When Titles Go Bad

Josie Leavitt -- May 6th, 2009

I’ve been selling books for 13 years. And in those years I’ve helped hundreds, maybe thousands, of people find the books they’re looking for. Sometimes they know what they want, but more often than not they just know they heard about it on NPR and really have no idea what the title is. But they think they do. They cling to their ideas, often repeating the same phrase over and over again, hoping that on the tenth hearing of it, suddenly, I’ll understand what they’re talking about.

A loose collection of words is always not enough information for the bookseller to guess what book you’re talking about. I once had a woman say, in all seriousness, "It’s about sisters, two-word title and the first word is," wait for it, yes, "The." She actually said, "The," like she had bestowed the Holy Grail on me. I looked at her and said, "Seriously? ‘The’?" After extracting more information from her we realized she wanted Jodi Piccoult’s My Sister’s Keeper.  Three word title, no "The." Happens all the time.

For kids’ books we get a lot of enactments. When grown men start hopping around because they can’t remember Peter Rabbit, I pretty much love my job. Goodnight Moon brings lots of great examples, "You know the one everyone has." "The one with the room."  I love how everyone mispronounces Roald Dahl and calls him Ronald. They say, "You know that giant orange book by Ronald Dahl." Series books prove to be a challenge to everyone because they can so often get confused with other series books. Just today, in fact, with the release of the final Percy Jackson book by Rick Riordan, The Last Olympian, I got permutations of Percy’s Olympics, "You know, the one all the kids want" and finally one poor, struggling parent asked for "Artemis Olympics."

Bless our customers for trying so hard and for their goodnatured patience as we try to find the right book for them. My favorite all-time mangled title was "Jesus’s Feet." The customer kept repeating it with more urgency every time, "Jesus’s Feet. It’s Jesus’s Feet. It’s a bestseller, you know, Jesus’s Feet. " Well, I looked for that and then it occurred to me that she wanted Walking the Bible. Once we hit on that, the customer and I had a great laugh.

So, bring me your mangled, your botched, your half-heard titles while taking the kids to soccer and I’ll do my best to decipher your code and together we’ll eventually get you Girl with a Pearl Earring, not "Dutch girl turned to the side."

Periodically, I’ll post some of the doozies I hear, but please share with me some of the great mangled titles you’ve heard.

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