It is nearly time. I can feel the excitement building with customers, with staff and the local press. The eighth story in the Harry Potter series releases at 12:01 a.m. on Sunday. Special orders are being taken at a dizzying pace, kids are asking if they can come in costume (big YES, to that), parents are figuring out who will be the designated attendee at a party that starts at 11 p.m. Books this big are a boon in so many ways to independent bookstores. We know it was the indies who really launched the Harry Potter series, and we hope to be the ones customers come back to for The Cursed Child. Continue reading
All independent bookstores with some years under their belts have developed special working relationships with at least a few nationally published local authors. Picture book author Lynn Plourde (Wild Child, Moose, of Course and many others) is certainly one of ours. Lynn is a hard-working author whom we have partnered with for school and store events many times over the last 20 years.
Taking me aside at a recent event, Lynn revealed that after 20 years of exclusively writing picture books she was very excited to have a middle grade novel in the works, Maxi’s Secrets, coming out in August from Nancy Paulsen Books at Penguin. There is a comfortable familiarity in these long-term working relationships, a kind of steady narrative flow that Lynn’s unexpected revelation abruptly upended. Happily upended, I may sa,y as It turned out that Lynn’s novel was an absolute delight, the story of a special dog who helped her young owner navigate some difficult transitions occasioned by his move to a new town. I thought it would be interesting to catch up with Lynn about her remarkably smooth late-career genre shift.
Kenny: Let’s start with the obvious question. After 20-plus years of writing picture books you’ve gone middle grade. This gives you a broader age range for school visits, of course, but you clearly had a longer story to tell. What led you to writing Maxi’s Secrets (or, What You Can Learn from a Dog)?
Lynn: My beloved dog Maggie led me to writing Maxi’s Secrets. Maggie, our black Irish setter mix, had been with us for almost 14 years, and she was the best and silliest buddy a human could ever want. After Maggie was gone, I needed to write about her. She’d taught me so much about life being full of tail-wagging moments if only I’d pay attention. So I thought maybe I could do an advice-from-a-dog’s-point-of-view book! Nah—kind of corny. Or a picture book perhaps? Nah—not enough space for such a big story. Then how about middle grade? Ding-ding-woof-woof! The bells and the barks went off—that was it! My favorite books to read are middle grade realistic fiction. Plus writing a middle grade novel would give me enough space to tell a bigger, deeper story. I started with the “core truth” of Maggie’s life, but then I sprinkled on lots of make-believe—turned her into a deaf dog, changed her to a Great Pyrenees (since more white dogs are deaf), gave her a shrimpy boy for size contrast, and added a blind neighbor who wanted her own guide dog. But at the core of all of Maxi’s fiction were Maggie’s truths.
Kenny: My favorite picture book of yours is Thank You, Grandpa, a book that deals with a child’s loss and conveying the meaning and impact of a person’s continued presence in memory. Maxi’s Secrets shares those same themes, and does a wonderful job doing so. I assume that is not a coincidence?
Lynn: First, readers of this Q&A need to know that we’re not sharing any spoilers for Maxi’s Secrets. The book begins with these lines: “Let’s get this part over with—it’s no secret. My dog, Maxi, dies.” So, yes, the dog dies in this book (but as its author, I promise as many laughs as tears).
Kenny, your question implies I know what I’m doing when I write about loss. But the truth is—I don’t. When I write about death it’s because at an emotional level I need to as part of my own grief and healing journey. I want to honor someone special to me who has passed (in Thank You, Grandpa, it was several grandparents; in Breathe, an unpublished YA manuscript, it was my dad; in Maxi’s Secrets, it was our dog Maggie). I want to understand how I can “go on” when that special someone is not physically with me anymore. There’s a saying: “Death ends a life, but not a relationship.” That’s true, but HOW does that relationship transform? I’m still figuring it out.
But I do believe that as a society we are too quick to look away, to move on when someone we love dies. We feel we have to look away because it hurts too much. Death scares us. Our turn is coming. But if we lean into our grief and learn from it, I think we’ll grow and understand this whole life-death journey better. For example, in Thank You, Grandpa, I shared the lesson I learned—that when someone we love dies, we say “good-bye,” but we should also say “thank you for being the only one of your kind in the universe—ever!” In Maxi’s Secrets, I learned that our feelings are close together in our hearts, in our brains, in our memories—the love, the tears, the laughter—and we need to acknowledge and allow room for all those feelings. Part of grieving someone is celebrating that someone as well. If we avoid dealing with death, we not only miss the grieving, but the celebration too, and carrying forward the gifts that our loved one gave us.
Kenny: Was there anything that surprised you on the process side of switching genres?
Lynn: Process fascinates me, and I’ve learned that it is as individual as the clothes we wear and the way we season our foods. When I told other authors I was working on a middle grade novel, I received lots of advice—mostly along the lines to bust through the first draft, tell things out of order, leave blanks, vomit on paper, and then clean it all up later. But that’s not how I work and maybe it’s because I’ve written picture books for so many years. I wrote one sentence of my novel and read it aloud, then I wrote the next sentence and read both sentences aloud, then a third, and so on. That sounds crazy with a 250-page book, but I read it aloud over and over again to “listen” to it and see if the voice felt right, if the words played a little music to my ears. I’ve heard from people who’ve read advance reading copies of Maxi’s Secrets and they’ve said it would make a great read aloud—which pleases me and makes me wonder if all my reading aloud somehow helped.
In another way, the process of writing middle grade was the same for me as writing picture books. I always write too long, always. Then I have to go back and cut things by a quarter or a third. I know that about myself as an author so I don’t let it upset me. I’d rather have too much and go back and cut things than to have too little and have to add things. But, um, for middle grade—that meant cutting 13,000 words! Thank goodness my editor, Nancy Paulsen, was the best book guide showing me how to sculpt, not machete away all those words.
Kenny: Do you see Maxi’s Secrets fitting in with classic canine tearjerkers like Where the Red Fern Grows and Old Yeller, despite having a very different setting?
Lynn: Readers will have to decide where Maxi’s Secrets fits on their canine book lists; that’s not up to me. But I hope it isn’t only a tearjerker for them. I hope they’ll laugh, mull the secrets at the end of each chapter, think about the theme of “fitting in”—whether you’re too short, too big, deaf, blind, different in any way. It’s a book about fitting in and friendship as much as it is a book about loss.
Kenny: Thanks, Lynn!
Lynn: Thank you, Kenny, for giving Maxi a woof out to the world.
Human nature just can’t resist a good reveal. One of our early bestsellers was a racy book for grownups called 101 Nights of Grrreat Sex, a compilation of sealed packets of pages containing instructions for couples to use to create surprise seductions for one another. We knew this would be a terrific Valentine’s Day item, but as a small bookstore that leaned heavily toward children’s books, we didn’t feel it would be quite the thing to display this book boldly on the front counter. But, we *could* wrap it in brown paper, tearing open a small patch on the front that showed the tiniest bit of deep red cover, with a little sign that said, “A gift for your sweetie that’s a gift for you, too.” We would switch out the signs. “You know you want to look.” Or, “This book is so hot, even the pages are sealed.” Customers couldn’t even see the whole front cover, much less flip through the thing, but we sold a boatload of them. Was it literature? Nah. But it was a fun sale. There was something enticing, novel, about what couldn’t be seen.
I know the coloring book craze has taken hold as a way for adults to relieve stress. But I am finding more comfort, as are my friends, by revisiting favorite picture books. I have been struggling with a rare case of insomnia that has me reaching for beloved picture books, both old and new, as the I watch the nighttime hours tick away. There is something lovely about picture books that can not only help with sleeplessness but with many adult stresses. A dear friend is moving to Chicago and we spent much of brunch talking about the impending move and the inherent anxiety around it. She offered that her journal and her picture book collection are helping keep her sane as she prepares to move. Continue reading
Kenny’s charming post yesterday, The DDG Deserving Reader Award Takes Root, reminds me that I have been meaning to celebrate the newest winner of the Flying Pig’s award for as-yet-unpublished humor writing. Every year, we give this award to a Vermont College of Fine Arts student. Back in 2004, when I graduated from their fabulous MFA program in writing for children and young adults, there were several literary awards available to students, but, as with many awards, they tended to go to more serious manuscripts; drama “weighs” more than comedy, although both forms take tremendous skill. So, back at work, we created the Flying Pig Grade-A Number-One Ham Humor Award, or FPGANOH-HA! (Pronounced, of course, eff-puh-gah-no-ha!, emphasis on the ha.)
As unseemly as it is to fall in love with one of your own store’s programs, I’m afraid that fate has befallen me regarding our DDG Deserving Reader Award. The DDG Deserving Reader Award, as reported earlier here by The Shelftalker News Desk, was created when my Harper sales rep Olga Nolan 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.
Before I mention some of my recent best listens, I want to send out a request to publishers to make digital audiobooks as readily available as print ARCs. I am trying to read so many books from current and upcoming seasons; audiobooks are an invaluable help for my ordering. So pretty please, publishers, consider posting audio content to Edelweiss and/or NetGalley.
I have been on an audiobook tear lately. Booksellers are supposed to be reading months ahead of publication dates so that we can make informed orders for upcoming books. This means that we never, ever catch up with the current season’s or—heaven forbid—last season’s books that we’ve been dying to read. While I try to be more strict with myself about the books and ARCs I am reading (future and current seasons), I am more lenient with my listening self.
There are seasons to genres in the book world. Every year I’m amazed at the consistency of customers with their seasonal reading. Summer is the time of light books, mysteries, beach reads, chick lit, and fun books. The winter is the time of dense books that require more thought. Here’s the thing: I’ve never understood this. It’s always struck me that the order should be reversed but that clearly might just be me. There has always been something slightly depressing about reading books with harder themes in the winter when the weather is bleak and it’s dark so early. This is the season that I prefer to read the lighter books that are set in sunny climates. But clearly I’m in the minority based on what’s selling at my store. Continue reading
Sixteen years ago the great African American poet and children’s book author Lucille Clifton spent a week in Farmington as a Visiting Writer at the University of Maine at Farmington. The first time I met Lucille was the occasion when she steamed into the store and headed over to the picture book section. Almost without hesitation she announced, “You need more black faces in this section. The white children in Farmington need to see more faces of color. They can’t just see images of themselves.” Lucille punctuated this last observation by pointing at a picture book on a counter display. The funny thing was that the book in question was I Love You Like Crazy Cakes, which featured an adopted Chinese toddler on the cover.
I pointed that out to her and we had a good laugh over it. Lucille, it turned out, had a great sense of humor and was a panic in general. Afterwards she said, “My point remains.” I responded by saying that we actually did have a fair number of titles featuring African American protagonists and that they were mixed in with the other titles. Diverse books did not have their own section. Lucille asked me to point them out to her. That was an interesting and instructive exercise. I had more diverse books than she thought I did, but less than I thought I did.
The most important thing about being an ally to any cause that isn’t inherently one’s own is to remember to listen more than you speak. I’ve written a lot about diversity in publishing and children’s books in this blog over the years, and it has been a roller coaster of hope and frustration, progress and molasses. And while I sincerely hope my words have been more help than hindrance to the cause, it seems to me that maybe I could be most helpful by stepping aside regularly to share the microphone of ShelfTalker with my bookselling colleagues of color to hear a diversity of voices in this blog firsthand.