, voila!, there was the gift card. I sprinted to the parking lot in the hopes that Janie hadn’t left yet. I saw a blue car about to enter traffic and I tapped on the window. Well, honestly, I knocked loudly. Poor Janie practically jumped out of the car. She rolled down the window and I explained what had happened.
She thanked me very much for my digging and we both started laughing as we caught our breath. I apologized again for scaring her and smiled as I walked back into the store. I suspect next time, we’ll be mailing her birthday gift card.

The Patience of Parents

Josie Leavitt - November 4, 2013

Every day I’m amazed at the ability of parents to handle cranky children in the bookstore. The weekends can be especially challenging. Yesterday, I saw a young mom skillfully handle a full-on tantrum.
A child has a tantrum for a myriad of reasons; they can be tired, hungry, overwhelmed, or feeling out of control, to name a few. This mom came in with her five-year-old daughter and almost immediately it was clear they were operating at cross purposes. The mom was browsing the sale table and the girl was looking at the princess books. There is something about an unattainable book with a glittery cover that can send even the most stalwart young reader into a tailspin. This little one had a case of the “I need it”s  and the mom was doing a pretty good job of redirecting her. All was well until the young one started to cry. At first it was the fake crying kids can do when they’re not getting their way.
The fake crying (you know it’s fake, because within the tears if asked a direct and fun question, they respond calmly) lasted longer than we were all comfortable with. But the mom held her ground, largely ignoring the laments of this princess fan. Then something changed. The mom had had enough and put her foot down and said very calmly, “If you keep asking about this book we are going to leave.” She was very clear and repeated that twice. My co-worker and I held our breath and waited to see what was going to happen. Often, these tantrums can get turned around with parents who hold their ground. Sadly, this was not the case.
The little one just totally lost it. She was sobbing and practically flailing at her mother who again remained so calm as she said, “Okay, that’s it. We’re leaving.” Shouts of, “No, Mommy!” rang out as they left the store. Honestly, it was heartbreaking. I think we can all remember when we were little and just felt tiny in a big world and really, really, really just wanted the sparkly book or toy. But the mom was right and I always applaud parents who stand firm in the midst of a whining child in public. As embarrassing as this was, the mom didn’t cave in to the demands of a five-year-old terrorist who was cute as a button.
Fifteen minutes later they came back to the store and I braced myself. The little girl had calmed down measurably and they browsed for 10 minutes. It was clear that guidelines had been discussed and the girl really understood that she was getting one book and one book only. She clutched her princess book little a protective blankie while her mother bought other books.
No one said a word about the meltdown. I was really tempted to give the kid a shiny sticker, but thought the better of it. They left the store with a bag full of books and the little one practically skipped out of the store and all was good with the world again.

Can I Talk to the Boss?

Josie Leavitt - November 1, 2013

Maybe it’s just me, but lately I’ve been getting a lot of awkward cold calls. I know this must be a thankless job, as we all resist the urge to just hang up the minute we sense it’s a solicitor call. I’ve got some pointers for people who want to have success.
– Do not ask the person answering the phone, “Can I talk to the boss?” It’s rude and dismissive of the person on the phone. How about a nice hello? And then ask if a manager is available.
– If you ask the above question do not ask “if he’s around.” It’s rude to assume that the boss is a man. And when calling bookstores, it’s very likely the boss, is in fact, a woman.
– Do not say this call will only take two minutes, when, in truth, you know it’s going to be at least 10.
– Everyone’s time is valuable. Tell me why you’re calling at the outset. If you’re looking for a donation, get to that early on. If it’s a cause I care about and the store hasn’t exceeded its giving budget for the month, I might just give you a gift card.
– Do not call any retail establishment in December looking to buy your product or switch my phone service. None of us has time. We are not being rude when we cut you off, you need to know when to call.
– Contrary to what’s been happening, Monday morning is not a good time to call.
– Lastly, we know your job is hard, but if I ask you to leave you a message for the boss, or the “person who makes buying decisions,” please do that. Not being able to call someone back when there might be interest in what you’re selling is irritating. And honestly, I don’t trust people who won’t leave a message.