Monthly Archives: February 2015

Out of Context

Josie Leavitt - February 9, 2015

Little kids are used to seeing me in one place: the bookstore. When they see me out and about running errands they get a shy smile and just look at me. It’s as if they had no idea I existed outside of the store. Really young children have been to call the store “Josie’s house,” which is adorable, but does speak to the number of hours I can be found there. I had a very funny exchange with one of my favorite three-year-olds on Saturday.
Stella and her family had been to the bookstore and gotten heaps of books. I’m off on Saturdays, so I missed her smiling face. But this day found me helping out friends who own a restaurant down the street from the store. I was working the counter during the busy lunch rush, taking orders and making coffees. Young Stella came in for lunch with her parents. She saw me at the counter and a very curious look crossed her face. It went from confusion (she kept looking back towards the bookstore) to laughter. I greeted her warmly and asked if I could take her order. Her parents and I were chuckling over Stella’s attempts to wrap her head around why I was at the cafe. “You work at the bookstore,” she said. I told her, yes, I did, but sometimes I worked here, too. “Why? How many jobs do you have?” I was just so charmed by her smiling face. I could almost hear her brain working trying to figure out why I wasn’t where she was expecting me. I said that the owners of the cafe were friends and they needed help today, so I helped them.
She came around and gave me a hug. Then she asked if I was in charge of the chocolate chip cookies. “As a matter of fact, today, I am,” I said. Her face lit up. I checked with her parents and they said she could have a cookie after lunch. Stella started pouting until I did what I do with kids who want a book: I asked her which cookie she wanted and we wrapped it up and put it in a bag which she retrieved at the end of lunch. It was the equivalent of putting a book on the special order shelf or noting it down in the wish list book.
As if seeing me out of context weren’t enough. PJ, my co-worker, came to the cafe to pick up lunch for herself and Sandy. Stella’s eyes just about popped out of her head when she saw her. “You’re here, too?” She asked. PJ said yes, Stella literally scratched her head and said quite simply, “My parents are here.” And she skipped back to her table. Every time I looked over while PJ and I were chatting, I noticed she was looking at us, taking it all in.
I think it’s good for kids to see shop staffers in other places, even if it rocks their little worlds. And I must say, Stella’s reaction to me working behind the counter was tame compared to adult customers who came in for lunch, saw me and then leaned in and whispered, “Are things bad over there, that you’ve taken a second job?” I just burst out laughing when I heard this and said I was just helping my friends out. But I’m sure the small-town rumor mill will be rocking with this info and I’ll spend much of next week assuring folks that things are just dandy at the store.

A Dynamic Author Visit

Josie Leavitt - February 6, 2015

Earlier this week, we hosted Kate Messner at our local school and at the bookstore for her new book, All the Answers. To say that Kate puts on a great event is an IMG_4141understatement. She is a force of organization to reckoned with, and seems to possess boundless energy, even at the end of a long day. One very shy girl joined the event while her mother shopped and by the time she had to leave, she was beaming and happily clutching a copy of the new book.
I went back through my emails to see when Kate started planning for her book tour and was astounded to see the first email went out last May!  She’s been planning ever since, and making my life as a bookseller so much easier. She created an email that I mailed to my local schools in May and then the schools and Kate hammered out the details of the visit. One of the really great things about working with Kate is she really tries hard to get indies as much business as possible, by setting up local book sales through independent stores. She also created her own order form that the schools could copy and give to all students. This form was part of the letter. Really, the only thing we had to do was coordinate the book orders and advertise the store event.
Once we got about a month out from the visit, Kate was tweeting and posting on Facebook about the event. She even created a Facebook event that we could share. I mean really, she made it so easy for us. We had a good turnout for the event and Kate’s calm was great. She started the event and people just started to lean forward in their seats. Kids quieted down and were rapt the entire time she was speaking. Kate used to be a teacher and it’s clear she understands kids and how to get them engaged in a presentation. Listening to her speak about her writer’s notebooks made all of us practically start twitching to jot things down. One of the things I love about author visits is how they can inspire kids to start writing. To hear her talk about the evolution of this book and how it all came from one thought that she jotted down in her notebook more than two years ago was a gift of a moment. Kate made writing a book sound so doable that all these kids left thinking about becoming writers.
The other thing that was wonderful about Kate was she book-talked three books by toteother authors  that she loved and was inspired by. That kind of generosity was not lost on me.She spoke with passion about Bigger than a Breadbox, The Red Pencil, and The Case for Loving. Kids were just as enthused by those books as they were by Kate’s. And, she gave us enough notice about this that we had plenty of time to get in those books so we could sell them. She even had giveaways. I left the day energized by the success of the event and vowed that I would try to be half as organized as Kate for my next event. Finally, Kate tweeted about the bookstore when she got home, with a photo no less!

The Ultimate Binge Read?

Kenny Brechner - February 5, 2015

Waiting for books to come out, either the next in a series or an overdue book by a favorite author, may build, or at least strain, our character. Good for us, I’m sure, but binge reading is much more fun. Let us therefore leave the soul-testing labor of locating the Holy Grail to Sir Gawain today and turn our attention to the shallower quest of finding the perfect binge read.
Binge reads can center on a single series of  books all of which are already out, or on the works of a single author. One could go on a binge genre read too, of course, but we are seeking the perfect binge read and an astute observer once rightly defined it as “a finite number of great books.” Genre binging is clearly too open-ended and voluminous to meet our definition. Our first task, then,  is to determine whether the discovery of a single already completed series rates higher than the discovery of a newly beloved author with an established backlist.
From the standpoint of both a bookseller and a reader there is a great deal of satisfaction to be found in a single series that ends well. It should be noted, that even the very best of series written by a living author can be undone by unlooked for and unhappy additions. The classic Earthsea trilogy is a good example. The original trilogy could launch one off on a great binge read only to leave you to crash and burn in the pages of Tehanu, that ill-considered fourth book. Even when later books are only lesser than their predecessors, as opposed to abominable, as in books five and six of Chrestomanci, it still removes the series from being the perfect binge read.
For this reason Fablehaven, The Amulet of Samarkand, and Chaos Walking exemplify great binge reading, because they end cleanly and strongly. Such series are close to perfect but not quite. They are still subject to both waiting for future series by their authors and or possible disappointment with their authors’ backlist.
Given that the most perfect binge read would be “a finite number of great books,” I submit to you that the most perfect binge read is the lifework of a deceased novelist who produced a manageable body of work of uniform excellence. I submit that an example of the ultimate binge read is the complete works of Jane Austen.
One can easily form the wrong opinion of unread classics. Once the mistake is revealed the results can be truly sublime. In the case of Austen she had the foresight to write the perfect number of great novels, just enough to provide complete satisfaction. One is not left in want of any more or any less. Even the original misperception of the character of her novels is rendered amusing and ironic to the binge reader, who encounters similar foibles in the lead characters of the novels themselves.
Agree? Disagree? What do you deem to be the greatest binge read ever?

Diversity: One Thing YOU Can Do Now

Elizabeth Bluemle - February 3, 2015

Before I get into my blog post, of course I need to jump and shout for the books that took home medals and honors at the ALA Youth Media Awards yesterday! Congratulations, all of you wonderful, talented writers and artists!! I was in the audience for the awards announcements in Chicago and was overjoyed to see many of my own personal favorites celebrated. Since everyone in the children’s literature blogoverse is likely to be writing about the awards, I will not, except to say that I was gratified to see a more diverse list of winners across the award spectrum than we have perhaps ever seen before. Thank you, dedicated ALA committees!
I was fortunate enough to attend the Day of Diversity sponsored collaboratively by ALSC (the Association for Library Service to Children) and the CBC (Children’s Book Council). I can only imagine the amount of time and effort that went into planning this event! Thank you, ALSC and CBC, for taking this important step toward action for children and children’s books. The event was the first of its kind for these organizations, and as such there was a limited number of attendees. It felt like a kickoff to what I hope can turn into a two- or three-day conference for hundreds of participants.
(Note: I will recap the presentations in a future post. For those who would like to read up on the day sooner, Debbie Reese did a nice job of presenting the day and her own perspective here, Zetta Elliott posted some of her thoughts here, Edi Campbell posted here, and Sarah Park Dahlen has posted here. Now that everyone is returning from ALA, you can also use a search engine and type in ALA, CBC, and “Day of Diversity” — several blog posts should crop up this week.) If you’re impatient to get to the “what one thing can I do now?” part of this post, it’s at the end.
Every attendee brought a different perspective and range of experiences to this conference. The speakers were eloquent and moving, and the moderators were fabulous. There were some deeply personal stories told and some grim statistics and urgent pleas shared that I will carry with me always.
What I appreciated most was the focus on action, not just talk. This conversation—about the appalling lack of diversity in children’s books and its severe life- and culture-altering consequences—has been going on for decades, and yet little has changed even as the urgency has grown. In fact, some numbers (for both literacy achievement and for diverse representation of ALL of our nation’s people in children’s books) have gotten *worse* over the past several years. With so much conversation happening in the mainstream, especially over the past couple of years, especially with the advent of movements like #WeNeedDiverseBooks and other social media efforts, how can that be?
It can be because the power structure itself, the race and class make-up of the decision makers and gatekeepers, hasn’t changed much at all. It is not inclusive, not by a long shot, not yet. There are hard conversations to be had and radical shifts to be made.
We all know by experience that large-scale social change can grind all too slowly. So what can we do now, each one of us, right now, to create change in our own communities and spheres of influence? “Moving Into Action” panel moderator Satia Orange challenged us at the end of the day: What will you personally do to create change? What will you do by the end of this week? by February 28? and by the end of August 2015? “Do something dramatic!” she said. People were invited to come to the guest microphone and share something specific that they will do to make change happen.
This challenge is such a good one! Specific, concrete steps are the ones that stick and end up leading to long-term, big-picture goals.
So, what can one person do?
Here are a few possibilities, ideas that came out of discussions during the day. I invite you to choose one, just one, to do this week. And one (maybe the same one, expanded, or a different one) to do in February. And then inspire yourself to plan a little bigger to begin by August.
The ideas below are all things one person can do. Really.
1) Adopt a classroom and send the children a book (or books, if you can afford it) every month to enrich and diversify their collection. For ideas on titles, check out The Brown Bookshelf, the CBC Resource Page of book lists, the book lists created for Pat Mora’s Día de los Niños programs, my own World Full of Color diversity database, SLJ’s list of culturally diverse books, Debbie Reese’s recommended lists (one of which is here) and any number of great lists that can be found online. This idea was shared by Crazy QuiltEdi blogger Edi Campbell. It’s so simple and so helpful an idea that it knocked my socks off. Just about anyone reading this post can do this, and spread the word. Gather friends together to sponsor an underserved school! Each friend adopts one classroom and donates a book a month. 

2) Buy a book by an author of color featuring a main protagonist of color. This is pretty simple, folks. And I would add that if you do that at your local bookstore, they will be more likely to continue to stock their shelves with diverse books.
3) Go further and shift your reading habits. Early in the year, I had thought it would be interesting to try reversing the dismal national publishing statistics; that is, I would read 90% books featuring main characters of color and only 10% featuring white people. Unfortunately, that’s unrealistic for several reasons including the lack of books to fill that 90%, as well as my bookseller’s need to read to read a lot of what’s on publishers’ lists to make buying decisions. So what I came up with, what my experiment will be for 2015, is to Read 50/50. I think it’s very possible to alternate in this way, and I invite anyone interested to join me. Thanks to Zetta Elliott, I also just read Ebony Elizabeth Thomas’s Dark Fantastic blog post and learned about NCTE’s 2015 National African American Read In, a month-long reading invitational. Share your reading plan with friends. Share your passion!
4) Help a teacher by alerting her or him to Perspectives for a Diverse America‘s K-12 Literacy-Based Anti-Bias Curriculum. Common Core teaching plans often limit themselves to Appendix B titles, but don’t need to. Link them to Appendix D, a resource for diverse titles and Common Core applications.
5) Partner up. Ask your local hospital to consider including library card applications in the take-home bags at hospitals. If the hospital doesn’t already work with Reach Out and Read, a program that helps distribute free books to families, tell them about it. Same with any pediatricians you know.
6) Chat with a librarian. One librarian at the Day of Diversity mentioned that their system gives kids a “side card” that allows them to check out paperback books even when they have overdue books and can’t use their regular cards. That way, children aren’t ever punished by withholding reading. Talk with your local librarian and invite her or him to consider such a program.
7) Make books your birthday gifts. For adults as well as children, give people the pleasure of a book that you love, and branch out with the choices. Find beautiful books written by authors of color, books that offer mirrors or windows into the lives of main characters of color. Surprise someone with a glorious book!
I’ve got plans for the bookstore, as well, and will continue to blog about our efforts and diversity in publishing and children’s books here at ShelfTalker.
What are your ideas for grassroots diversifying?

The Help of Friends

Josie Leavitt - February 2, 2015

It doesn’t happen all the time, but when I draw a total blank for a customer’s request, I’m grateful to the members of children’s bookselling world for bailing me out. There are two internet listservs that are only for children’s books: the ABC and the NECBA. (I should add, I’m sure there are more, but these are the only two I have access to.) The ABC is part of the American Booksellers Association and NECBA is the children’s book group of the New England Independent Booksellers Association. Having access to other children’s booksellers makes such a difference in my work life.
Bookstores can be very solitary places to work. The only immediate colleagues you have are the life-saving-equipment-250x250staff at your store. But sometimes, everyone draws a blank on a certain title or we just can’t think of books about a certain time period. Yes, there are ways to look these things up, but often they can lead on wild goose chases that are maddening. Sunday afternoon a new teacher came in and was looking for fiction books for her fifth and sixth grade about westward expansion. Admittedly, this is not a topic I’m well versed in. I stumbled along in the middle grade section looking for covers with wagons and western images. I realized this did not make me look all that competent. She was not looking to buy anything that day, she was planning for a unit in six weeks. So I regrouped. I told the teacher honestly, “This subject is not my strong suit, but I can ask my bookseller friends and see what they suggest.”
Yes, I could have gone to any number of internet searches, and had she been needing a book that day, I would have. But her timeframe allowed to go to my friends on the web. Within minutes of posting my query, I got some answers. Sadly, not as many as I’d hoped for, but knowing the collective brain of children’s bookselling world (okay, mostly the world of New England) could help me made me feel better. And my customer was heartily impressed that I could just pose a question of other booksellers and get some pretty speedy answers.
Knowing that I have ready and easy access to the “collective brain” as we call it makes me a better bookseller. I can safely ask questions of people with different strengths than I have. And the beauty of this versus an internet search is booksellers are speaking about books they know and feel confident about. So I don’t have to look up reviews for books I’ve found on an internet search these titles come pre-vetted by my peers. The other great thing about this is the feeling of camaraderie with other booksellers. There is a lovely sense of having backup when I’m at a loss, and that is a lovely safety ring to grab hold of.