The Funniest Reasons Customers Reject Books

Elizabeth Bluemle - December 7, 2009

We do a lot of handselling at our store, and not just in the children’s section. People who shop at independent bookstores generally enjoy talking about books, and many become used to getting a bookseller’s imprimatur on a novel or nonfiction title before they commit to buy it. While the reasons people choose books surprise us occasionally, the reasons they reject them are infinitely various.

One of our most loyal, longtime customers flatly dismissed Water for Elephants because "I don’t do books about elephants set during the Depression." Didn’t matter that about a hundred of her closest friends had read and loved it; she was unmoved: no elephants during the Depression. We still laugh about this with her.

We had a customer reject a book that delights us—Kevin Sherry’s I’m the Biggest Thing in the Ocean—because the cover was "too blue."  Well, okay then. She wouldn’t even look inside! What a loss; it’s a terrific book. But of course we found something less blue that suited her just fine.

A very earnest new mother once turned down The Story About Ping "because the duck gets spanked at the end." It’s a quick bop on Ping’s behind as he scurries up the boat ramp, late to join his siblings, but that was too much. "I worry about the message it sends," she said. While I do see her point in a broad way, and would prefer to err on the side of nonviolence in general, The Story About Ping is hardly The Lonely Doll. (Actually, I loved The Lonely Doll as a kid, though the spanking was definitely, um, unsettling. See right.) What I mean to say is, dozens of my friends grew up with Ping and were not traumatized, nor became spanking parents.
This weekend, Josie was helping an older customer who came in to look at nature books for her four-year-old grandson. Josie handed her a little stack of nonfiction possibilities, along with a charming picture book about a friendly man who uses his truck and backhoe and chainsaw to help his neighbors throughout the year. The book is Here Comes Darrell by Leda Schubert and Mary Azarian. The customer loved it, at first. Then came a spread suggesting that Darrell might put in a pond for someone at the edge of some woods. The customer was incensed. Not a single environmental impact study had been made or mentioned! She refused the book. "I can’t have Johnny growing up to think you can just put a pond anywhere," she said. Never mind that Johnny was four, and would surely learn (if not from training or education, then certainly from his grandmother) that digging a pond is not to be undertaken lightly.

When I put out a call on the children’s bookseller listservs for some of their rejection anecdotes, Camille DeBoer, co-owner of Pooh’s Corner in Grand Rapids, MI, had these to share:

Funniest (or sad) customer rejections:

Taro Gomi Coloring Books: "if he colors in these, how will he know he can’t color in just any book?"

Books in general: "Don’t you think in the internet age, kids are bored by books?"

Three Bears (Galdone, maybe, I can’t remember): "The middle bear doesn’t look enough like a girl"…referring to a possible relationship with which the customer did not agree. [Shelftalker can’t help adding: "Yes, where are all those eyelashes and aprons and big hair bows that bears in the wild wear to identify themselves as girls?"]

King’s Equal: "She really likes girly stories but I don’t want her growing up all princessy and feeling subservient to men."…The book is called the King’s EQUAL!


Booksellers, what’s the funniest failed handselling experience you’ve had? Customers, what’s the strangest reason you’ve ever had for turning down a book suggestion?

45 thoughts on “The Funniest Reasons Customers Reject Books

  1. ShelfTalker Alison

    So funny, Elizabeth! Thanks for sharing these! Once, years ago at the Dartmouth Bookstore, I was helping a VERY difficult and haughty customer who was interested in purchasing a “classic” picture book for her grandchild. I was showing her every classic (old or modern) we had in the store and in the process pointed out Curious George. “Oh, I’ve always HATED Curious George!” she said, then added in a very angry tone, “Maybe it’s because I was bitten by a monkey as a child.” She didn’t elaborate, and I was forced to move on to making other suggestions and pretending she hadn’t just dropped the ODDEST statement in my lap! When she finally left having bought I-can’t-remember-what my colleagues and I dissolved into fits of giggles. I laugh every time I remember that day!

  2. shelftalker elizabeth

    That’s hilarious, Alison! I love it. You reminded me of a customer who wanted a TV-tie-in series book for her seven-year-old daughter. I didn’t have any on hand, and when I tried to show her any number of wonderful other books, she waved her hand dismissively at all of them and said, “My daughter has very discriminating taste.” Riiiiiiight.

  3. pink me

    Unfortunately, most of my stories along these lines are just depressing. I’ve had kids staring hungrily at Babymouse and Amelia Rules while Mom has insisted to me that she wants “classics” only. When I offered the Tom Sawyer graphic novel, I think she thought I was just being a smartass. :paula

  4. Curious City

    I had a woman ask for “books on folding paper, you know, orgasm.” I took her to the shelf with origami books and told her “I did not know people enjoyed it so much.” She scurried from the store buying nothing. My bad.

  5. bookwaller

    I had a customer refuse to buy Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli because the title wasn’t printed on the cover (only the great graphic of a girl with a star over her head). She found that “unprofessional.”

  6. Paula

    Many years ago when I was a clerk at B. Dalton, a customer asked for kids’ Christmas storybook on the birth of Jesus. I found several books for her, but the customer insisted on a photography book. She actually said “don’t you have any books with photos of Jesus in Bethlehem?” I still laugh when I think about it!

  7. readermom

    Some of those are very funny (and yes, sad!) But sorry, I also avoid books with any mention of spanking when reading to my kids (Bedtime for Frances is one). They don’t know the word or the concept, and I don’t see any reason to introduce it — at this point they don’t need to know that it was ever acceptable to hit children, or that some parents still do it. There are many other great books out there to be read!

  8. Rachel

    Ping is an awful, awful message for kids. It’s not that he gets a spanking — it’s that the book’s message is that if you don’t let your family hit you (or do whatever else to your body that they deem okay and you don’t), you’ll be outcasted and that is far, far worse than just taking it. A dangerous message for any child who might be recieving more than the occasional deserved spanking.

  9. shelftalker elizabeth

    Rachel, it’s interesting. I haven’t read it recently, but as a child I never absorbed that message. Certainly different readers would read different things in any book, but I suspect the strongest influence on any child is environment, not one book among many, many books. Ping seems to be a divisive title, and I’m hoping the comments can get back to the funny reasons people reject books. Clearly, the Ping thing is not funny to many.

  10. Daniel Kirk

    Hope you don’t mind a response from an author. I was doing a school appearance last week and I was in the teacher’s lounge signing books when a teacher came in and expressed interest in buying one of my books. The PTA mom in charge told the teacher she had a few copies of my second Library Mouse book, “A Friend’s Tale”. The teacher was not interested. I said, “you don’t have to know the first book for the second book in the series to make sense. They’re both stand-alone volumes.” Without even glancing at the book, she answered, “No, it’s just that second books are never as good as first books, so I know I won’t like that one.” The PTA mom and I spent the next half hour scraping our jaws off the floor.

  11. Julianne Daggett

    As an artist there are some cover types I like and some cover types I don’t like and I will and do reject books because of the pictures on the cover because the pictures are not to my liking. For example I hate pictures with big thick black lines and the book has to be very good or sound very good for me to buy a book with thick black lines on it (which I think are ugly). P.S. Paula I saw something similar once when a father tried to embaress his adult son by looking for Christmas story Jesus books with books with pictures of Jesus and then he pulled out his wallet full of his sons baby pictures in it and asked the entire store if they wanted to see his son’s baby pictures. I have no idea why he wanted to embaress him that way but he did.

  12. John Ginsberg-Stevens

    I work at a used bookstore (Autumn Leaves Used Books, in Ithaca, NY), and we get the oddest reasons for not buying a book. One customer turned down a beautiful leatherbound Shakespeare collection because it had “too much” leather. Another refused to buy a first-edition Vonnegut because we wouldn’t sell it to him without the dust jacket. There are just so many weird reasons why someone rejects a book. . . .

  13. shelftalker elizabeth

    Yes, Leda, I think a teacher’s guide is in order. Fortunately, there are many irresponsible pond-diggers out there who love the book. John, since the dustjacket is, what, 80% of the book’s value, heck, take it off his hands and clothe a naked first edition. (Kidding! Ethics! I am just skating on the edge with this blog these days.)

  14. Jenn

    Several years ago while working as a bookseller I had a costumer return Green Eggs and Ham because her children were vegetarians. Apparently she didn’t even want them to know such things existed!

  15. Nicole

    I once had a librarian who was trying to stock a brand new school library, and she only wanted “classic” picture books. She rejected almost all the titles that we presented to her (CURIOUS GEORGE, GEORGE & MARTHA, GOODNIGHT MOON–she felt that they were not “classic” enough, and that kids would not connect with them…not sure what she meant by “classic” picture books then…); each was tossed aside for a particular and bizarre reason, but the one I can really remember was for HARRY, THE DIRTY DOG, because it was “obviously” racist.

  16. pinkofemme

    Having worked as a bookseller, the most dispiriting reaction is the show a book with a girl protagonist to someone buying for a boy, and have the customer a boy would/could never be interested in a girl’s story. I’ve had similar reactions when showing books with characters of color on the cover (Nobody’s Family Is Going to Change has been rejected because, Lord forbid, it’s about a black girl). Those are the dispiriting rejections. Rejections based on silliness were always much easier for me to turn around than ones based on prejudiced assumptions; I’ve asked about the monkey bite, but it’s hard to challenge a customer’s bias and maintain “customer service standards” – one of my long frustrations with retail.

  17. pinkofemme

    I apparently didn’t read over what I’d typed to catch the myriad typos. Corrected version is below… Having worked as a bookseller, the most dispiriting reaction to encounter comes after showing a book with a girl protagonist to someone buying for a boy, and have the customer say, “a boy would/could never be interested in a girl’s story.” I’ve had similar reactions when trying to sell books with characters of color on the cover to white families (Nobody’s Family Is Going to Change has been rejected because, Lord forbid, it’s about a black girl). Those are the dispiriting rejections. Rejections based on silliness were always much easier for me to turn around than ones based on prejudiced assumptions; I’ve asked about the ‘monkey bite,; but it’s hard to challenge a customer’s bias and maintain “customer service standards” – one of my long-standing frustrations with retail.

  18. KT Horning

    Librarians face this sort of rejection, too. I once had a mother ask me for a book for her 10-year-old daughter. She wanted a well-written book with a strong female character. Her daughter liked historical fiction but wasn’t a very good reader so would prefer a short chapter book. “Sarah Plain and Tall” immediately came to my mind, and when I suggested it, she said, “Oh, no, that won’t do. My daughter is short and beautiful.”

  19. Mary Quattlebaum

    Doing a signing for one of my picture books, I once had a little boy ask if I could sign another book. He explained patiently and politely that my book about a girl planning a surprise party for her mom wasn’t as interesting to him as the Titanic early-reader in his hand. After I explained that it wouldn’t be right for me to sign what someone else had written, we compromised: I signed a napkin. And here’s a story from my sister, a former bookseller. A customer came in looking for “Hamlet” but refused the book offered because she wanted the “version with Mel Gibson in it.” (Apparently she thought the movie and actual book were two different Hamlets!) My family still laughs to this day over those two stories.

  20. Julie L

    While working as a children’s librarian in a busy branch, I assisted a girl from a gifted classroom who was looking for books about a “gifted” person from history that she could research for a historical re-enactment day. Rather than explain that gifted testing wasn’t done until recent history, I simply pointed out that those people written about in our biography section had achieved greatness in many fields of endeavor. She decided to select Franklin D. Roosevelt. The next day she returned with the books: her teacher said that FDR wasn’t gifted and she had to pick someone else. (I told her that, since I did not have her teacher’s definition of “giftedness” and how that applied to historical figures, she was welcome to try any other of our biographies that looked interesting to her.) By the way, I would very much have enjoyed seeing her teacher’s authoritative “gifted” list….

  21. Spellbound

    After I suggested Encyclopedia Brown to a mom looking for something for her son who loves mysteries, she said that she was wary of books “that old, back when they used words like ‘stupid.'” (I’m still smarting over the “that old” part.)

  22. JJW

    I really liked the sequel to Ping. My kids wanted duck after Ping got eaten. Just kidding. Are we on a humor page or a psychotherapy page?

  23. Sybilla

    The “pond” problem reminds me of an email forward of a letter written to a Pennsylvania governing board. The land owner had been told he didn’t have a permit for the recent ponds built on his property. He wrote a hilarious letter about why the beavers, the pond engineers, didn’t need one.

  24. Chris Speakman

    And here I thought I was silly because I balk at books that family/friends insist I must read…over and over and over again. I actually refused to watch (okay this is a movie, but same idea) The Titanic because of all the hype. Thanks for sharing

  25. Lukesh

    As a life-long Science Fiction and Fantasy fan, I always loved striking up conversations with my fellow nerds in the SF&F section of the bookshop where I worked. One day I began what I thought was an interesting discussion with a gent there, and recommended several things to him. After a moment he said “You know books that expand your mind, make you want to think, make you question the nature of humanity and wonder why and how we do the things we do? Yeah, I hate that s**t. Gimme something with dinosaurs or a war.”

  26. Rebecca L.

    I worked in an educational toy and book store for a few years and was always frustrated by customers who wouldn’t even let me tell them what the book was about if it had a girl on the cover. Even if the cover was a collage with boys, trees, whatever–if it had a girl, it was out. One customer refused a book about a purple monster because purple was a “girl” color. And, though not a book, I had a man get excited about a bubble lawn mower I suggested until he saw the picture on the box which showed a girl pushing it. He said “That’s no good! I’m buying for a boy.” He left the store so fast I didn’t even have time to turn the box around to show him the other side–a picture of a boy pushing the mower

  27. Rachel Hochberg

    Just a few months ago, in the giddy aftermath of The Graveyard Book’s Newbery win, I had an older woman actually point it out to me on the shelf while I was helping her find some books for her nephew. She asked me if I’d read it, and I told her I had and that I thought it was great, and it would be a good choice for the age and reading level of the kid she was shopping for. She replied by telling me quite vehemently that she’d read it too, and thought it was “sick,” and that she would never give it to a child to read. I was so stunned that I just answered, “Well, I thought it was a fantastic book,” and moved on to help another customer.

  28. SamRiddleburger

    I’ve just got to chime in about Ping. Ping isn’t about spankings. (And no one in his family spanks him anyway…) Ping is about accepting that life is not wild and wonderful but not always pleasant and sometimes you’ve got to make tough decisions and take your lumps. It’s a perfect lesson for all ages. Probably many more adults need to read it than kids.

  29. bookgazing

    I have a friend who will not buy books unless they are printed in a very specific size font (not large print – that would be fine). As far as I can wokr out about 90% of books are not printed in this size.

  30. Joan

    Just have to weigh in on Ping…I started reading it to my 3-year old nephew, but when I came to the “last one would get a spank,” part, he got very tense, and every time I turned a page, he asked, “Is he gonna get a spank?” Finally, after many reassurances that it would not be a very big spank, we finished, and I said, “It’s okay now, no more spanks.” And he said, “But if you read it again, he’s gonna get another spank!”

  31. Rachel Seigel

    Years ago when I was working in a children’s bookstore, a mother came in with her four-year-old son, and wanted something scary. In fact, she insisted that he absolutely loved Alfred Hitchock, and the 39 Steps. No matter what we showed her, it wasn’t sophisticated enough for her little tyke. Just when I was ready to throw up my hands in exasperation, she said “do you have any Little Bear? It’s his favourite”.

  32. Joanne Fritz

    Great post, Elizabeth. I enjoyed reading all of these. My funniest customer rejection in recent memory was when a grandmother insisted she wanted the ORIGINAL Hansel and Gretel. I found a copy of the Grimm version — figured you can’t get more original than that. But she leafed through it, growing increasingly agitated. “No, no,” she insisted. “This isn’t the original. It doesn’t have the song.” And she started singing right there in the store, “When At Night I Go To Sleep” from Englebert Humperdinck’s opera. I could hardly hold in my laughter as I gently explained to her that I believed the fairy tale came first. She still wouldn’t buy the book and walked off in a huff.

  33. penandpress

    Turning the tables… I went into a small independent bookstore to pick up a copy of Huckleberry Finn in an east coast summer community and was told they didn’t carry it because it contained objectionable language.

  34. shelftalker elizabeth

    This falls under the subject heading: Funniest Reasons Customers Reject Birthday Cards. A grandmother asked me if I thought a dinosaur card was too much of “a girl’s card” for her 4-year-old grandson, because the dinosaur was pink and purple. (The whole card was done in bright Fauve colors.) She was not receptive to my reassurances; the clincher was her recalling that the new baby in his family had gotten all pink things. I directed her toward an unambiguously “masculine” bulldozer card, but she rejected it because there were three figures in the machine’s cab, and her grandson’s family has four figures. People are getting extremely literal.


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