Misreading a Book

Josie Leavitt -- January 12th, 2015

I was at a party over the weekend and several people were talking about Sarah Waters’ book The Paying Guests. Everyone loved it (if you haven’t read it yet, go get it and prepare to get lost for a few days reading) and we all spoke about parts of the book we loved when my friend Hillary just started laughing. The book isn’t a comedy, by any stretch of the imagination. I asked her what was so funny and never expected her response.

It seems Hillary read the back of the book prior to starting it. Here’s where the funny comes in. The 9781594633119back of the book has blurbs for all her other books. Hillary read only the review for The Little Stranger, which is a ghost story. She started her reading with that overlay in mind. “I’m a reading a ghost story,” Hillary thought as she started The Paying Guests. Well, not so much. But here’s the really interesting thing: she read through the entire first part of the book (almost 200 pages) expecting a ghost story, so she kept finding one. In her mind she could very easily see how the rundown house could become a gothic haunting. How perhaps every creak on the stairs was a deceased brother coming back to give a message to his sister. Of course, she didn’t share this at the time, she just kept that to herself silently wondering when the ghost was going to reveal him or herself. This made for an unsatisfying read because the thing she kept wanting, ghosts or supernatural occurrences, never happened.

It was until she got to the end of the first part and the two women became lovers that she realized, “Oh, this is a love story, not a ghost story!” Needless to say, when she shared this at the party all of were laughing very, very hard. This brought up a very interesting discussion about how what we think a book is going to be can be at odds with what the book actually is. And then this got me thinking about how I talk about books with kids. Am I saying too much about the book? Am I focusing on one thing and sacrificing other information that might for a better reading experience?

Kids are very good at reading the blurbs on the jackets, and most kids’ books don’t have reviews of other books on the back, but still it got me thinking about what we say about books before people start reading them and does that color the reading experience. In some cases, clearly, that’s an issue, but in others it’s not. I think the less I know about a book, the better off I am, because sometimes I latch onto a detail or idea about the book and spend my time as a reader looking for that detail, just as Hillary was looking for ghosts.

So readers, I’m curious: how much do you like to know about a book before you start reading it?

The Stars of 2014: Final Round-Up

Elizabeth Bluemle -- January 8th, 2015

Well, chickadees, here it is: the final tally of starred reviews for youth literature for 2014 from the following sources: BooklistThe Bulletin of the Center for Children’s BooksThe Horn BookKirkus ReviewsPublishers Weekly, and School Library Journal. This year, 868 books received 1458 stars from these esteemed review sources.

This is an insanely detail-laden process, and as careful as I try to be, there may be oversights here and there. If you want the cleanest version of this list, check back in a week or two, when I’ll have been alerted to anything that needs fixing. Publishers, if my star count for individual titles doesn’t match yours, please send an email to me at ebluemle at, listing the title and the review sources with dates. Many thanks!

My hope is that this list will help readers find fine books they may have overlooked, and of course to place large monetary bets on the upcoming youth award announcements. (Kidding! But speaking of which, the ALA Youth Media Awards—Newbery, Caldecott, King, Printz, Sibert, Geisel, and many many others—will be announced on February 2, 2015, beginning at 8 a.m. in Chicago, and livestreamed here.)

One note I feel strongly about: critical acclaim doesn’t always align with child appeal, so I would urge parents, librarians, booksellers, and teachers not to overlook titles without stars. Sometimes, books beloved by children don’t receive a single starred review, but still enrich and enchant their lives. The one thing I hope this project doesn’t do is encourage people to bypass titles worth considering that somehow have escaped reviewer attention. If you have some examples of books you’ve truly loved from this year that didn’t receive stars, please post them in the comments below. Caveat: no self-promotion (or promoting a friend, loved one, client, etc.)! Thanks.

And — if you’re willing to share, it would be great to know what your role in the book world is and how you use this list.

Happy reading!


Brown Girl Dreaming. Jacqueline Woodson. Penguin/Paulsen, $16.99

Family Romanov, The: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia. Candace Fleming. Random House, $18.99

Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future. A.S. King. Little, Brown, $18

This One Summer. Mariko Tamaki, illus. by Jillian Tamaki. First Second, $21.99 hc, $17.99 pb

Continue reading

An Interview with the Year 2015

Kenny Brechner -- January 6th, 2015

Another Year walks among us now and I am pleased to offer her insights into what lays ahead in this exclusive interview!

Kenny: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.

The Year 2015: Don’t be silly. It’s my pleasure, Kenny.

Kenny: I’m curious about your portrait. You appear to have just received some profoundly good news. Had you just heard about your appointment as the Year 2015 from The Council of Years?

The Year 2015: That was a grand moment too, but the scene captured in my portrait occurred last week, when I received the letter back from the Upper Council concerning the Damocles Edict. I was so pleased!

Kenny: Hold on a moment. I’m a bit out to sea. The Upper Council? The Damocles Edict?

The Year 2015: Well, Kenny, the Council of Years is a subcommittee which operates under the aegis of The Upper Council. When a new Year is appointed one of our first tasks pertains to making a submission regarding the Damocles Edict, which is then reviewed by the Upper Council.

Kenny: I see. Can you tell us about this Damocles Edict? I mean, I’m familiar with his sword and all.

The Year 2015: Yes, it is the same idea but on rather a larger scale. Actually, you may not want to know about this.

Kenny: I think I do.

The Year 2015: Hmmm. Well, many members of the Upper Council take rather a dim view of humanity. An edict for your destruction was passed in the Year 1520. However the incoming Year 1521 made a case on humanity’s behalf and the edict was revised so that each incoming year must submit one human artistic production made during the current year to The Upper Council. The chosen production should be of such a character as to show humanity’s ability to both perceive what is of fundamental importance and to work toward attaining it. Humanity was given an abeyance of ten years by The Upper Council. If the annual submission is not deemed worthy the number of years until destruction is then reduced by one. If the submission is particularly strong the Council will sometimes raise the counter back upward!

Kenny: Unbelievable. That’s terrifying.

The Year 2015: Yes, you can see why the edict was renamed The Damocles Edict. In any case my submission was of particular importance as the number was down to one.

doryKenny: *Gasp*. I guess the fact that we are holding this conversation indicates that you chose well. What did you send the council?

The Year 2015: I sent them a copy of Dory Fantasmagory. They absolutely loved it and raised the number all the way back up to 10! Unprecedented!

Kenny: Phew. Well spotted! It is a sensational and wonderful book, and I can certainly see how it would save humanity from extinction. Can you share with us some of the other books written last year that you considered submitting?

The Year 2015: Sure! First of all, bear in mind that books which essentially explore and describe the fallibility and quandaries of humanity, however poignantly, do not make for wise submissions to the Upper Council. Hence such books as All The Light We Cannot See, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, or Deep Down Dark, regardless of their excellence, are not quite the thing here.

Kenny: Point noted. Though I would think that lines like this one from Deep Down Dark, “The mine is like him: flawed and neglected but worthy of respect and love,” might be persuasive.

The Year 2015:  That is a marvelous passage, but the Upper Council would have found it to be affirming of their prejudices rather than redemptive. All right then. Two books I did give a great deal of consideration to were The Glass Sentence and The Magician’s Land. Maintaining personal integrity amidst a fractured world, the ability to grow and be strengthened by gnosis, to achieve responsibility and unfettered atonement seemed fruitful to me. I would have felt confident submitting them to the council. Two others I gave thought to were Vanilla Ice Cream, and Julia’s House for Lost Creatures. Those are both books which I felt would have turned the Council’s thoughts in a constructive direction.

Kenny: One last question. If your submission had failed and the Damocles Edict had fallen, would you have died or ceased to be along with humanity?

The Year 2015: No, but I would have been out of a job.

Kenny: Gotcha. Thanks so much, both for taking the time for this interview, and for saving humanity.

The Year 2015: It was my pleasure on both counts, Kenny.

How to Turn Kids into Readers

Josie Leavitt -- January 5th, 2015

As the first week of the new retail year begins today, I had some thoughts/wishes for the year. There are always conversations that occur at the bookstore that make me realize helping children become readers is hard work. Not just teaching kids how to read, but creating patterns where books are vital to their lives. I realized that there is a lot of shame with reading and our job as booksellers is to mitigate that shame with joy. Continue reading

The Oddest Week of the Year

Kenny Brechner -- January 2nd, 2015

georg-wilhelm-friedrich-hegel-german-philosopherIf Friedrich Hegel had been a modern-day independent bookseller, the period between Christmas and New Year’s would have been his favorite time period. It is the most dialectical week of the year, I mean to say. Consider the sudden extinction of momentum, followed by the retrograde motion of reflection and exhaustion arcing back around and then upward toward restoration and re-invigoration. Consider also the spiraling vortexes of inventory taking and replenishment, alongside the retrograde action of accounting and tax preparation. It’s Reason in History made flesh, and I’m certain Hegel would have loved it. Speaking for myself, I cannot claim to be so lofty. I find it to be the oddest, most disorienting week of the year. That being so I sought some guidance from Friedrich Hegel himself.

Brechner: One thing I wonder about is whether to bring Plenty More back in with numbers. Normally cookbooks don’t sell much outside the fourth quarter but that one is just so exceptional.

Hegel: Oh indeed. I think you should. Eating vegetables is hardly a seasonal event, and the book’s novel organization, aligned with its stunning graphics, give it every indication of being a world historical cookbook.

Brechner: Thanks. Was there any strong seller this season that you do think was very holiday-specific despite not having an overt holiday theme?

hegelHegel:  This may be hard for you to hear but I’m going to speak of Crap Taxidermy. I know you did wonders with it but with the holiday season gone by it will go back to being a fun thing to flip through at the store and cease to be the perfect gift for anyone with a sense of humor.

Brechner: I hear you. But what about the bigger picture, that subtle sense of transition, of the store’s identity shedding a skin and needing to be slightly reinvented at the very moment one feels most inclined to coast and preserve its culminating annual moment? How does one embrace the annual mundane year-end pressures when one is least disposed to them?

Hegel:I can understand your sentiments, but movement has no sentiment.  And whether you direct it or are simply subject to it is your province. But think, does the helmsman ride the storm only to run upon a reef in calm waters the next day due to inattention?

Brechner: Good point. Well, thanks for sharing your perspective with us.

Hegel: Not at all. And do bear in mind, as you move forward, that our epoch is a birth-time, and a period of transition. The spirit of man has broken with the old order of things hitherto prevailing, and with the old ways of thinking, and is in the mind to let them all sink into the depths of the past and to set about its own transformation. A very happy New Year to all of you.

Your 2015 Reading Resolutions?

Elizabeth Bluemle -- December 31st, 2014


Ah, 2015, we welcome you with open arms and hopeful hearts. As many of us set new goals for more alert, thoughtful, better lived, better experienced, better managed (ha!) lives, some are also thinking about the reading year ahead.

One Vermonter we know has set out to read the Modern Library’s 100 Best English-Language Novels of the 20th Century. Not in a single year, but she is determined not to read anything else until she’s finished those one hundred books. It’s an admirable goal, and one I would borrow from with a few tweaks for myself.

The Modern Library list is solid canon fare, mostly by deceased white male writers in the Western tradition. I would love to find a classics “best of” list that draws from a broader variety of authors and countries and perspectives. In children’s books this year, School Library Journal‘s 100 Best Books of 2014 was such a breath of fresh air to peruse — it’s a lively list, full of wonderful rich diversity, and it feels to me the way a collection of books should be. It’s inclusive, unexpected, and full of gems. I would like to find an adult list of classics — for my purposes, classics that have stood the test of time — that feels as fresh and diverse.

I’m tempted to simply plumb the depths of the New Directions catalog. The books are delicious. I also always love David R. Godine’s taste in books; to fully populate my imaginary ideal reading list, I would likely need to draw from some more non-Western sources as well.

New Directions 2

Some of New Directions’ most popular titles.

Any suggestions?

Regardless of where my adult literary adventures take me, I know that in the world of children’s books, I plan to double-down on my efforts to read as many diverse offerings our author and publishing colleagues bring forth as possible. And I am looking at some ways to revamp my diversity database to reflect changes in what is needed in 2015, as opposed to in 2009 when I started it.

Most importantly, what are YOUR reading resolutions for this year? Are there authors whose *entire* bodies of work you want to read? (Katherine Paterson! Naomi Shihab Nye! Gregory Maguire! Grace Lin! Kate DiCamillo — oh, wait, you’ve already done that? Good on you! Christopher Paul Curtis! Louise Erdrich! Gary Schmidt! Natalie Babbitt! Gerald Morris! Diana Wynne Jones! Margaret Mahy! Richard Peck! Ursula K. LeGuin!) Okay, I’ll stop for now. Sooo many good ones out there; the few I’ve identified here have so many titles published that reading all of their books would be a nice, yet doable challenge.

Are you planning to read more books this year? Or read more nonfiction, or fiction, or poetry? Try reading new kinds of literature? Are you planning to write a book?

Editors, what do YOUR reading resolutions look like? I suspect they are different from the rest of ours, even though we are in this field together. Fellow booksellers, how about you?

Please do share your thoughts with us. It makes us so happy to hear from you!

Finally, thanks so much for taking the time to read Josie and Kenny and my posts here at PW’s ShelfTalker. And thanks to our fearless editor, Diane Roback, for somehow managing both to give us free reign and keep us in check, as needed. Each year, we all think about what we are bringing to PW readers, and how to make our posts better, more fun, more interesting, and worth your time. Feel free to share your ideas on how we can best serve you in the comments below or by email (mine is ebluemle at

Happy New Year, everyone!


Holiday Round-Up

Josie Leavitt -- December 29th, 2014

This is the last Monday recap for the year. The last week proved to be busy, fun, and creative. We saw more people come shopping than ever before. In speaking with other merchants in Shelburne, everyone reported sales were up this year over last year.

I think this is from the combination of factors, but the chief thing I attribute it to is the group advertising the shops in the village did together. mBuying ad time as a block of stores, rather than just one or two, helped build momentum for Shelburne stores. The beauty of my town is if someone comes for just one store, because of the ads they were made aware of the other stores and stayed in town longer for their shopping. People would come to our store with bags from other stores around town and that was a lovely sight. Continue reading

A Tale of Two Counters

Kenny Brechner -- December 26th, 2014

The holiday season, for booksellers who are at the store every day,  is a single long wave and as it begins to recede tired minds sift through the happy debris of warm, funny, odd, and intense moments that remain. Here is a woman coming in to replace the Elf on the Shelf which the family dog had mauled. “It’s not his fault,” she reported. There’s a four-year-old girl telling us how she’d picked out  Uni the Unicorn as a gift for her father. “He’s going to love it so much!”


Our friends at Mainestone Jewelry.

One of these moment I wanted to share occurred a week ago, last Thursday that is. Sam, one of my college staffers, was looking around the store for interesting items to help demo the Mirascope sitting on our cash register counter. A fun thing about the Mirascope, winner of the Best Science Toy at our Stocking Stuffer of the Year Awards, is to try out different objects in it. He had the idea of going two stores down the street to Mainestone Jewelry, one of my favorite local stores, and a very good neighbor.  They have a display of small stones for 25 cents each.

twocountSam was away much longer than expected. He returned with a cup full of intriguing objects, small stones, pins, medallions, and broaches. “They couldn’t stop playing with it,” said Sam. “They gave us all this stuff for free.” I immediately sent him down with a free Mirascope as a thank you. Ten minutes later customers who had seen the Mirascope on the counter at Mainestone started filing into the bookstore to buy them from us.  In five days, between our two counters, I had sold all 64 Mirascopes I’d had on hand when I sent Sam down the street. It wasn’t a calculated marketing move, just the holiday season at work among downtown neighbors.

Visions of Sugarplums, Gift Cards, and Checkmarks

Elizabeth Bluemle -- December 24th, 2014

Every year, Josie buys 40 lbs. of these delicious plum-flavored jelly candies (called “sugarplums”) from our friendly neighbor, The Shelburne Country Store. We keep a little plate of them–constantly refilled–for holiday shoppers to sample throughout the day all month long. Needless to say, this is a popular December feature at the store.

A few snapshots of the penultimate day before the holiday:

1) A grandmother comes in for her annual $100 gift card for her granddaughter, a child young enough to think of the card as her “credit card.” She comes in excitedly with her credit card all year long until the amount finally runs down and it’s time for a new one. Adorable.

2) A new customer asks to look through our supply of free bookmarks sent by publishers and authors to pick out several for her five-year-old grandson. He’s beginning to read, and is very serious about it. Whenever they pull out books to read together, he insists on getting his bookmark first so they can be sure to keep his place. Only, he calls it a “checkmark” instead of a bookmark. Again, adorable.

3) Not one, not three, not five, but eight kids who have grown up with the bookstore for the past 18 years have come in to say hello, chat, and find books for their family members. It’s hard to explain how charming it is to see these young adults come home from their far-flung new homes, and learn how their child selves have morphed into these beautiful, independent, grown people doing wildly varied, interesting things. What I love most is to see how they have, to paraphrase Kant, “become what they [already] are.”

4) After a long, busy day on the sales floor, I cap off my evening with a showing of It’s a Wonderful Life on the big screen at a local theater with friends. Retailers are often among the last people to have time to get into the swing of the holidays personally, because we are so focused on this month — 30 days that can account for 30% or more of our annual sales. So two hours in a theater filled with people who also get teary when the townspeople pour in to offer George their support is a terrific way to feel the spirit of family and friendship and holiday.

For those of you who have just finished Chanukah, and for those of you about to celebrate Christmas, and for those who celebrate any holiday or no holiday at all — I hope you are cozy, enjoying the glow of the people you love, and surrounded by brand-new books to see you through the winter nights.

What are the books you hope to get as gifts? Or have gotten and can’t wait to read?

Shelftalker and PW are on holiday for the next few days. We’ll see you next week.


An Unexpected Gift

Elizabeth Bluemle -- December 23rd, 2014

The other day, Sandy took a phone call from a customer who was ordering some gift books. At some point, it was clear that the customer began telling her an anecdote, because Sandy said, “No, I hadn’t heard that story.” We don’t have a lot of time to listen to stories over the phone at this time of year, so I knew it must be something special. And it was.

The customer told Sandy how, many years ago, she and her son had moved away from their town in Massachusetts. They didn’t know anyone in Vermont, and her son did not want to move. To make matters worse, the new Harry Potter was coming out the day after they moved, so he wouldn’t be able to get the book from his favorite store with all of his friends. The mom called the little bookstore in their new town (ours), and discovered that we were indeed selling the new release at midnight. She told Sandy, “We came to the store, and not only was my son able to get his book, but there was a party going on to celebrate. We didn’t know anyone there, but there was such a strong sense of community. That night changed our whole feeling about the move. We knew we had moved to a good place, and that everything was going to be all right.”

I’m not sure if I can articulate how touching that was to us. That anecdote sidled into my heart alongside the child whose beloved dog had to be put down and all she wanted to do afterward was come to the store for a while; we were her blankie that day. For a bookstore to be able – just by EXISTING – to make someone feel included or comforted, well, that makes all the struggles worthwhile. (Well, that and connecting readers with fantastic books.)

For the customer to share that story was a gift to us this holiday season, and we are truly grateful. Like all retailers this time of year, we find ourselves both happy and utterly fried. We love and admire and are amused (and occasionally frustrated) by and so greatly appreciate our repeat customers. What they bring to the store — their stories, their trust in our recommendations, their own book suggestions, their senses of humor, their patience, their passion for reading, their investment in our business — is essential. Without them, we simply cannot be. And so I head into this last day and a half of craziness with a very full heart.

I like to think of all you readers out there able to slow down for the next week or so, enjoying the holidays and vacations of all varieties that you may spend with your loved ones sharing stories, sharing books, toasting loved ones who are no longer with us but are still so present, and reading for as many hours as your little hearts desire.

Mazel Tov and Merry Christmas!