Pajama Night 2023

Kenny Brechner - November 17, 2023

Last night marked the 2023 iteration of my favorite event of the year: Jammie Night!

Jammie Night, aka Prime Time Reading Night, which takes place at Mallett Elementary School, has ingredients that would be the envy of any event. For example, it is comprised of an actively shared love of reading, widespread community support, partnerships, great authors, a great crowd, amazing decorations, and pajamas.

Here’s how it works: the Mallett community comes back to school at 6:00 in the evening—parents, kids, teachers, librarian, principal—all dressed in pajamas for an evening of read alouds. I produce a children’s book author. The evening starts with that author reading her book to the assembled throng in the gymnasium, which has been lavishly decorated around the book’s theme. Afterwards, families can either go listen to one of five different community readers in five different classrooms, read together in the gym, or purchase a book and have the guest author sign it. The evening ends with the author reading a second book to the whole audience and then concludes with goodnights and more book signing.

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A Harrowing Coming of Age

Kenny Brechner - October 12, 2023

There are many reasons to read Alix E. Harrow’s terrific new novel, Starling House, for it is both resoundingly entertaining and profound. The psychological underpinnings of haunted houses and cursed communities are dealt with powerfully without veering into allegory. The book’s monsters are tethered to forces that readers will experience strong echoes from within. Surprising narrative choices keep the reader on the edge of their literary toes. Another reason to take up Starling House is that it embodies a particular definition of the single most important element of young adult and middles grade literature: coming of age.

What is coming of age? The prosaic idea of it as simply a transition into adulthood has no literary resonance. Certainly transition is present—the shedding of one state to attain another—but the traits of the transition are subtle and various.

We should first note that the nature of coming of age in adult novels and young adult novels are decidedly different. In the inveterately adult The Loved One, Evelyn Waugh describes it as follows: “He was adding his bit to the wreckage; something that had long irked him, his young heart, and was carrying back instead the artist’s load, a great, shapeless chunk of experience; bearing it home to his ancient and comfortless shore; to work on it hard and long.” This sense of having shed romanticism for artistry is the inverse of the young adult understanding of having attained a solid basis for romance.

There is also the question of whether coming of age belongs to any age. Though it is commonly understood to pertain to teenage and early adult years, we must also respect the truth of Ogden Nash’s observation that “we are only young once, but you can stay  immature indefinitely.” It is certainly true that coming of age is not, like adolescence,  a universal experience. We also find in the pages of Alix E. Harrow’s Starling House that coming of age is not necessarily experienced at any particular point in a person’s age development. For some people it can be suspended for years, but then comes into play due to shifts in a person’s relationship to powerful levers such as trauma, privilege, responsibility, betrayal, and trust.

Opal and Arthur, Starling House‘s protagonists, are two people who are both still young, but stunted in experiencing a coming of age. They each have suppressed what they want out of a state of necessity, a self-driven responsibility to protect others at any cost. They each must overcome a mistaken apprehension that what held them down is also what makes them who they are.

In this, Starling House is an adult novel which contains the heart of young adult coming of age. It defines coming of age as the creation and achievement of home, rather than the inheriting of it. It is a belonging by virtue of character, rather than a bestowal. For Arthur and Opal, coming of age is a stepping into self, a transcending of trauma by honoring its truth and embracing the power of want by relinquishing the familiar security of need. This speaks to the core metaphor of fantasy—and it belongs to anyone who fought, fights, or plans to fight for a meaningful home.

An Interview with Autumn

Kenny Brechner - September 7, 2023

When I arrived at the glade for my annual interview with Autumn, I noted that her eyes lingered on the page of the book in her hand before she turned to greet me.

Autumn: Ah, so you’ve returned this year to hold speech with me again, Kenny? I’m pleased to see you.

Kenny: I’m most happy to hear that, as I had been under the impression that mild annoyance was the highest pitch of emotion my appearance in the glade had ever evoked these many years.

Autumn: That is sooth but, given the perils besetting the world, I have put an emphasis in my season on books epitomizing the role that conscious regularity plays in our efforts to effect the character of change. You therefore represent the establishment of a pattern of inquiry which I am inclined to see more as an opportunity than a nuisance.

Kenny: Umm… thank you. I hope. Hmmm. I see you are holding the latest story in Martha Wells’ peerless Murderbot series, System Collapse — does that exemplify your principle?

Autumn: Absolutely. It is a wonderful blend of the familiar elements of substantive transition. The way Murderbot approaches change reinforces the integrity of its character. How reassuring and engaging its voice is, how delightfully relaxing is the breakneck action.

Kenny: Totally agree! And what other books can you share with us that adhere to your principle?

Autumn: Well, last year I praised Sophie Blackall’s Farmhouse. This year I return to that author to praise a book which is equally excellent, but decidedly different in tone. If I Was a Horse is so light and funny while maintaining Blackall’s gift for deeper resonance.

Kenny: It is yet another triumph.

Autumn: Another picture book I’ll call to your attention is Leslie Barnard Booth’s A Stone Is a Story, magnificently illustrated by Marc Martin. What book more clearly conveys the role that change plays, even something which symbolizes fixity? Its pages are a source of wonder and delight.

Kenny: I’ll look into that one straightway! Any other picks for us?

Autumn: Sure, I was so happy to see a new Dory Fantasmagory book coming out. And it is most aptly named: Can’t Live Without You. Who would wish for a world without Dory?

Kenny: Not I.

Autumn: No, indeed. Now for graphic novels, I’ll mention Kate Leth’s Mall Goth, a deft and deeply-affecting coming of age, grappling with the interrelation of fixity and change. And for young adult, I really enjoyed Pascale Lacelle’s Curious Tides. A terrific story with intricate plotting, an atmosphere steeped in dangerous possibility, and the presence of the tides, transmuted from their traditional role as a force of regularity, makes this a story whose agency reflects the magic it describes.

Kenny: I’m so glad you mentioned that book! One yearns to see it escape from the sea cave in which debut fantasy novels are birthed. Thanks so much for sharing your picks, Autumn.

Autumn: I did it gladly, Kenny. Farewell.

On the Power of ‘Accountable’

Kenny Brechner - August 28, 2023

On the surface it may seem surprising that Dashka Slater, the author of delightful picture books such as Escargot, could also be the creator of searing young adult non-fiction books like The 57 Bus and the newly released Accountable. In his introduction to Egil’s Saga E.R. Eddison observed that the school that believes “the gouger out of Armod’s eye could not in nature be also the tender and sublime poet of the Sonatorrek, is a school that knows little of humanity.” Similarly we should be edified but not surprised by both Slater’s versatility, and by the humanity she reveals in the perpetrators of terrible actions in her non-fiction tours de force.

If I could pick a single book for a national book read it would be Slater’s just published Accountable. With Accountable she has brought another morally complex story of severe interpersonal harm among teenagers to life. She does so with an acute subtlety which draws forth the intertwined elements of action, character, causation, and reaction in a manner whose artistry and open clarity provides the reader with multiple avenues of engagement.

The subtitle of the book is The True Story of a Racist Social Media Account and the Teenagers Whose Lives It Changed. The story includes racism, masculine bravado, the worst mediation imaginable, the accelerant nature of social media, bystanderism, and the profound failure of the adults in the room. It is a failure shared by parents of both the victims and perpetrators, of school and town administrators  to put the welfare of children at the center of their words and actions.

Slater’s combination of tightly focused detail and moral restraint reveals harm as a self-propagating, ever-accumulating,  dehumanizing snowball  of polarization, rage, abuse, and suppression. The skill of the book’s revelation lets air into an environment normally inhospitable to life in which the only way to survive is to adopt a spacesuit of self-protection. To read Accountable is to traverse a heartbreaking tragedy that deserves our deepest attempts at understanding.  Remarkably it provides every reader with just that opportunity. What more could a children’s bookseller ask for?

On AI, Textual Integrity, and Bookselling

Kenny Brechner - August 4, 2023

As Artificial Intelligence (AI), crowd-sourced editing, and the superimposing of particular cultural  sensibilities onto established works of literature make themselves more at home in our world, those of us who care about books for a living—publishers, booksellers, authors, editors and book marketers—have a job to do.  We need to articulate our positions regarding these practices that are eroding the integrity of the human literary enterprise or allow passive fatalism to be the instrument of our own demise as book lovers, book professionals, and engaged human beings.

Here are some questions to consider.

The Trolls by J.R.R. Tolkien

Is the defense of textual and editorial standards a better path for the bookselling industry than buying into the self-fulfilling idea that this kind of change is inevitable? Should we offer an island of stability in a sea of ephemeral media, a source of balance and fixity in an unsettled world? Should we work to provide active engagement with the literary continuum over time or retrain ourselves to breathe in an atmosphere saturated with information imbalances that are leveraged to promote passive consumerism? Is there any point in resisting what appear to be dominant forces of dehumanification?

For perspective, let us look at a parallel situation. Consider the words of Saruman speaking to Gandalf on the benefits of aligning with Mordor, our AI-equivalent in The Lord of the Rings.

This then is one choice before you, before us. We may join with that Power. It would be wise, Gandalf…. Its victory is at hand; and there will be rich reward for those that aided it. As the Power grows, it’s proved friends will also grow; and the Wise, such as you and I, may with patience come at last to direct its courses, to control it. We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order; all the things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak or idle friends. There need not be, there would not be, any real change in our designs, only in our means.

“Saruman,” [said Gandalf]. “I have heard speeches of this kind before, but only in the mouths of emissaries sent from Mordor to deceive the ignorant. I cannot think that you brought me so far only to weary my ears.”

The insidious adjuration to adopt an ascendant, even if repugnant, force in the hopes of benefitting from its dominance and influencing its character over time could hardly be more on point. Each adoption of Saruman’s reasoning  weakens the standing of the bookselling world.

For example, new editions of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse come with the following warning:

That a book written in 1927 was written in 1927 should not be noteworthy. The idea that publishing the book as it was originally published is a noteworthy decision infers that the publisher just as easily might have altered the author’s words to align with some other notion of cultural representation and language. It should surprise no one then that, as the Washington Post opinion piece “21st-century editors should keep their hands off 20th-century books” pointed out, “The estate of Ursula K. Le Guin recently authorized the publisher of her Catwings series to change words such as ‘dumb,’ ‘lame,’ ‘stupid’ and ‘queer’ in seven instances across three books. In common parlance, the word ‘queer’ now means something different than it did when Catwings was first published in 1988. The estate determined that changing the language was necessary to ensure the author’s point comes across.”^

Once we have acceded to textual revision as a new standard of practice, it is but a short hop to Bertelsmann CEO Thomas Rabe (channeling Saruman) when speaking to the Financial Times: “[f]or creative industries, generative AI could be ‘very positive provided we… understand its potential and threats… [AI is] on balance… probably more of an opportunity… If it’s your content, for which you own the copyright, and then you use it to train the software, you can in theory generate content like never before.” +

There is a clear descending path from the To the Lighthouse trigger warnings to the textual revisionism of changing queer to peculiar in Catwings to Thomas Rabe’s disedifying pitch promoting generative AI in creative industries. This kind of progressive weakening of the norms of professional book publishing can only lend itself to even more dubious actions becoming more palatable and likely—such as apps offering readers the ability to optimize Jane Austen novels by requesting AI to output Sense and Sensibility with 15% added sex and 10% added violence, new AI-generated novels by Toni Morrison, new poems by William Butler Yeats, and other fresh AI-generated material from dead authors.

And yet, advocating for what you care about is not the empty practice Saruman would have you believe. Consider Denethor’s proclamation to Gandalf:

[A]gainst the Power that now arises there is no victory. To this City only the first finger of its hand has yet been stretched. All the East is moving. And even now the wind of thy hope cheats thee and wafts up Anduin a fleet with black sails. The West has failed. It is time for all to depart who would not be slaves.

“Such counsels will make the Enemy’s victory certain indeed,” said Gandalf.

Resisting odious change is not a guarantee of success but, as Gandalf suggests, not resisting it makes failure a certainty. Perhaps producing and marketing integrity and quality is a better play for publishing and bookselling than sublimating all editorial and historical standards in the hopes that ephemeral forms of discovery, dubiously projecting the present onto the past, and relegating humanity into being the passive consumer—rather than the creator—of its own stories, will somehow keep things profitable and relevant. As TikTok stops simply being the discoverer of profitable, unedited material and begins to be the publisher of it as well, it may well be time to stop wondering about getting bitten by the hand that’s feeding you and go back to feeding ourselves. With The Writers Guild of America and The Screen Actors Guild on strike and fighting for their creative and professional lives against the threat of generative AI, perhaps we should be focused less on profiteering and opportunism and more on integrity and common cause with other professionals in the creative industries. Do we really want to help produce a future in which human beings no longer aspire to creative expression?

Instead of engaging in this dubious embrace *  I suggest it is time for the major publishers and bookselling trade organizations to make a formal position statement rejecting AI and textual revisionism.

+ *

Which Picture Books Are Selling This Season?

Kenny Brechner - June 22, 2023

Unsurprisingly, spring picture book sales are a lot like vegetable gardening. They are filled with a mix of blighted hopes, satisfying results, and occasional surprises and volunteers. Looking at what books stood out for sales this spring, and comparing it with our hopes and labors makes for a good case in point.

Some of the books we loved, handsold, and featured did indeed sell abundantly. Our top seller was Marla Frazee’s In Every Life, which makes one hopeful that we do inhabit a sane world because great books should  be welcome in every life. Our second best seller, Emma Straub’s delightful Very Good Hats, illustrated by Blanca Gómez, also represented a felicitous sales performance. After all, if you don’t love Very Good Hats your hopes for felicity are circumspect at best.

We were also happy to see store favorites Endlessly Ever After by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Dan Santat, and That Flag by Tameka Fryer Brown, illustrated by Nikkolas Smith, be among our top sellers. After all, there is a place in a child’s world for both snarky fairy tales and compelling issues if they each thread the needle that great picture book telling requires.

One surprise on our list was the big-selling All About Mermaids by Izzy Quinn, illustrated by Vlad Stankovic. Who would have thought a nonfiction book would perform so well, no matter how well-illustrated, documented and researched it is? Actually though, the presence of Sy Montgomery’s The Book of Turtles on the list was no surprise both because we put it right by the counter and because it is amazing. What a sublime concordance of information and imagery. Illustrations by the estimable Matt Patterson, by the way.

An example of a book we hoped and expected would do well, but to date, inexplicably, has not, is Lalena Fisher’s Friends Beyond Measure. Its creative use of infographics is clever, charming, interesting, and brilliant, so what’s up with the low sales of it? Perhaps the days left for our species really can be measured.

And what books have just hit the shelves we have high hopes for? That would be The Brilliant Ms. Bangle by Cara Devins, engagingly illustrated by K-Fai Steele. So wonderful! And Isabel Greenberg’s The Midnight Babies, a book so captivating that the fate of humanity must surely hinge squarely on its success. After all, if Ms. Bangle and the Midnight Babies can’t save the day, who can?

When the Spoiler Is the Hook

Kenny Brechner - April 20, 2023

Handselling a book whose reading experience would be materially diminished by spoilers can be a particularly difficult challenge for a bookseller if the book’s intrinsic strength is related to elements that would be inconsiderate to broach. For example you might ask why reading Sarah Everett’s The Probability of Everything brought up for me the topic of circumventing damaging spoilers, and all I could morally say was that it is an amazing book and you should read it yourself straightway and find out.

Sure, to promote the book one could just elide the dynamic surprise element or go big on description so as to say that its brilliant and novel use of an unreliable narrator is used as a lever to humanize the impacts of inhumanity with remarkable force. By tightly maintaining focus on its insightful and resilient young narrator the story extends from the personal to the cultural and communal with far-reaching effect. And so forth. One might feel more latitude if pitching the book to an adult who is purchasing it for a young reader, but it would still be wrong. Nonetheless, the susceptibility of The Probability of Everything to having its reading experience diminished by spoilage is a tricky but ultimately happy constraint. After all, having a book to share the power of whose impact on the reader would rival that of the earth’s on being struck by a giant asteroid is a rare and desirable responsibility.

The book also made me ask myself if there are other great children’s books which have a similarly fraught relationship with spoilers?  Sure, there are many books with an important secret. You could certainly thoughtlessly spoil Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy, Marie Lu’s Warcross, or Melissa Albert’s Hazelwood, but it is easy to talk about and promote those books without doing so. A book like Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon is a toughie to be sure, but I can’t think of another book in which the spoiler is the hook quite as strikingly as it is in The Probability of Everything. What are the most spoiler sensitive books you’ve promoted?

Roald Dahl: What’s at Stake?

Kenny Brechner - March 3, 2023

The recent large-scale alterations of Roald Dahl’s texts in the U.K .is a dangerous precedent that deserves our attention. The ill-advised purpose of this particular form of censorship is the same as that animating other ongoing efforts to restrict, ban, and challenge children’s books in schools and libraries, to protect children from perceived harm. Yet the peculiar dangers inherent in this particular methodology of elision and alteration are important and noteworthy.

In the case of Dahl’s books, hundreds of passages “relating to weight, mental health, gender and race were altered.” According to the Guardian, “The Roald Dahl Story Company, which controls the rights to the books, said it worked with Puffin to review the texts because it wanted to ensure that ‘Dahl’s wonderful stories and characters continue to be enjoyed by all children today.’ ” The language was reviewed in partnership with Inclusive Minds, a collective working to make children’s literature more inclusive and accessible.”

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