Books We Love Most but Recommend Less….

Elizabeth Bluemle -- January 10th, 2013

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?

18 thoughts on “Books We Love Most but Recommend Less….

  1. Kelsy April

    A little late on the response here, but I love this topic, and I love what Carol has said about hand selling to children as opposed to adults. Kids will tell you want they want, and what they don’t want. Show them a copy of a book, tell them a little bit about it, and they will either say “that sounds awesome!” or “no way, that sounds boring”. Great! I admire their honestly and straight forward answers. Adults, on the other hand, will politely nod and smile when you’re trying to hand sell them a book that they have no interest in, and then sneakily shove it on a shelf, where it doesn’t belong, when you’re not looking.

    Being a very young children’s book buyer, and very new to the job, I draw mostly from what I read as a child when I hand sell to kids, as well as what ever frontlist I’ve read since taking on the job last September. So there is a pretty huge gap of gems I’m sure I’ve missed. But here are some backlist books that I adore
    Graveyard Book
    Speak
    Go Ask Alice
    Perks of Being a Wallflower
    The Outsiders
    Will Grayson, Will Grayson
    Roald Dahl
    Beverly Cleary
    Wrinkle in Time quintet
    Chronicles of Narnia (some children to whom I have recommended this series had never heard of it…WHAT!?)
    and a whole lot more.

    I think this topic has inspired me to bring back some of my favorites instead of just selling what I ordered and never seeing them again!

  2. Deborah Nelson

    As a bookseller in a store that I don’t own, I have to work very hard handselling what I think are great children’s books from the past that most customers don’t want to take time to hear about. It’s all about what is NEW and good and God forbid doesn’t have a subject like cancer (thank you Carol Chittenden for the remark about trying to sell John Green’s “Stars”) or death of a child in Prisciilla Cummings, “Red Kayak.” Also owners like to only re-order what has sold. They don’t get the idea that children grow and move on to other reading while there is a constant market for literature that speaks to children’s needs and maturing at the right stage of development. I only hope that I can remember and recommend the titles of the “greats” before they go out of print.

  3. Shutta Crum

    Love the idea of going back to newsletters and reminding yourself of books that “knocked your socks off.” I, too, often do not remember to recommend books that moved me . . . though they are like favorite aunts and uncles with whom I have laughed, or on whose shoulders I have sobbed my heart out.

    “Night John,” “Maniac Magee,” “The Goats.” (To name only a couple.)

    Perhaps it is that the experience of reading these was so personal that I place these great books on a fragile pedestal. As though I fear to hear that these titles might not move another as they moved me. (Of course, then I have to slap myself up alongside the head . . . and remind myself that this is precisely why they should be shared.)

    Good post.

  4. Jeannine Atkins

    I love this post, too. I think we’ve all felt this hesitation in bringing forward darkness or depth. I’ve even heard authors apologize for themes in their own books. That reluctance to seem the bearer of bad news goes deep.

    I can remember not just my eyes but my whole face turning long when someone hand sold me Homecoming, with its synopsis starting off with a mother leaving her kids. I’m so glad she kept saying stuff like really, really, really it’s good. I so remember that moment, followed by important nights reading with my daughter, though I’m afraid the presser-on-of-books was just left with an impression of how reluctantly, politely, I took the book. When you do speak up for those books you may flub sometimes, but when you succeed, you will be cherished.

    And, yes, shuffle is cool unless you accidentally leave it on for an audio book. Which a friend (really, not me) just told me he did for Life of Pi and wondered about why all the narrative shifts.

    1. Elizabeth Bluemle Post author

      Jeannine, it can be so hard to convey the wonderfulness of a book, especially to parents whose instinct is to not inflict sorrow on their children! (Of course, as children and teens, we often want and need to dive into books that go deep, go dark, and make us cry. And sometimes as adult, too….) I do try to find something in the *plot* that helps lure the reader in. When I recommend Homecoming, I do mention the mom disappearing into the store and Dicey realizing she isn’t coming back, but I dispatch that part quickly and get to the ‘adventure’ of traveling on their own to get to their relatives’ house. That is the part that seems to grab readers and parents. I try the “it’s really really really good” thing, and that works with people who already know and trust my recommendations, but with new customers, I find that doesn’t work as well; their eyes remain polite but skeptical until I mention a specific detail about the book that perks curiosity.

      P.S. Life of Pi on shuffle made me laugh out loud. If ever there were a book that would NOT benefit from shuffle, that is it!

  5. Kenny Brechner

    Great topic. Whenever I discover for a fact that a favorite book has slipped off my handselling radar, is out of stock at the store and hasn’t been ordered in a while, I find myself absorbed in the question you raise. Beloved books deserve our loyalty as ambassadors, but as you so rightly point out, we can’t afford to cast a wide net. The tricky thing, of course, is that books which provoke a strong, deep seated response, such as Harriet The Spy, often, by nature, divide humanity into two groups. Namely, those who totally get them, and those who don’t at all. In fact that division of humanity, and how to cope with it, is an essential aspect of the storyline of Harriet. The same is true for books with unusually imaginative narratives. Walter Moer’s 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bear is a great example. Some kids feel as though they have finally found what they were looking for in a book, an inexhaustible source of pleasure, humor, and wonder, others feel as though they are chewing on a mattress. I hesitate to handsell it without knowing a very good deal about the recipient. Alas.

    1. Elizabeth Bluemle Post author

      Harriet the Spy! The heartbreak of this one is that so many kids have seen the movie that they aren’t interested in reading the book. And it’s formative for the right readers, as you mention. (I keep meaning to read Walter Moer.)

      1. sharon

        one of my very favorite books as a child! I totally remember spying on my neighborhood and having a notebook like Harriet..she rocked, great character…

  6. Joy Corcoran

    Great column. It’s always a good idea to go back and look through your library and reading lists a few times a year so that you don’t forget old friends while recommending new ones. I like to encourage re-reading old favorites with kids. It’s fun to find new things in a beloved book that we didn’t notice before and see if we still feel the same about them. Thanks for prompting me to do that — I tutor reading to foster kids and may just start the year out with Harriet the Spy, one of my old favorites.

  7. Sarah Lamstein

    The Stone Quartet by Alan Garner is below everyone’s radar. It’s slow-paced, majestic, and magnificent. Anything by E.B. White, especially Stuart Little. More droll books: The Wind in the Willows, Winnie-the-Pooh, and Polly Horvath’s Everything on a Waffle. And what about Virginia Euwer Wolff’s Make Lemonade and Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust? – both powerful.

    Warms my heart to see you list Aretha and Amy on your sound track.

  8. Carol Chittenden

    Recommending to kids is much freer than recommending to adults: they don’t panic if you say there’s death or illness as part of the story. Abuse? Bring it on! Drugs? Show me how! Gratuitous gore? They want more! Sadness? They’ll wallow deeper. Idiotic relationships? Gimme perversion!

    Whereas one attempts to tell an aunt that her teenage niece will love The Fault in Our Stars because it’s about how love and romance are for everyone, EVERYONE, even people with cancer. “Cancer??? Oh no, her ………… (fill in relative) just died of cancer.”

    To be fair, as I’m buying the spring lists, I find myself avoiding YA titles that hang on paranormal elements, prom dresses, prison riots, apocalyptic visions, teen plutocrats, or secret psychic powers. One of each is about all we can shelve and sell. On the other hand, clashes between ideologies, parental nuttiness, self-discovery, personal quests, and splashes of humor will always get a second look.

    Those old favorites? They’ll come around again. Suddenly a movie contract, a fresh cover image, a public scandal will revive this one and that one. Don’t despair!

    Two days ago I went on a remainder buying jaunt in a huge warehouse. Though it was sad to see a few old classics on their pallets, the VAST majority of remaindered books in the ENORMOUS warehouse are the exact sorts we never bought to begin with, or bought one and returned it months later unsold. Junk is junk, jewels are jewels. Some jewels are best saved for special occasions.

  9. Jeanette Larson

    Sometimes I can’t quite articulate why a book appealed to me and then I don’t recommend it because I don’t have a hook to link to the next reader. I don’t always recommend A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly because it is hard to describe and has so many flashbacks that require careful attention.

  10. Tim tocher

    I love Brian Selznick’s THE DINOSAURS OF WATERHOUSE HAWKINS but seldom recommend it during school visits. There is so much history in the tale that a middle grade student could really sink his teeth into. Yet, so many kids in that age group feel like they are taking a step backwards if they read a picture book. The strange thing is that none of that reluctance seems to apply to the graphic format. If it’s not too late for a New Year’s resolution, I vow to push WATERHOUSE this year. It’s too good to miss.

    Tim Tocher, author of ODD BALL: HILARIOUS, UNUSUAL, AND BIZARRE BASEBALL MOMENTS

  11. Sara

    I was *just* thinking the same thing the other day about David Almond’s books! I also rarely recommend The Wheel on the School even though it’s such an interesting story and has some great quotations. Some books, like Mr. Popper’s Penguins or A Wrinkle in Time, I don’t often recommend, because I assume everyone already knows about them, even though I’ve been proven wrong several times! As for picture books, Stellaluna used to be one of my prime go-to books, but I haven’t recommended it in ages, even though I love it. I’ll stop there. I can already see this reply getting longer and longer. Great post!

  12. Jennifer

    I tend to recommend more funny, fantasy, and adventure as well just because it’s so much easier to booktalk those type of books. They generally have “hooks” especially funny ones, that make them easy to give a talk that grabs the attention. I think too that many of the kids who would enjoy the quieter, more introspective books tend to also be the ones who don’t ask for recommendations but prefer to browse alone. I’ve solved this gap, at least on school visits, by taking along a selection of these overlooked titles and putting them out for the kids to look at after we do the the bells and whistles booktalks, when I’ll have the chance to talk them up individually.

    1. sharon

      great point, Jennifer! I tend to do the same, but like your idea of incorporating the quieter but amazing reads..for instance I like Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, but have had a harder time “selling” this one, so to speak…perhaps putting it out there would help

  13. Nina

    Tangerine by Edward Bloor, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson and The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander. I rarely recommend these because the first touch difficult subjects and the quintet seems a little old-fashioned.

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