Spoofy Brilliance + the Anti-Anti-YA Book List, Compiled

Elizabeth Bluemle -- June 13th, 2014

Earlier this week, I posted a call to gather titles to counter one writer’s Slate article dismissing YA books as not suitably literary or complex reading for adults. Suggestions poured in, and I’m posting the list of books below.

First, however, I wanted to share the first bit of my favorite response to the Ruth Graham article. Titled “A Young Adult Author’s Fantastic Crusade to Defend Literature’s Most Maligned Genre,” it was posted on by YA writer Kathleen Hale, and it begins this way:

Last week, I read Ruth Graham’s article “Against YA.” In it, Graham contends that adults should be embarrassed to read YA novels. Instead, grownups should focus their attention on serious, “literary fiction” that grapples with “big ideas about time and space and science and love.”

As a YA writer myself, I was understandably offended. I’m not some schlocky trash-peddler. I’m a serious author, capable of far more than maudlin plot twists and clichéd dialogue. That’s why I decided to confront Graham in person.

I picked her up outside the graveyard before nightfall.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” she said, as we stepped into my father’s beat up Chevy. We were going 70 miles an hour, two girls with different colored hair.

“Why did you say that about YA?” I asked, as tears streamed down my face like rain.

“Because it’s true!” she hissed. And I saw in the moonlight that her anger made her beautiful. This was before the war, when the oceans still had water, and the moon was still visible in the sky.

Hale’s post continues, hilariously, in this vein. It is clever, spooftastic fun, but also a glorious, smart reply to the issues raised in Ruth Graham’s article.

And now for the Anti-Anti-YA Book List of complex, rewarding young adult reads no one should be ashamed of reading and enjoying. The aim was to include only realistic YA, but a few fantasy, alternative reality, and graphic novels sneaked in. Thanks to all of the ShelfTalker readers who contributed:

13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher

17 and Gone by Nova Ren Suma.

33 Snowfish by Adam Rapp

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Afterparty by Ann Redisch Stampler

anything by Sarah Dessen

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: The Pox Party by M.T. Anderson

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross

Berlin Boxing Club by Robert Sharenow

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

Black Juice by Margo Lanagan

Bone Dance by Martha Brooks

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Breathe My Name by R.A. Nelson

Candy by Kevin Brooks

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Confessions of a Hater by Caprice Crane

Crossing Stones by Helen Frost

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

Dark Dude by Oscar Hijuelos

Deerskin by Robin McKinley

The Diviners by Libba Bray

Downriver by Will Hobbs

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Every Day by David Levithan

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Fat Angie by e.E. Charlton-Trujillo

Fighting Ruben Wolfe by Markus Zusak

Finninkin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta

For the Win by Cory Doctorow

Gil Marsh by A.C.E. Bauer

Going Bovine by Libba Bray

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

Grave Mercy by R.L. LaFevers

Gringolandia by Lyn Miller-Lachmann

Guy in Real Life by Steve Brezenoff

Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger

Heart’s Delight by Per Nilsson

how i live now by Meg Rosoff

How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford

Hush by Eishes Chayil

I Am J by Cris Beam

I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak

I’ll Be There by Holly Goldberg Sloan

If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson

If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan.

The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

In Darkness by Nick Lake

Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

Jumped by Rita Williams-Garcia

Kingdom of Little Wounds by Susann Cokal

The Kings Are Already Here by Garret Freymann-Weyr

The Knife of Never Letting Go (Chaos Walking trilogy) by Patrick Ness

Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Saenz

Lessons from a Dead Girl by Jo Knowles

Liar by Justine Larbalestier

Life as We Knew It (Mooncrash series) by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Life: An Exploded Diagram by Mal Peet

Like the Red Panda by Andrea Seigel

The List by Siobhan Vivian

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Looking for Alaska by John Green

Love is the Higher Law by David Levithan

Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaria

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews

Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

My Book of Life by Angel by Martine Leavitt

My Soon-to-be Sex Life by Judith Tewes

No Safe Place by Deborah Ellis

Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr

The Opposite of Hallelujah by Anna Jarzab

Paper Covers Rock by Jenny Hubbard

the perks of being a wallflower by stephen chbosky

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

The Piper’s Son by Melina Marchetta

Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King

Pointe by Brandy Colbert

Postcards from No Man’s Land by Aidan Chambers

Prisoner of Night and Fog by Anne Blankman

Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Sean Griswold’s Head by Lindsey Leavitt

The Secret Side of Empty by Maria E. Andreu

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Served Anytime by Sarah Combs

Shine by Lauren Myracle

Since You Left Me by Allen Zadoff

Sister Mischief by Laura Goode

Skim by Mariko Tamaki (graphic novel)

Solace of the Road by Siobhan Dowd

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You by Peter Cameron

Sorta Like a Rockstar by Matthew Quick

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Stick by Andrew Smith

Stoner and Spaz by Ron Koertge

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton

Suckerpunch by David Hernandez

Tamar by Mal Peet

Taste of Salt by Frances Temple

Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan

The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

This is How I Find Her by Sara Polsky

Toning the Sweep by Angela Johnson

Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan

The Tyrant’s Daugher by J. C. Carleson

Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

Whale Talk (and other novels) by Chris Crutcher

Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley

The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

Winger by Andrew Smith

With or Without You by Brian Farrey

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina

A Mysterious Sales Spike, Revealed

Elizabeth Bluemle -- June 12th, 2014

Written by Soman Chainani, illustrated by Iacopo Bruno, published by HarperCollins

Recently, the store has had a run on copies of The School for Good and Evil. The book has been out for some time in hardcover (published May 2013), and sold very well here in our neck of the woods, above average in its genre but with a quieter level of customer demand than, say, Divergent or The Hunger Games.

The School for Good and Evil came out in paperback back in April, but the demand for it here ramped up exponentially this past week. Suddenly, it seemed, every 10-year-old in the county wanted that book.

I couldn’t figure out what had made the difference. Had a movie or TV show based on the book just come out and I’d missed it? Had the title shown up on a Scholastic order form in some particularly effective, attention-getting way? I wasn’t sure, but I knew to stick a stack of copies on the front counter. Sure enough, they flew out the door even faster.

What gave? Finally, I received my answer. A fifth-grade boy came in with his mom looking for a copy of My Side of the Mountain for a friend’s birthday, and he spotted The School for Good and Evil by the register. “That’s supposed to be really good,” he said to his mom. “Want to get it?” she asked. “Sure,” he said. (Booksellers love that conversation.) This boy was the tipping point for me; I had to know how he had become interested in this title that showed two female main characters on the cover. Even though I fiercely believe a good story is a good story, and avoid gender-stereotyping reader preferences, 10-year-old boys aren’t always in the habit of diving for books with girls on the cover. (Not my world; I just live in it.)

“Hey, Kyle,” I said. “This book is really popular with kids your age right now. How did you hear about it?” His was the simplest of answers, and as a retailer with 75-85% of sales attributable to direct recommendations to customers, I should have anticipated it: “Rainey did a book talk.” Rainey is a girl in his class; the fifth graders had been doing book recommendations in their language arts class, and Rainey’s presentation on The School for Good and Evil had made everyone in the room want to read it. Word of mouth spread, and soon the whole fifth grade was running to bookstores and libraries on a mission.

Then Kyle charmed the socks off me by asking earnestly, “Have kids also been asking for The Hunger Games? And the Percy Jackson books? And Spirit Animals?” It was clear those were the books he had recommended to his classmates, and I was pleased to be able to tell him that yes, they had.

And when he and Rainey turn 14, I hope they want summer jobs handselling books at my store.

Young Readers and Writers

Josie Leavitt -- June 10th, 2014

Every year for the past five, we’ve hosted a reading celebration that’s run through our local PBS station. This past Saturday seven young readers from all over northern Vermont dressed up in their fancy clothes to read their illustrated stories. I love this story time for many reasons, but the main one is the variety of stories and the absolute loveliness of the kids.

Children and their families started streaming in about 20 minutes before the reading. They found seats and then browsed nervously. The mix of pride and fear was evident in all the readers who were mostly third and fourth graders. Elizabeth hosted the event with grace and a calming style that helped soothe all the young writers. She and I discussed the order of the readings and told the kids we would start from the end of the alphabet. This made it real. Kids started squirming. One child blanched, realizing that instead of going near the end (her name began with a W) she would be going first.

One by one, they read their stories, about horses, a Lego man, siblings, and being scared by noises; some of them whispered, some shouted, but all were proud, and they should have been. These stories were good, they were full of great images, both drawn and written, and complex plot lines with dialogue and humor. These were young writers and I was glad to hear their stories and be part of their event. newreaderreddressphoto 1photo 3

Getting Ready for Summer Reading

Josie Leavitt -- June 9th, 2014

photo-32It’s that time of year again: time to stock up on summer reading. Kids and parents are starting to stream in looking for books for camp, stocking up on the required reading of summer, and some eager teens are just looking forward to reading for pleasure again. Every year we make it easy for them to find these by making a special cart of books, but this year, Elizabeth got really creative. Continue reading

Let’s Compile the Anti-Anti-YA Reading List

Elizabeth Bluemle -- June 6th, 2014

Many of you will already have read Ruth Graham’s article, Against YA, with its finger-wagging subtitle, “Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.”

While Ms. Graham’s perspective is of course a limited view of the richness and complexity that can be found in literature for teens, it’s not too hard to guess where some of her anxieties come from: the sense that our culture is gradually infantilizing itself and that grownups are few and far between. I’m just not convinced that adults reading YA literature is a sign of the impending immaturity apocalypse.

“Against YA” reads like most media coverage of children’s and YA literature; that is, written by someone outside the field who reads one or two titles and draws conclusions that make those inside the field roll their eyes (Ms. Graham’s own “adult” response to some passages she has encountered in books for teens).Adult readers read YA books for all kinds of reasons – nostalgia and escape may be among those impulses, and there is no shame in that, but there is also so much more in great YA. Through books written for young people, we visit different worlds, we connect with teens and young adults, we challenge our own notions of what it means to be a young person in the world today. And we encounter some damn fine literature. (Octavian Nothing, anybody?)

I’m not sure what is gained by shaming anybody about reading. If Ms. Graham is concerned that adults will become so enamored of the escapist, tidy-ending, light YA fiction she disdains that they will stop reading adult literature, all she has to do is visit a bookstore and ask the clerks what they’ve observed. At the Flying Pig, at least, adults who read YA have not abandoned their Alice Munro and Flannery O’Connor, their Rohinton Mistry and Tolstoy; they’ve just added something new to the mix.

Many wonderful bloggers have already responded well and thoughtfully to Ms. Graham’s article. What I’d like to do is to gather a delicious list of complex, literarily rewarding YA titles (which must be realistic fiction, since that is the genre assessed and addressed in the article) that challenge the assumptions therein.

Here are some of Ms. Graham’s issues with YA literature as reading for adults:

1)  “At its heart, YA aims to be pleasurable.There’s of course no shame in writing about teenagers; think Shakespeare or the Brontë sisters or Megan Abbott. But the very ways that YA is pleasurable are at odds with the way that adult fiction is pleasurable. [... Crucially, YA books present the teenage perspective in a fundamentally uncritical way.”

Wow. This last sentence is one of the most reductive lines in the article. Let's get on that one posthaste. Come to think of it, though, doesn't most adult literature present adult perspective in a fundamentally uncritical way? Readers don't sit back and sneer, 'What a grownup thing to think!" This us/them view of teenagers and adults is perhaps the aspect of the "Against YA" article that bothers me most. Yes, teenagers are younger, often less experienced humans, and adults are older, often more experienced humans. So what? We have all met teens who have astonished us with their wisdom and compassion, their insight and intelligence, their creativity and drive. And we have all met adults who ... have not. But to get back to literature, let's find those contemporary realistic YA books that present a rich, notuncritical, teen perspective. I'll toss out Aidan Chambers' Postcard from No Man's Land for startersAnd how about Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger, a nuanced book with a non-tidy ending? Or We Were Liars by E. Lockhart?

2) Even "the myriad defenders of YA fiction admit that the enjoyment of reading this stuff has to do with escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia. [...I]f people are reading Eleanor & Park instead of watching Nashville or reading detective novels, so be it, I suppose. But if they are substituting maudlin teen dramas for the complexity of great adult literature, then they are missing something.”

Well, who could argue with a false dichotomy like that? Maudlin teen dramas vs. complex adult literature. How about we find some complex teen literature? How about Adam Rapp’s harrowing and brilliant, unforgettable and undeniably YA 33 Snowfish?

Readers, what YA realistic fiction titles — that you think reward adult readers as richly as teens — would you like to add to the anti-anti-YA reading list?

Berry Season

Josie Leavitt -- June 5th, 2014

It’s finally starting to feel like summer here in Vermont and with that comes the increase in requests for books about berries. There is nothing quite like the fresh berries of summer. In my area there are a plethora of pick-your-own berry farms that make a summer outing all the more enjoyable. It’s easy to forget that kids are still learning about food and the seasonal availability of fresh, local berries. The joy of berries is they are good for you and most children love them.

salOf course, Blueberries for Sal is probably my most favorite book about berries. In a humorous mix-up, Little Sal and Little Bear almost switch moms in the quest for blueberries. This classic book really captures the joy of picking berries and the sounds the berries landing in the metal pail with the now famous: Kuplink, kuplank, kuplunk. I think at some point all of us who have gone blueberry picking have wound up eating our fair share of berries as well.

Continuing the theme of bears and berries, Jamberry is another book about the fantastical joys of jamberryberry picking in a magical land. Exuberant rhyme make this berry-hunting book a delight and will get kids ready for all manner of berry that might come their way.

One of the best storytime books is The Little Mouse, the Red-Ripe Strawberry and the Big Hungry Bear, about a mouse and bear who both love berries. (I think bears are in peril of being maligned in all these berry books.) The illustrations in this book are lovely and the message about sharing is nicely redripehandled. The mouse wants to save his freshly picked strawberry from the bear, and the only way he can do that is to share it with the reader.

What happens once you pick all these glorious berries? You piepartymake a pie, of course. There’s a new book out this season,The Good-Pie Party, which turns the sadness of a girl moving into a celebration of friendship and the joy of sharing pie. There’s also the older book, The Blueberry Pie Elf, about an blueberry-loving little elf with a large appetite for pie.

What are some of your favorite books about the bounty of summer berries?

World Premiere: Two Tunes for Authors (and Editors)

Elizabeth Bluemle -- June 3rd, 2014

Every year, my literary agent, Erin Murphy, and her crack team of co-agents and office gurus put together a retreat for their clients. The retreat moves around the country from one region to the next, and this year, it was held in Vermont. Sixty-seven talented, funny, crazy children’s book writers and illustrators descended on my unsuspecting state, pretty much doubling our population.

And why on earth might this interest you, dear Reader? Well, because among those authors and illustrators are eight musical souls who have banded together, literally, to reveal the inner workings of an author’s brain. (Psst: It’s scary in there.) The band is  called Erin Murphy’s Dog, and their motto is “In bocca al coniglio,” a faux-mild children’s-book-worthy appropriation of the galvanizing Italian phrase “in boca al lupo” (literally, “in the mouth of the wolf,” but it means “break a leg!”).

The members of the band are (l. to r. front row) Carrie Gordon Watson, Deborah Underwood, (l. to r. back row) Kristin Nitz, Jeannie Mobley, Mike Jung, Arthur A. Levine (yes, that Arthur A. Levine), Ruth McNally Barshaw, and Conrad Wesselhoeft.

Erin Murphys Dog

Photo by EMLA agency mate Tara Dairman

The band performed to a wildly appreciative crowd of agency mates, and two of the songs were particularly amusing for anyone involved in the children’s literature field. So it is my great pleasure to announce the world premiere of “Editorial Delay” and “YA Cha-Cha Blues.”

Not only are the songs clever and funny, they offer other gifts. In the words of band member Mike Jung, ”These songs have it all – intensely complicated ukulele chords, 12-bar blues wizardry, freewheeling choreography, author/editor humor, and a broad variety of Muppet-like facial expressions. Also, a lot of love, because I love these people with all my heart. IN BOCCA AL CONIGLIO!”

Big thanks to Erin Murphy’s Dog for permission to post these videos, with extra gratitude to agency mate, e.E. Charlton-Trujillo, who did the three-camera video recording of these songs and synced the sound and color-corrected on the fly to meet this ShelfTalker deadline!

Erin Murphy’s Dog Performs “Editorial Delay” (music by Deborah Underwood, words by Deborah Underwood and Arthur A. Levine) from e.E. Charlton-Trujillo on Vimeo.

Erin Murphy’s Dog – YA Cha-Cha Blues (words and music by Conrad Wesselhoeft, in response to a conversation he had with agent and super knitter Erin Murphy about how the writing life can be back and forth … and back and forth) from e.E. Charlton-Trujillo on Vimeo.

Bravo! Bravo!

Adoring fans are welcome to leave comments (but not flowers or flung underwear) below. As Erin Murphy’s Dog would say, “Arrroooo!”

BEA Wrap-Up

Josie Leavitt -- June 2nd, 2014

I got home from Book Expo Saturday night and have had some time to think about the show. I am left with several conclusions: indies seem to be doing better, the trade show seemed smaller this year, children’s authors and illustrators know how to have fun. And there is still much to do.

I gauge my sense of bookstore health by talking with friends and colleagues. Usually, if business is bad or people are mad it’s the only thing we talk about at parties and at the breakfasts. This year, folks seemed happy. The long winter was finally over, and to spite the horrid weather in the Northeast, most booksellers were optimistic about the rest of the year. There was little grousing, except about Amazon and its tactics with Hachette. Bookseller friends remained cheery throughout the show. All the breakfast speakers were surprisingly good, though the actual breakfasts were found to be lacking, protein mostly.

Savvy booksellers paced themselves on the number of galleys they took. Mostly there was talk aboutelephanttote how to get a particular tote bag. I missed my chance, but for some reason many people asked me about it, as if I had a magical power to make them appear at the Macmillan booth. So cute, but alas there seemed to be a limited number that were given out Thursday and then gone. This was actually a really smart move on the publisher’s part. Everyone, and I mean everyone, wanted this bag. And it just gets you ready for the book, which is equally good.

The show floor seemed small to me this year. There were many rows with carpeted areas that had no booths. It does seem to me that the show is getting smaller every year. I spoke with some publishers who had heard about BookCon expanding to two days and they were already thinking about how to afford that extra day. While I don’t know the number of attendees at this year’s BookCon I do worry a tiny bit about letting the public in to see all the fall books. Not that they shouldn’t get as excited as we are, but I want to capture those sales for indies and not have them pre-order with Amazon. So, my thought for next year is to give them a discount code for IndieBound so they can pre-order and save 10-20% on the books.

Children’s authors are a generally really fun bunch to hang out with. The auction on Wednesday night had them putting on a talent show. The show was good, but the acoustics worked against them in the cavernous River Pavilion of the Javits Center. Unless you were seated right in front, it was nearly impossible to hear any of the hilarity that was coming from the stage. Shannon Hale wore a brown polyester pant-and-shirt combo that her mother made in the 70s – that alone should have won a prize for most flammable outfit. Jarrett Krosoczka choreographed the rousing finale set to the theme of Footloose. It all ended with the audience joining in the dancing. Much money was raised for ABFFE and we all had a great time. I loved the range of authors and illustrators who willingly took a risk and performed for the joy of it.

I mentioned the Amazon-Hachette dustup in Friday’s blog and this still looms large for booksellers. We do need to be beating a drum more loudly about this one. Amazon’s bully tactics with Hachette, slowing the delivery of their books and making it difficult to buy some e-books again suggest that perhaps Amazon has been given, or more accurately to my mind, taken too much power in the industry. It seems like we’ve all stood around and watched them try to monopolize their business as bookseller, publisher and distributor. Rather than the constant urging of shopping local, perhaps it’s time we tried to stand up to this behemoth to start changing things.


“Every Journey Begins in the Bookstore”

Josie Leavitt -- May 30th, 2014

The Celebration of Bookselling luncheon at BEA on Thursday was a mix of excitement, gratitude and a call to arms. There was an almost universal thanks for indies and what we do. Richard Peck summed it up best by saying, ”Every journey begins in the bookstore.” He didn’t say the journey began online, or at a chain store. He remembered his childhood store and thanked them. Every journey begins with a  book, and James Patterson created the call to the arms to keep all the indies.

What I love about these lunches is seeing so many authors in one place and hearing from them. So often, there is a division between the children’s books and the adult books, that we don’t always mingle for big meals. To hear the range of authors almost all universally sing the praises of indies and their meaning to their career is always gratifying.

Jesmyn Ward, I think, put it best: “Thank you for being family.” I sometimes forget that authors, no matter what level of fame they’ve achieved, are still people who get nervous, who doubt and who need support. And to be an independent bookstore staffer, we can find ourselves having profound effects on the lives of writers and illustrators at varying stages of their careers. When they are young readers, we talk to them about books, we encourage them to try new things and, if we are lucky enough to be a long-standing store, we see some of them come in with their own books. Maggie Stiefvater recounted a memory of going to her local store when her first book was published and the bookstore staffer held the door open for her so she could leave with her stack of books and her three-year-old. The symbolism of this is obvious: indies open doors for authors and the books we love.

Every speaker shared an anecdote about their local store, save for Kate DiCamillo whose speech was an homage to E.B. White. Always funny, she summed up writing and owning a bookstore pretty well; ”as long as you love, it will be okay.” Truer words were never spoken. Tom Nissley, who once came to BEA with an Amazon badge, is now two weeks away from opening his own independent bookstore in Washington state. Talk about walking the walk.

James Patterson, who has rightly become the darling of indies for putting his money where his mouth is by giving away one million dollars to independent bookstores, received a standing ovation when he walked in. In his acceptance speech he addressed the elephant in the room: Amazon. He pulled no punches in suggesting that ABA start working harder to stop Amazon’s desire to have a monopoly on bookselling, publishing and book buying. He dared to say things that we all think: when is someone going to do something? He suggested that the future of literature and the part it plays in our culture is in danger and when will we as a group get the word out that the fewer publishers there are, the fewer books will be published. He said the lower the profit margin for publishers means that fewer risky, literary books will reach the shelves. We need to get going with this and get in the press, both large and small publications, to educate consumers and to get others involved. Yes, it’s great to order online, but at what cost? Who outside of the publishing world understands the complexity of what’s happening with the Hachette – Amazon tussle? “We must latch onto this issue with vigor, passion and urgency,” Patterson said.

I was lucky enough to get a chance to speak with him briefly after the lunch. it’s not every day I say to a bestselling author: “Thank you for having the balls to say what we’re all thinking.” Thankfully he smiled and said I was the second person to say that to him that day. I hope we all keep being galvanized and continue to realize that all journeys need to begin in the bookstore.

Remembering a Moment with Maya Angelou

Elizabeth Bluemle -- May 29th, 2014

Maya Angelou speaks to the Glide Memorial church congregation during Sunday morning services in 1993. Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle

She was TALL. She strode down a hallway with purpose and large-boned grace. She was awe-inspiring. She was Maya ANGELOU, for crying out loud, and I was 23 and starstruck to be in the presence of the poet and memoirist who had rocked my world with her words in high school and college. Dr. Maya Angelou was truly larger than life, and I got to breathe the air beside her one afternoon in 1989.

We were both in a San Francisco church in the Tenderloin district. She was visiting friends, the Reverend Cecil Williams who ran Glide Memorial Church with his poet wife, Janice Mirikatani. I was working on a publishing project with some amazing kids in one of Glide’s many community offerings, an afterschool program funded by my then-boss, Frederick Furth. Dr. Angelou had agreed to write a foreword for the children’s book of writings and drawings and, during one of my meetings with the Reverend Williams and Ms. Mirikitani, she appeared. In person. Right there in the very room we were in!

I don’t think I formed more than a few words, probably something along the lines of, “It’s an honor to meet you.” But my soul was aloft, soaring with the joy of being in the company of one of the most searing, honest, funny, brave, beautiful writers our nation has ever known, not to mention the most formidable presence I have ever encountered. Her manner exuded dignity and the strongest sense of self of anyone I’ve ever met. I was deeply humbled.

And even better, I was inspired, and trebly so a couple of days later, when I attended the Sunday church service at Glide that Maya Angelou guest-led with Cecil Willams. She strutted, she spoke, she sang. She mesmerized. A congregation of hundreds — from the wealthiest socialites to the most struggling Tenderloin families — hung on her words, laughed and whooped and lifted their voices in a joyous chorus of hallelujahs, praise and song. THAT is what church is all about: community and celebration, a gathering in. It was revelatory.

I would have loved Maya Angelou’s great spirit and admired her defiant, triumphant resilience even if all I had ever glimpsed of her was her writing, but I am eternally grateful that I was given the thrill of experiencing, close-up, for a few brief moments, the presence of that extraordinary woman.

Rest in peace (and laughter and poetry), Dr. Angelou. Phenomenal, indeed.

Maya Angelou at Glide Memorial

Maya Angelou at Glide Memorial Church. No photo credit accompanied image at photo source:

Please feel free to share your own memories of Maya Angelou and her words. Weren’t we all lucky to have met her?!