Monthly Archives: June 2016

The Auspicious Arrival of ‘Underground Airlines’

Kenny Brechner - June 30, 2016

When Summer mentioned here that “there are actually two great novels coming out this summer which are both built around the Underground Railroad…. Read them both, I say,” I decided to take her advice and was very glad I did from many vantage points.
Ben Winters’ Underground Airlines, which I read first, is an alternate history, set today, which posits that the Civil War never happened. Lincoln’s assassination, which occurred on the eve of his first inauguration, led to a compromise, enshrining slavery as a legal institution in the existing slave states. Four slave states, the Hard Four, of which, brilliantly, only three are named, remain in contemporary America.
The story is presented by a remarkable first person narrator, an ex-slave bounty hunter whose equally rooted cynicism and honesty pulse through the book, tethered to his almost visceral intellectual acuity. Winters’ present-day America is terrifyingly credible and wonderfully inventive and the novel manages to work completely as both a thriller and as social commentary. Indeed it should be a required read in every high school in this America, as well as in all alternate Americas.
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Being Psychic Comes in Handy

Josie Leavitt - June 28, 2016

Every day in bookstores across the country, customers come in with perplexing questions. They are seeking books they’ve heard about somewhere but can’t quite remember where. They are hazy on title and author but they are almost certain the cover of the book they’re seeking is blue. The covers are always blue. (But that’s another blog post.) There are easy ways to know what customer might be talking about by knowing what books have had a big media push, what books are coming out that might be getting talked about, and what books other customers have been buzzing about. This is all good, in theory, to help customers find the books they’re seeking. But sometimes we are given the barest of bones to go on. Continue reading

Talent Everywhere I Look

Elizabeth Bluemle - June 27, 2016

I think my favorite part of last week’s Children’s Institute was meeting six new booksellers, all with stores less than a year old. It’s joyful to meet these energetic, determined folks. They’re all so different, and so hopeful and full of great ideas.
Two of these booksellers happened to be at the Seven Stories dinner for one of my favorite authors, Julia Alvarez, in celebration of her lovely, poetic picture book addressing children’s questions about death, Where Do They Go?, illustrated by Vermont artist Sabra Field (published by Triangle Square, dist. by Seven Stories).
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Three Maine Authors and Three Questions

Kenny Brechner - June 23, 2016

That's Margy on the right, Eva in the middle and Fran on the left

That’s Margy on the left, Eva in the middle, and Fran on the right.

As part of our Children’s Book Week events in May we had three upstanding Maine picture books authors in the store at the same time: Margy Burns Knight (Talking Walls; Who Belongs Here?), Fran Hodgkins (Secret Galaxy; Andre the Famous Harbor Seal), and Eva Murray (Island Birthday; Well Out to Sea: Year-Round on Matinicus Island)—Tilbury House authors all. Margy and Fran are old campaigners while Eva, though new to picture books, took home the prestigious Lupine Award this year. There was such a robust flow of shop talk going on that I took the opportunity to ask them a few questions before they left the store.
Kenny:  The main reason (if there are any) that out of staters should read a Maine (or Maine-authored) picture book?
Margy: I want all readers to know that we have many ways to tell stories and we should be hungry to know as much as we can about everyone, everywhere… all over the world!
Fran:  I’ve written a lot of Maine-oriented picture books and I love the idea that when someone takes home a copy of Little Loon or Andre the Famous Harbor Seal, they are taking home a souvenir that lasts longer than a T-shirt or fudge.
Eva: Maine is one of those parts of the country—perhaps like Texas, or Alaska, or New York City—that plays a special role as a sort of American icon, but with that comes a lot of stereotyping, a lot of cliché. People who have never been here or who have only visited briefly sometimes think they know what Maine is all about, and often they fall back on the same tired old standards, even down to “Ha  ha, do you even have running water?” A picture book with a Maine theme has an opportunity to broaden a child’s (or anybody’s) perspective, and to present a more well-rounded, more accurate, or more interesting vision of some aspect of Maine
Kenny: The most difficult challenge you have as a picture book author on the business side of things?
Margy: For me the challenge is communication. I don’t want to learn about foreign rights via a cryptic email. Pick up the phone and make a call… something I have reintroduced to my business plan!
Fran: I think the difficult thing, as far as business is concerned, has been how hard it seems to be now to sell just a manuscript for a picture book. I’ve had agents tell me you really need to be an author-illustrator to succeed. While I understand that from a business point of view, as a writer it’s a bit discouraging. That said, though, I think for me, personally, a big challenge has been finding my own voice.
Eva:  I am new to children’s books, working primarily as an essayist, columnist, and non-fiction writer for the past 15 years. I had a lot to learn, and you can be sure I am still learning! A children’s book is much more of a collaborative effort than people tend to think. By all accounts, it is rarely the case that an author or illustrator gets to see their “dream” children’s book produced—untouched—because there’s an expert hiding behind every page! We have to learn when to take advice—which is sometimes difficult for us but often the right tactic—and when to hold our ground as artists, or as people who know their subject best. Having a mutually trusting and respectful relationship with editors and others who work on “your” project is so important.
Kenny: If you got a birthday request from your five-year-old self to read her your favorite line from one of your own books and one from your favorite picture book in general, what would they be?
Margy: My line to a five-year-old is from Welcoming Babies…. Every day, everywhere babies are born and we have many ways to show them we are glad they came into the world.
My favorite line is from Linda Sue Park’s .Bee-Bim Bop. “Hungry ,Hungry for Bee Bim Bop.”
Fran: One of my favorite quotes was is from Ferdinand: “His mother saw that he was not lonesome, and because she was an understanding mother, even though she was a cow, she just let him sit there and be happy.” I think of my own books, one of my favorites is from The Secret Galaxy: “Gravity holds everything together; no stars get left behind.” For some reason, I find that line reassuring, and I think the kids do too, especially after we’ve discussed how huge the galaxy is and how fast everything is moving.”
Eva: My five-year-old self was an odd kid, but that odd kid still commands a lot of “space” in my middle-aged mind. One of my favorite children’s books right now is Marven of the Great North Woods by Kathryn Lasky, which isn’t really a childish book at all, it’s a bit of American history, a true story. Marven is a young immigrant boy from Duluth who takes a job as the bookkeeper in a French-Canadian logging camp in northern Minnesota in 1918. The boy has to wake up the late-sleeping loggers, including the huge and intimidating Jean Louis. He learns to shout, “Leve-toi, Jean Louis, leve-toi!” into the massive ear. That became a one-liner around my house for a while when people were being lazy and unwilling to start the day.
A favorite line from my own book would have to be the offhand, snarky comment made by the impatient boy Riley to his friend Ruth, the postmaster, who has just shown him the “upside-down Jenny” (airplane) stamp: “I wish our mail plane would come, right-side-up OR upside-down!”

Kindness Wins Over Amazon Customer

Josie Leavitt - June 21, 2016

We’ve all had customers, usually institutional ones, where you fight hard to get them, then lose them, then win them back again with new systems in place. For my bookstore this customer was an upscale retirement community down the road from the store. This community, known as Wake Robin, is really wonderful and is chock full of readers, and it boasts a very well-stocked library. They ordered from us for years until they got a new treasurer who decided that our discount wasn’t good enough and shifted their new book purchases to Amazon. Needless to say, that hurt on many levels.  Continue reading

Sometimes All It Takes Is a Squeeze

Josie Leavitt - June 20, 2016

There are challenges from customers all the time. Challenges to “find the perfect book” or a toy that will “be loved forever” are heard every day in bookstores all over the country. We are used to these requests and rise to meet them happily. Last week one of our more eccentric customers came in and threw down a challenge for a birthday card for his friend turning 50. “I’m looking for something dirty.” Admittedly, in all the years we’ve been open, this was a request I’d not heard before. But I had to consider who was making the request. James is 6 foot 6 and often known around town as a nice nut, a person who just says what he’s thinking and has a heart of gold, so I wasn’t surprised about his request. Continue reading

Proof of the Importance of Mirrors

Elizabeth Bluemle - June 17, 2016

In the past 10 days, three small encounters offered unexpected moments that underscored how powerful is people’s need to see themselves represented, especially in mainstream culture.
Last week, our thoughtful, observant staffer, Sandy, pulled me aside and said, “You have to see this video! A little girl with a prosthetic leg gets an American Girl doll with a prosthetic leg, and her reaction is so amazing, it made me think of your diversity posts, how vital it is for children to see themselves in books and toys and media.” Sandy told me that the parents had contacted American Girl and explained what they were looking for. The company obligingly sent them a doll that looked like their daughter, down to her single leg. Then the parents sent the doll to a prosthetics lab, which outfitted it with a snazzy prosthetic accented in hot pink, their child’s favorite color. American Girl even sent a sweet letter to the child, explaining the doll’s happy, well-cared-for journey. Continue reading

The Deserving Reader Award

Kenny Brechner - June 16, 2016

Booksellers are sheltered beings. Almost all the people who come see us in our shops like to read and can afford a book. Wearing rose-colored glasses is a fine thing, but there are times we need to expand our field of vision. Here’s an example.

Olga Nolan, terrific Harper Rep and difficult person to find a picture of.

Olga Nolan, terrific Harper rep and difficult person to find a picture of.

I got a call the other day from my Harper rep, Olga Nolan. Olga has been my rep for over 20 years and is a tremendously good egg. She called to say that she wanted to help celebrate DDG’s 25th anniversary by donating $25. The money, however, had to be spent at the store by a child who loved to read but whose family couldn’t afford to buy him books.
That was going to require a little thought. I told Olga straightway that the child she described wasn’t going to be located in the bookstore. By definition virtually all the children who come into the store are in a position to own books.
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Books That Spark Empathy

Elizabeth Bluemle - June 14, 2016

One of the great miracles of books is that a few marks on paper can spark lasting empathy and compassion deep in our souls. Tragedies like the Orlando massacre have origins beyond a simple lack of empathy, but I can’t help wondering if a child nourished with plenty of worthwhile books is more likely to view others with greater tolerance and acceptance. I flip-flop between thinking that’s a naive view and knowing how powerfully books can help shape minds and hearts.
Let’s compile a list of our favorite books that stir empathy most beautifully. I’ll start:
The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf — A peace-loving young bull, stung by a bee, accidentally misleads human onlookers into thinking he will be a great fighter. In the ring, however, his gentle nature reveals itself. A striking, funny, lovely book about letting people be who they truly are.
Crow Boy by Taro Yashima — A painfully shy schoolboy has trouble making friends until his teacher sees a talent no one in class has noticed before. Perhaps less well known than some of the other books on this list, this Caldecott Honor book is a beautiful homage to the value of looking beyond surfaces.
Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress by Christine Baldacchino, illus. by Isabel Malenfant — A little boy loves the orange dress in his classroom’s dress-up box, and his male friends think this means he can’t play astronaut with them. But Morris shows them that being a boy isn’t limited to such narrow definitions. A sweet, quirky book about joyful individuality.
The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, illus. by Louis Slobodkina — A shabbily dressed girl new to school claims she has 100 dresses at home and is ridiculed by her classmates, who don’t know anything about Wanda and her life. Perhaps still the most powerful book for young readers about bullying, from the point of view of a classmate who didn’t speak up, this Newbery Honor novel is short, memorable, and oddly gentle for a book with so much impact.
George by Alex Gino — George, a fourth-grader born a boy, has always known she is truly a girl. Inside, she is Melissa, and Melissa really wants to try out for the role of Charlotte in the class production of Charlotte’s Web. Most importantly, she wants her friends, her classmates, and her mother to see her authentic self. (There are also several wonderful books about the trans experience out there for teens: Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger, Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky, If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo, Luna by Julie Ann Peters, and more.)
ShelfTalker readers – what books have had the most profound impact on your own developing sense of empathy, as a child or as an adult? I’ll post a complete list with responses next week.
In the meantime, my heart goes out to everyone in my great big beautiful LGBTQIA community, and those who care about us.
A side note: very strangely, when I was gathering titles and images for this post, my Ingram database searches didn’t bring up any of the titles with gay or trans content. I’m not sure if there’s a glitch in their system, but someone needs to check out the database.

Work and Tragedy

Josie Leavitt - June 13, 2016

The attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando on Sunday morning that left 50 people dead and scores more injured made work yesterday a bit of a challenge for me, my staff and my customers. It was a challenge for me because I am a member of the LGBTQ community, and locally we are still reeling from the murder of a transgender man three weeks ago in what is being considered a bias incident. I am also on the Board of the Pride Center, so as news of the horrific attack unfolded, the Pride Center kicked into high gear planning a vigil. Here’s the thing that I forget sometimes: work doesn’t stop when there’s been a tragedy. Nor should it. There is something about bookstores that comforts people during times of crisis. Continue reading