Shana Youngdahl, author of the young adult novel As Many Nows As I Can Get, is an exceptional writer. Having an author of her widely recognized ability and rising stature on the faculty of the University of Maine at Farmington has been a remarkable asset to both the university community and the community at large. Shana was hired as an English professor. Her ability as a novelist surfaced during her time here and was akin to having a rare jewel fall from the sky and land in the community’s lap.
Shana is leaving to take a new position as Assistant Professor of Creative Writing in the MFA Program at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri. This occurred not because she wanted to leave UMF or the Farmington area, but because her contract was not renewed and she was let go. Her departure speaks to a broader issue, the profound undervaluation of children’s literature by academic institutions and the literary community in general. There is a strong gender bias at work in that, equating children’s books and bookselling with child-rearing and women’s work.
I suggest that this is a spectacularly ill-advised bias. There is nothing more central to the human experience than the maturation process known as coming of age. It encompasses the navigation of a changing relationship to agency, from being a subject of the world to being a creator of the world. The nature of responsibility, justice, love, personal identity, and morality are all intrinsically centered in young adult novels exploring the coming of age. What could be more important than an engagement with these issues? What could provide more of a bridge to adults working with teenagers and young adults than reading their literature? What could be more important than opening up to the persistent relevance of these issues to an engaged adult?
In my opinion, the failure to value young adult literature by academic institutions is a failure to appreciate the nature of their own mission. I’ll miss Shana deeply on an array of personal and professional grounds, but it is the needless nature of the loss and what that says about our social and cultural values, that I mourn most.
I’ve been given to understand that aliens are having a moment. With secret government agencies set to deliver The Disclosure, which will go way beyond the government’s recently released UFO Report, it seems a good time to me to hone up on our alien knowledge so that the shock of the revealed truth won’t be too overwhelming.
Consider too that in the wake of The Disclosure, aliens may soon gain even more traction in children’s books, dethroning unicorns and narwhals.
Find out now if you are under, over, or well prepared by taking the 10 question quiz I developed. Just click on the image of the first three questions below to take the real quiz.
With the acquisition of Houghton Mifflin by HarperCollins, it has been noted that the century-and-a-half-old name of Houghton Mifflin will now fade away. To understand what that will mean, I turned to the people who clearly have the greatest appreciation of the loss, namely the characters from The Lord of the Rings, Houghton’s signature franchise.
My missive is a bit scattered and hiccupy this week, dear colleagues, for I’m rather overwhelmed with the state of the world, and I fear that in the words of young Walt in John Irving’s The World According to Garp, “the under toad is winning.”
On the eve of the first anniversary of the murder of George Floyd, I look around my little bookstore and see shelves of face-out covers of Black Lives Matter titles. I see picture books and middle grade titles and YA novels featuring BIPOC characters, and analysis of our sales in the last year shows much higher numbers of those featured books than in years past, and my staff can tell anecdotes of customers of all backgrounds looking to diversify the shelves of their young readers. We are trying to do the work of antiracism in the small ways that we can, and we are trying to be present for those who lead us. And yet, last month, more than 300 parents in our community attended a school board meeting to protest the hiring of a DEI officer by the district. I have written and erased at least five different sentences to conclude this paragraph, and there’s simply nothing I can produce to say that’s helpful or wise. There is so much more to do.
A father and his 10-year-old son were in the store the other day, both of them big readers and good customers. The young lad and I had the following conversation.
Lad:I’m looking for What Is the Story of Dracula. Your website said you had a copy in stock.
Kenny: Sure. It should be over here in the Who Was spinner.
Lad: There it is!
Kenny: (Ducks out and grabs a book a few displays down) If you’re interested in vampires you might like Threads of Magic. I just finished it and, aside from being kind of sensational, it had some great evil in it. There are Specters who are kind of soul-consuming cousins of vampires.
Lad: Is that fiction? I really prefer non-fiction.
Our team at 4 Kids Books is spreadsheet-friendly, to say the least. With remote staffers managing customer service issues, online orders, and inventory levels (how many backlist orders are due this month? All. Of. Them.), curbside pickups, delivery routes and social media campaigns, the amount of hourly communication between workers at home and workers on the shop floor would wear out our texting thumbs by Tuesday of each week. So instead, every single category of bookseller tasks in our store, it seems, is logged into a separate shared document with fields for everything from receiving (Ingram is delayed again, call the special orders) to damages (three cartons of bruised random titles from four publishers awaiting credit or call tags at the back door), gift wrapping instructions (all of the Mulhaney bag is for a 4 year old girl who likes green), and special order requests (someone please source 28 copies of an early reader about summer for a teacher who needs end-of-year gifts, and who has a total budget of $30). It all works remarkably well for the staff, and they rarely flinch as a customer pulls up outside in their car, honks, and texts, “I’m here to pick up my order” to the store phone with no other identifying info. (“Oh, that’s Olsen. See the dog sitting in the car seat? It’s a beagle named Larry Bird, look on the sheet. Here’s her bag, but be sure that you staple it. One of the items is a birthday gift for their son from his grandma – that’s a secret.”)
The present, left to its own devices, has all the innate narcissism of a toddler. A healthy, progressive present requires a bit of parenting from the past. With that in mind, I called for book remembrances from our customers to help mark DDG’s 30th anniversary. Here are some remembrances that were sent in and what I learned from them.
Long-term relationships help frame pressing current events. Consider this comment from Maine’s Governor, and 30-year DDG customer, Janet Mills.
Heigh ho! If your store or office is re-opening this month, welcome back. If you are expanding services to reach customers in some new or additional way, I salute your unflagging energy and commitment to bookselling. If, however, you’re one of us approaching a first-year anniversary (or six-month celebration, or three-month star on your calendar) of this Grimm model of retail which involves marketing and delivering books on every platform INCLUDING in-store sales, then this post is mostly for you, and you might nod ruefully, and add your own cringeworthy comments from customers as I reveal the SEVEN DWARVES OF CUSTOMERS (and a few of the spells… er, I mean happy tunes I whistle behind my mask in response).
Our first customer of the day, whom we’ll call Dopey, leads with: “Oh, you’re still here!” This brilliant observation is often followed by the well-intentioned but equally tone-deaf: “I was worried that businesses like this wouldn’t survive!” Thanks, buddy. Yes, we’re still here, and while we understand your worry, we seemed to have somehow managed. How can we be of help today? I’m sure that what our short-on-tact friend means is “Oh, thank goodness, you survived without me, and I don’t have to be inconvenienced or feel guilty, but I still get to shop locally and be part of the recovery (and the free gift wrap).”
If you had told me when I posted my last blog that I wouldn’t be writing another one for 13 months, I wouldn’t have believed you. I won’t lie, it’s been (and continues to be) a scramble as we’ve adapted every process and every approach to every single thing that we do—along with the rest of you. But here we are, and it feels nice to settle back into a routine where we can take a minute to write down what’s on our bookselling minds again.
Our virtual-oriented lives haven’t been all bad, of course. Seeing my colleagues’ home offices, living rooms, kitchens, porches, rambunctious DOGS (including my new one) and crazy KIDS (also mine, who inevitably barge in just when it’s my turn to talk) come and go this past year has offered neat glimpses into each others’ lives—and, I think, has brought us all a little closer. Something about the impact of a shared experience, I’m sure.