Monthly Archives: February 2014

Books vs. Screen Time

Josie Leavitt - February 9, 2014

I’ve had my store for 17 years and in that time so much has changed in how I can work. Years ago, if I wanted to run a report on my bestsellers, I’d have to do it at the bookstore. If I wanted to make and send an order, I’d have to mark up catalogs and then enter it on the computer, at the store.
Things are so different now. I got to sit at home watching the Olympics and ready my best seller report for the New York Times yesterday. I logged on to my office computer remotely and in just about the time it would take to physically run the report, I did it from home, and then uploaded to the Times site. All from the comfort of my couch. This is simultaneously, a great innovation and a horrible one. Yes, being to work from home is sometimes just wonderful. But the fact that I can work so efficiently from home sometimes makes me feel yoked to my desk at the bookstore. The ability to just log on means that work is never far away. And things that honestly can wait until I’m back at work just get done on personal time.
The same thing is happening with making orders. It was one thing to sit at home with a happy stack of catalogs and mark them up at home. For some reason, I always enjoyed that. Then I would bring in the catalogs and give them to my rep and then enter the titles on the computer. Now, with rare exception, Penguin Children’s for one, all orders are done on Edelweiss. This does one great thing: I never have to enter book information. I download and then upload a file and I’m done, and that is an enormous time saver. The downside is more screen time, a lot more. I think anyone who works in a small bookstore where they wear all the hats knows it fairly impossible to spend the day doing orders on the computer. So, what was once a fun task of looking at catalogs in the tub, has now become somewhat of a pain.
I don’t mean to whine. Okay. maybe I mean to whine a smidge. It’s just I am feeling nostalgic for the days when the work I would do at home would be to read. It’s almost as if sometimes reading feels like a luxury, like I’m hiding from what I need to get done, and that’s as sad as it is frustrating.
Yes, increased screen time is inevitable, but my promise to myself in 2014 is to spend less time in front of my computer and more time with my head in a book.  

Books You’ve Read a Hundred Times?

Elizabeth Bluemle - February 7, 2014

A hundred times may be an exaggeration, but as a child, I read many of my favorite books dozens of times and more. In the bookstore, I often hear parents bemoaning their children’s repeat reading. Adults sometimes worry when kids choose an old favorite over a new discovery, but both are signs of being healthy readers. While I understand that more media are competing for children’s time, and so picking up the entire Harry Potter series every summer might take a serious chunk of hours away from other books, I still think that avid re-readers tend to be avid readers, period. And that re-reading can be a very valuable endeavor.
People re-read books for all kinds of reasons: to catch things they missed, to revisit a favorite world, to find comfort in a familiar and much-loved story. We talk about “digesting” books, and I think re-reading is part of the total absorption in a fictional or nonfiction world.
I think I did the bulk of my re-reading between the ages of 8 and 14. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White probably tops my list, along with The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles by Julie Andrews Edwards, Mr. Pudgins by Ruth Carlsen, The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit, Half Magic and Magic or Not and the rest of the seven books by Edward Eager, Magic in the Park by Ruth Chew (now back in print, hooray!), Gone-Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright, The Witch Family by Eleanor Estes, Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell, My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster (how did that not win a Newbery, by the way?!), The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken, The Saturdays and the others in the series by Elizabeth Enright, A Girl Called Al by Constance C. Green, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, and so many more. I also used to read the Lord of the Rings trilogy every summer, about eight years in a row. (Oddly, I never felt the desire to return to The Hobbit after a reading or two.)
Oh, I know I’m forgetting a boatload of favorites!! I’m not counting books I read two or three or even four times, but books I read ten, twenty times and more. I think I read Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles 21 times. Clearly, there was something there that kept drawing me back: the imagination, the charm, the brightness, the magic, the humor. The bedroom slippers! Mumbleumbledum. (Ahem. I’ll continue.) And Charlotte’s Web! What an endless source of inspiration, simple and profound, funny and sad, full of characters and heart and suspense and lots of love. I read a passage from The Little Prince at my mother’s memorial service, and another from Charlotte’s Web at my grandmother’s. These books became part of the fabric of my being, beats in the rhythm of my heart. I knew lines by heart, maybe even sections. Re-reading didn’t detract from my development as an eclectic reader; it provided something different, a journey I knew I wanted to embark upon yet again.
So, while I happily help kids who are in fact stuck re-reading books because they just can’t find their next great read, I also try to reassure parents, letting them know that re-reading can, in fact, be one of the hallmarks of becoming a fluent lifelong reader.
What books did you read countless times? And do you know why, or is it a bit of a mystery?

The Tipping Point for Diversity — Turning Talk into Action

Elizabeth Bluemle - February 6, 2014

world full of color childThere is a terrific, impassioned conversation happening over at the CCBC (Cooperative Children’s Book Center) discussion group right now, about race and identity and representation in children’s books. In fact, I’ve noticed that this kind of conversation is happening so much more often, and in a deeper, more honest and layered way, than it ever has since I began blogging about the topic four and a half years ago. Much has changed since Where’s Ramona Quimby, Black and Pretty? and A World Full of Color (both about the paucity of diverse children’s books) and The Elephant in the Room (about the striking whiteness of the publishing business itself). What’s changed isn’t, unfortunately, the publishing-diversity landscape; it IS a little bit better, though only just a little. Statistics gathered and assessed by the CCBC folks and discussed by the Children’s Book Council Diversity Committee, among others) — remain dismally disproportionate to the real world. What has changed, though, is that awareness has grown exponentially. The conversation is happening throughout our field, and I think we are finally, finally beginning to approach what Malcolm Gladwell termed “the tipping point.” And that means that we may at long last see a more effective shift from talk into action.
Even if we ignored the human need to hear and share stories that reflect our own lives and introduce us to others’, U.S. population statistics bear out the sheer economic wisdom of publishing diversity and getting past treating black and Latino and Asian and Native American and Muslim (and and and!) stories as “other.” Nearly half of the children born into this nation are not Caucasian. We need to wake up the day care centers and playgrounds all around us and provide books for all of our kids.
We also need to get more agents and editors and art directors and publishers of color into the halls of publishing, and that will only happen if kids in high schools and colleges are exposed to careers in the field. As someone said in a recent conversation at the Kindling Words writing retreat last week, “Send editors to Howard University to talk to students. Send them to high schools in the Bronx and Brooklyn. Let kids know these jobs are out there.” All too often, we make lazy assumptions, that (1) kids of color are also kids from struggling socioeconomic backgrounds, and (2) that they will therefore not want or be able to take the low-salary entry-level jobs at publishing houses. Even if the first point is true for a student, however, the second may not be. An editor participating in the Kindling Words discussion, who is herself white, pointed out that there are many white editors who came from economic backgrounds other than upper middle and upper class. This was actually news to me, and made me aware of my own assumptions here. And of course it’s true; people who are inspired and motivated work hard to find ways to take starter salaries in fields they love. We just need to let young people know about these careers.
In terms of publishing more books by writers of color and/or about children of color, there’s a lot to be done there, as well. In the picture book realm, how about not assuming white is the default race for picture books about families and friendships and other everyday joys and challenges? What an easy way to change the landscape for our children! When it comes to novels, let’s broaden our acceptance of subject matter and a variety of experiences. For example, there isn’t one African-American experience; there are as many ways of being African-American as there are of being white, and it is silly of us not to embrace that editorially.
We need to get out of the “niche” approach to publishing. Sure, not all readers will read all books, but if we market a YA romance about black characters as somehow “niche,” we do everyone a disservice. Matched would have been just as fun a read if the main character were Indian, and our job is to stop segregating books. If we lead the way for the reading public, they will come. If every jacket cover with a brown face is about racial issues, all readers, not just white readers, will suffer from issues fatigue and turn away from those covers. (More book jacket thoughts are in Who Will Create the New Normal?, a blog post I was invited to write for the CBC.) Right now, we are in a transition phase, where publishers feel they must resort to silhouettes and other ways of masking race in order to get white readers to pick up a book featuring main characters of color. I understand why this is, and I agree that it is probably true because of issues fatigue and the legacy of niche thinking, but we need to start tipping the balance now into proudly showing those nonwhite main characters on the covers, backing those books with enthusiasm and marketing dollars, and expecting readers to pick them up. I wrote about this at length for Lee & Low’s wonderful, active diversity blog in a post called True or False: Multicultural Books Don’t Sell.
The Vermont College of Fine Arts has a new scholarship for writers of color, co-sponsored by literary agent Barry Goldblatt. As described in the press release, the Angela Johnson (yay!) scholarship is “a talent-based grant for writers of color attending the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults Master of Fine Arts program. The $5,000 scholarship will be awarded to up to two students annually.” The release cites “the hope of helping attract more writers of color to the leading MFA program for writers of literature for young readers, coupled with the need and desire of the publishing community and readers themselves for more diversity in authorship and content….” I love that this scholarship exists and hope there are many more of them across the country!
As for ourselves, let’s take a look at our own bookshelves, at our reading and recommending and gift-giving habits. Let’s read books outside our own race and culture. Let’s give our white nephews and nieces and children and grandchildren great books featuring kids of color. If you’d like some ideas, I’m still maintaining the World Full of Color database, which boasts more than 950 children’s books (baby to YA) featuring main characters of color where race is not the driving force of the story. (Race is always a major part of identity; what I mean here is that the plot does not revolve around race, racism, intolerance, political/historical events based in racial issues, etc.) Please feel free to share this database with teachers and librarians, parents and friends, and alert me to omissions.
Let’s discover fantastic books and recommend them to each other and the world!
How else can we take meaningful action that will lead us forward to a place where we are recognizing and representing and celebrating and supporting the incredible diversity of our nation’s children? I don’t think there’s a more important, worthwhile thing we could be doing in this field.

A Great Perk of Bookstore Life

Josie Leavitt - February 5, 2014

There are lots of perks to owning a bookstore: galleys, great customers, introducing kids and adults to wonderful books, getting to work doing something I love, etc. There is another perk that I don’t often talk about and that is the friendships I’ve made over the 17 years with some truly amazing authors and illustrators.
The last perk could not have been better illustrated during January. Elizabeth, who owns the store with me, turned 50 yesterday and many of our author/illustrator friends helped her celebrate by contributing a page, or two (they’re writers after all) to her birthday memory album. This project began in December when I hatched the idea for the album. I contemplated getting Elizabeth a “big” present, as significant birthdays tend to warrant. But I knew “things” were not the way to commemorate this one. The album idea struck me and I ran with it. 


Elizabeth in the compulsory birthday hat.

Organizing a birthday album is a series of small steps that have to be followed by the birthday deadline. I began by emailing all the possible contributors who know Elizabeth well to get their mailing address. I wanted to make this as easy as possible for everyone by mailing everyone a piece of watercolor paper that folks could use just about any medium on and affix photos. Once I had the address, I mailed the paper with a return, pre-paid Priority mail envelope. Covering the postage seemed like the least I could as thanks for everyone’s thoughtful and in some cases, time-consuming contributions. I got 60 addresses back and then mailed the papers out and kept my fingers crossed.
Every day was a bonanza at the post office. Priority envelopes flooded my mail box and it was truly amazing. The art that these talented people took the time to create for her was breathtaking. Originally, I was going to bind everything in an album of sorts, but once I got back the first drawing I didn’t dare risk do anything but leave the papers loose in a box. Plus, most everything will likely get framed. I should have known that the authors and illustrators would be among the first to mail back their birthday pages: they’re used to deadlines. And these folks just adore Elizabeth and were thrilled to contribute.
Last night, surrounded by family, she slowly unwrapped the album and we all just oohed and ahhed over it. It was really stunning. There were silly things, heartfelt remembrances, and some truly breathtaking art. All in all, I’d say it was a great way celebrate turning 50.

Allowance Worthy?

Josie Leavitt - February 3, 2014

Every day I see families teaching their kids about the value of money at the bookstore. Questions are asked: is that a want or need? Do you have to get in hardcover? Yesterday at the bookstore I saw two great ideas that were simple and direct.
The first was for a young teen girl. Her mother had gotten her a Visa gift card for Christmas. This card became her spending money because the mom, Denise, really wanted April to learn what happened with credit cards. Of course this card didn’t allow you to spend more than was pre-loaded on the card, but it is the beginning of learning. Learning how you sign your name, what receipts to take (sometimes, this still mystifies me) and the business of buying things. The main thing this young reader learned was sometimes there just isn’t the money for everything you want to buy. It was sort of kismet that the family was getting their book club premium, so they saved $10, which the mom generously donated to April’s hardcover, which then brought the price down low enough that her Visa gift card could cover it. April’s only real grasp of what happened was when I kept the spent card. She looked shocked and said, “Is it out of money already?” I told her it was and she shrugged her shoulders, hugged her book and left the store. Perhaps this lesson bears repeating.
The second money lesson of the day was for a boy about eight. He was with his mom and his best friend who was encouraging him to get a Lego book that came with a toy. The mom wanted no part of it, sensing possibly correctly, that he only wanted the toy. She would happily buy him a book, but not a toy even if the toy came with a book. I could tell David was perplexed about this new wrinkle. But his friend asked him a very simple question, “Do you have allowance money?”
This question causes kids to really consider if they want something or not, and honestly, it may be the single best question to ask a child about whether or not they want a book. Some kids have no idea how to answer the want/need question; honestly, some adults struggle with that. It’s also really hard to grasp the concept of money if you never actually have to spend any. David and his friend, Sam, huddled up and talked about the book. Sam was a savvy shopper and said, “Look, you get a book and a toy! For only $6, plus tax, that’s a deal. That is allowance worthy.” David was convinced. He came over to the register and I rang him up, and he left the store happy.
The allowance question is perhaps the fastest way to discern if a child really wants a book or not. If they are willing to spend their own money on it, then they really want it; if the prospect of breaking into their piggy bank makes them cringe, then they don’t want it badly enough and can wait until they’ve earned the money. Teaching kids about money seems to start earlier and earlier and honestly, I think that’s a good idea. Plus, as a bookseller, it’s fascinating to me to see what kids will spend their own money to buy.