“Excuse me, can I ask you a question?”
“Of course. How may I help?”
“I am looking for a special book. I would like for it to have lots of pictures, and be a good story. And I would like for it not to be too scary.”
“Absolutely. Those are all good features to look for, and I appreciate your asking me for suggestions. May I show you a few books over here?” (We walk slowly toward the picture book section, me pausing just a second or two to nudge the toy shopping cart out of the way with my knee before my customer reaches the big puzzle rack.) “Is this book to be read out loud?”
“Yes. At bedtime. So not too scary, please.”
This conversation, a boilerplate dialog in children’s bookselling, is repeated over and over in bookshops throughout the world, and I will probably have several more just like it this week. None of it is particularly notable, except that it was exchanged with a four-year-old customer. This articulate little guy has been a regular at our story times since his mom carried him here in a pumpkin seat, accompanying his older sister (who is now in second grade, and recently called me ON THE PHONE to ask if her Girl Scout troop could sell cookies outside the shop one Saturday morning). He is not only confident to ask for what he wants by himself, but his mother fully trusts his ability to do so, as she was near the front door scanning our adult shelves for a new book for herself.
Conversational fluency, confidence, vocabulary and knowledge of correct syntax, politeness and specificity…. these are just the beginning of the list of qualities that children develop through regular and enthusiastic exposure to literature. When adult customers stop in to pick up a present for their children or grandchildren, I usually ask what category of gift that they have in mind. We train our staff to say “are you looking for a book and and activity, or a book and a toy….?” to open up the customer’s mind to the possibility of such a combination (and a MUCH more personal gift). Often, though, the adult will say “Oh, they’re SO BUSY. They just don’t have time to read for fun.”
I have learned, over the years, to bite back the myriad of slightly incredulous responses that spring to mind before they spring out of my mouth. Replies like “Oh, really? Do they have time to SPEAK?” or “Wow. That’s amazing. How is astronaut training going, then?” are just not helpful to hardcover sales numbers. The truth is, many adult customers are actually proud of how little “free” time exists in their children’s lives, and how proficiently these kids access technology for entertainment. We recently witnessed a toddler (probably 20-24 months) who was carried into the store staring intently at the screen of a large smartphone. Her mom set her down near the cash wrap, where the little girl stood wide-legged in her footed jammies, holding the phone with both little hands and watching a video, her face just inches above the device. Other customers milled around checking out, kids walked by between the building block table and the train set, but this little one stayed put as her mother grabbed a couple of boxes from the game section, brought them up to be gift wrapped, and finished her purchase by selecting some little impulse items near the register to be tied on top of the presents. She bent down to pick up her child just as the video finished… and the little girl looked up and realized where she was. Mom carried her out the door in full wail, as she had missed the entire experience. She didn’t get to play with the other kids in the store, look at books, or participate in shopping with her mom. All that language, all that social interaction, all those precious moments of childhood that would bear future interest of incalculable amount was lost…. to a video screen and five minutes of “too busy.”
Many of us have seen toddlers in our board book sections, happily sitting down on the floor with a book or two (or six, if the shelf is low to the ground). A few minutes later, the bookseller glances up to see the child “swiping right” with their hand on the page, as if the book was a touch-sensitive screen. The rapid expansion of board book offerings, and explosion of picture book backlist published in board book format regardless of text length or content, speaks not to the growth in early literacy, but rather a compression of the market — parents fear that their child will “damage” a standard picture book with paper pages. Paper pages, just like remote control devices and video game controllers, simply need explanations and regular demonstration of proper use. Children have been happily and quite capably turning pages, listening to stories, and exercising both their imagination and their attention spans through daily exposure to actual books. Books that don’t require Netflix series or YouTube videos or licensed characters with dried fruit snack endorsements are fully able to entertain and enrich all of us, and fit easily in the schedules of even the “busiest” children.
I will hold that little conversation with my four-year-old customer in my mind and heart tomorrow and the next day, as yet another grandparent asks if we have anything “advanced” enough to entertain their tech-savvy preschooler.
“Excuse me, can I ask you a question?”
“Yes, please. Please ask me.”