In Response to “The Problem with Problems”

Cynthia Compton -- March 15th, 2019

An unfortunate flight cancellation and a very long drive home on Tuesday (“hello, National? I need a car to drive one-way to Indianapolis”) led me to request a last-minute schedule change for my weekly ShelfTalker contribution this week. My colleague Meghan Dietsche Goel jumped right in with her terrific What Austin Teens Wish Publishers Knew, and we were all the beneficiaries of her customers’ wit and wisdom. (Note to Meghan: Colleen is my new favorite critic, and please interview her more often.)

But Meghan’s post would have usually published today, and we would have all had the weekend to think fondly of those bright, articulate teens in Austin who are so committed to reading that they are curating a bookstore display, writing shelf talkers (ok, you had me at “curating”, but this whole situation is enviable) and conversing about trends in YA publishing. Instead, the blogposting cards were shuffled, and I have the rather daunting task of following my buddy (and kinda personal bookselling hero) Kenny Brechner after his post The Problem with Problems. If you haven’t read it, go do that right now. It’s ok, I’ll wait. (Oh, refill your coffee first. There’s a LOT of words.)

Normally, I would read one of my colleagues’ smart posts and use the handy-dandy Comment Section to respond – just like you do. This topic, however, is too big for that, and I have just too many feelings and thoughts to jot a quick note. I am reminded of certain texts that I have received on my phone from my kids (while I’m driving or at an offsite author event in a school building with iffy wifi connections): “Mom, I’m going to do….. with….    after…..    and I’ll be home…….  OK?” in which the response requires multiple follow-up questions, conditions, and admonitions for both good judgment  and personal responsibility. (There’s only so many caps you can use in texting before they lose their power, if you know what I mean.)

So, Kenny, dear friend, I’m not texting OR using the comment section. I am so torn, both personally and professionally, by this topic, that I need to talk through it with you (and all our friends) some more.

Let’s start here: there are LOTS of books that in today’s critical reading appear limited in their portrayal of race, gender, ethnicity, religion, and plot structure (I’m thinking here of constructs like “fat girl gets thin and finds happiness” or “smart but nerdy boy wins popularity by winning over athletic popular crowd through humor or successful prank”) but are still OK books. Entertaining, even. Books that are read for more than one season, one round of book fair flyers (and subsequent warehouse sales) and gain reasonable circulation through classroom libraries and the stack left behind at the neighborhood swimming pool or gym. These books are not incredibly prejudicial or biased, but don’t necessarily advance understanding of difference. They don’t “help,” but their limitations are understood so well that discussion of these issues seems tired. We get it. These are not plots or characters that will stand out in our literary memories. They are calories in chapter format. If chosen carefully, there will be enough variety, enough disparity in setting or voice to enrich our understanding of the world… but more likely, they will just be the school “hot lunch” of our reading consumption.

Then there’s a whole different group of books: titles we call “classics” in children’s bookselling – no, not the “CLASSICS” that you covered in AP English class, but the standard list of 250-400 middle grade and YA titles that most bookstores would be embarrassed to find themselves out of stock on. These books are problematic. These books are titles that parents and grandparents remember or read about in “top 10” lists, request, and frankly, evaluate our status as “real bookstores” by their presence on our shelves. We’ve read these books. We know them, and know their characters and their authors like our family members. And just our family members, we know their shortcomings, their prejudices, and their limitations. However, handselling these titles is a little different than just listening to Aunt Margaret at Thanksgiving dinner when she grills your sister about why she “hasn’t just married that nice boy?” or why she stopped going to Mass. Handselling these titles is a longer conversation. Here’s where bookselling is like walking the tippy top of a very thin fence rail. This is not for amateurs. Do we read these titles? Absolutely. Do we acknowledge their limitations? Of course we do. Are we called to offer them when asked,  and more importantly, other titles that widen perspective and understanding through different voices and experiences? Yes, we are. This is hard work. This is so much more than sitting on the Twitter sidelines, or some other social media dugout, and criticizing those on the field. We must read. We must read more, and we must build circles of people who read from their perspective. It is not enough to dismiss the canon, rather, we must build upon it. Here in the real world, where books meet readers, and store rent must be paid, we are required to meet both customers’ requests and serve as tour guides to places and pages that are new and perhaps unfamiliar, but important and deserving of attention.

And so, then, how do we evaluate new books? Must every title be better, more open, more nuanced, more accurate, than the body of literature that lies before? Must we, for example, reject every picture book in which wolves or bears are portrayed as hungry, predatory, or scary (for surely, you know, these species were vilified in nursery tales of long ago) or must we reject every story of high school football (because CONCUSSIONS, people, CONCUSSIONS) or must we insist that characters uphold our own sensibilities and imagined lack of prejudice? Must every new book be a superhero, a feminist, a racially balanced, socially aware, gender non-biased anthem of empowerment and voice of the under-represented? Quite simply, it can’t, nor can authors be held to this standard in every page. We need their stories, in all their real-life awkwardness and stumbling about for what is real and true.

But booksellers and publishers, my friends, can indeed be held to this standard of inclusion. We have more than one voice, one volume, one title to recommend to each customer. Some of these will be truly authentic, written by authors who live the realities of their characters. Some of these will not, and will offer interpretations of those stories. Each of these is valid, but only within the context of our reader’s viewpoint. Our job, as always, is to provide more than one book. We can offer more than one title or series or character for a reader to devour or dismiss, but we will never, ever cause them to  believe that is the only story they can hear. And as long as we welcome EVERY well-edited author to contribute to that collective, and we consider each manuscript, allow its publication, and let it find its space on the shelf (at least for one season… after that, the returns will speak for themselves), we can do our work in uniting books with readers. And we have lots of work to do.

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About Cynthia Compton

Cynthia is the mom of 4 kids, the walker of 5 dogs, and the owner of 4 Kids Books & Toys in Zionsville, Indiana. The 2600 sq. ft. childrens store was founded in 2003, and hosts daily story times and events, birthday parties, book clubs and a large summer reading program. She is a current board member of the American Specialty Toy Retailers Assn, a past president of the Great Lakes Bookseller Association, and her store was honored with the Pannell Award in 2013.

One thought on “In Response to “The Problem with Problems”

  1. Kenny Brechner

    Thanks for this wonderful rejoinder Cynthia. Nothing could have better illustrated the power of critical discussion to imbue a difficult issue with constructive rather than constrictive force. Hard work, reflection and dialogue is our task indeed.

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