My iPod was playing during a long drive to Boston, and somewhere amid Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, Aretha Franklin, Amy Winehouse, Moxy Fruvous, and Yo Yo Ma (don’t you love shuffle?!), I came upon a lecture from Vermont College professor Julie Larios. She was talking about David Almond’s Skellig. Listening to her words brought the fascinating appeal of that novel rushing back. I remembered discovering the book; I’m pretty sure we received advance reading copies and fell in love with its strange magic before publication. David Almond burst onto the American children’s literature scene with that book. And as much as I loved Skellig, I loved Almond’s next novel, Kit’s Wilderness, even more. Skellig is still on kids’ radar because they come across it in schools, but Kit’s Wilderness has all but disappeared – and it was an extraordinary piece of writing and storytelling. Yet, these days, I rarely find myself recommending either book to kids looking for suggestions. Why on earth is that? Why is it that some of my all-time favorite books – some of the most powerful, moving, beautifully written books I’ve come across in children’s literature – get shunted aside for lighter books when I’m handselling to kid readers?
It’s not just that we are busy introducing kids to all the fantastic new books coming down the pike. Even among backlist favorites, I have realized that I often don’t recommend titles I loved. Am I worried about kid appeal? I do recommend scads of older backlist books that I loved as a child: Edward Eager, Eleanor Estes, Julie Andrews Edwards, and all the great award winners and classics that are classics for a reason. I automatically trust my recommendations that come from my childhood reading self. Perhaps I’m less confident that what I discover and love as an adult will translate to today’s child reader. But I don’t think that’s the whole story.
There are many contemporary backlist and midlist titles that are part of my perennial handselling repertoire. But when I stop to think about it, those books are often funny, fantasy, or adventure stories. Partly this is because those are three of my favorite genres. And before I get pelted with tomatoes, let me reassure readers that I am not saying that humor, fantasy, and adventure are less worthy or have less depth than straight dramatic titles; I just suspect that we (or I) may subconsciously perceive them as ‘safer,’ more universal, recommendations than books with more serious themes. Intellectually and from my own experience as a lifelong reader, I know that’s ridiculous. I loved all manner of books as a child, and while I adored books that made me laugh and that delighted my imagination, I treasured the ones that also made me think, that moved me, that gave me windows into other worlds and showed me many ways of navigating human emotion and interaction.
I love these books I sometimes forget or even hesitate to recommend, love them with an abiding passion. In addition to Kit’s Wilderness, I’m talking about books like Francisco X. Stork’s Marcelo in the Real World, Cynthia Voigt’s Homecoming and Dicey’s Song, Nancy Farmer’s A Girl Named Disaster, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, Ellen Wittlinger’s Hard Love, M.T. Anderson’s The Pox Party. Is it that a book like Kit’s Wilderness is harder to handsell because it doesn’t have an easy narrative hook, the way fantasy and adventure novels more often do? Is it that the audience for many of these books truly is narrower? Or is it that, given just five minutes with a reader I don’t know well, I’m reluctant to stir those deeper waters?
Whatever the reason, or set of reasons, it is my job to keep beautiful, worthy, wonderful books alive for young readers. That is one of the best possible uses of my time and efforts. So one of my vows this year, one of my real New Year’s resolutions, is to go through 15 years’ worth of Flying Pig newsletters to remind myself of what knocked my socks off — and to bring those books back into the forefront at the store, helping to knock the socks off a whole new generation of readers.
What backlist titles do you love and hold close? Which do you recommend to young readers? And do you ever find yourself holding back? Why?