Monthly Archives: August 2007

My Favorite Poetry Books of 2007

Alison Morris - August 30, 2007

It was an honor to be able to meet author/poet Joyce Sidman last week, as I’ve always been a fan of her work, in particular her newest book, This Is Just to Say: Poems of Forgiveness and Apology, which easily makes it onto my list of the year’s best poetry books. In honor of my meeting Joyce, allow me to do a little run-down of what are, in my opinion, the children’s poetry highlights of 2007. I’ll list them according to author’s last name, rather than hierarchy, as I’d be hard-pressed to rank these in terms of preference.

Today and Today 
by Kobayashi Issa, illustrated by G. Brian Karas (Scholastic)

Brian Karas has outdone himself with this beautiful collection of haiku poems that deserves a place in any poetry lover’s library. Eighteen of Issa’s poems are included here, and each reads like a small, distinct snapshot, capturing moments that reveal the personality of the seasons, the beauty of nature, and the richness of human emotions. Paired with these snapshots are wonderful mixed media illustrations of a family going about the usual, mundane (but not unimportant) actions of their daily lives, all the while growing, aging, changing, and even, in the case of the grandfather, dying. Together, the poems and illustrations in this book deliver a reminder that time flows in a continous circle, that we live our lives in brief moments set against a backdrop of years. After death we find renewal. After winter, spring.

The Owl and the Pussycat
by Edward Lear, illustrated by Stephane Jorisch
(part of the Visions in Poetry series published by Kids Can Press; October 2007)

Kids Can Press has done marvelous things with the titles in its Visions in Poetry series, but by golly this is my favorite so far. The purpose of the series is to entice accomplished illustrators to illustrate familiar poems in ways that reveal something new or unepected about their content. Through the genius of his illustrations Stephane Jorisch takes Edward Lear’s nonsense poem of inter-species romance and makes of it something completely new. Jorisch’s illustrations reimagine Lear’s poem as a tale of star-crossed love, of prejudice, of two different animals from different social classes who are shunned for their unpopular decision to be together. Unwilling (or unable) to live in a society where the creatures wear masks and won’t accept them as they are, the owl and the pussycat go to sea in a beautiful pea green boat. They sail away to "the land where the bong-tree grows" which is populated by other "unpopulars" like them… and they live happily ever after. A love story in extreeeeemely hip, slightly edgy clothes, this book may be published as a children’s book, but it is TRULY a book for all ages and one that’s not to be missed.

This Is Just to Say: Poems of Forgiveness and Apology
by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski (Houghton Mifflin)

A sixth grade class is charged with the task of writing poems of apology. The people to whom they’ve written the poems reply with poems of forgiveness. Such is the premise of Joyce Sidman’s new book, only Sidman didn’t employ a classroom of sixth graders to write these poems. She wrote them herself, in the voices of different apologetic sixth graders and their respondents, some of them students, some of them adults, some animals or inanimate objects. The poems themselves are written in a wide variety of styles, on a wide variety of subjects, some sad, some funny. The results are eclectic, clever, and startling for the depth of emotion they’re able to capture and the "big picture" they’re able to reveal. It’s hard not to fall under the spell of a book this charming, and this creative, and it’s hard to imagine that any teacher reading it and not wanting to replicate the experiment with his or her own students. If you were to write a poem of apology about something, what would it be, and for whom? Start thinking.

Here’s a Little Poem: A Very First Book of Poetry
collected by Jane Yolen and Andrew Fusek Peters, illustrated by Polly Dunbar (Candlewick Press)

This book is my new favorite shower gift. Jane Yolen and Andrew Fusek Peters have compiled here a truly winning collection of short poems that ought to have great appeal for the shortest of children, and Polly Dunbar’s illustrations have made them positively sing (and shout and whistle and skip and snore — on the bedtime pages, that is). In this book, bright, bouncy, round-cheeked children jump and fuss and bounce and trundle across some of the liveliest pages I’ve ever seen, made so by the combination of great language, perfectly tuned to reading aloud, and whimsical images to catch the eye of every child and invite them to giggle and grump along with the no-no bird who lives in the Tantrum Tree, the grandpa with hands "as warm as pockets," and the shadow that bounces beneath a bouncing stone. Perfect for ages infant – kindergarten and for lovers of language like me.

A New Bookstore Poses a Buying Challenge

Alison Morris - August 29, 2007

Recently our store embarked on an interesting experiment that’s forced me to stretch my skills as a buyer. We’ve opened an additional small bookstore (approx. 600 square feet), in an office building, where we’re hoping its 1,000+ employees will be keen to buy books. The building that houses our "mini Booksmith" is the lovely new headquarters for a large insurance company, whose employees had previously been working in three different Boston-area locations. When the company merged everyone onto one site they conducted a "What conveniences would you like to see in your place of employment?" poll and "a bookstore" was apparently among the most popular responses.

Our "mini Booksmith" space is immediately adjacent to the building’s cafeteria and also carries some snacks and beverages provided by the contracted cafeteria company, to appease employees’ hunger pangs during the hours the cafeteria is closed. In order to streamline the check-out process, everything (food, books, gifts) is rung in on the cafeteria system’s cash registers and watched over by the cafeteria staff. In ringing in our store’s sales the cashiers press a button for either "books" or (in the case of our non-book items) a button for "gifts," then enter the price as it’s marked. As this doesn’t give us a ton of sales information, one of our hardy booksellers (the wonderful Lisa Fabiano) will be doing frequent hand-counts of the store’s inventory, receiving new stock as it comes in, shelving books, and rearranging displays. She’ll be reporting specific title sales and customer requests to Lorna and me, so that we can then order and reorder books accordingly.

As a buyer I’ve found it rather tricky to figure out what children’s books to include in the inventory of this store. I’ve had to take a gander at the interests and reading desires of 1,000+ people who may have relatively little in common, apart from the fact that they all work in the same large building. No doubt their pay scales are very different, their levels of higher education probably run the gamut, their interests, their hobbies, their home lives, everything (with the exception of their levels of Red Sox devotion) is likely to be quite diverse. I’ve tried to imagine the occasions these employees are most likely to be buying for and the ages their children and grandchildren are likely to be. We’ve all agreed it’s important that the store contain enough "classics" to immediately suggest that we’ve got a good selection (people generally judge this based on their ability to recognize an adequate number of titles they know and love), but not be so heavy on familiar titles that it seems we’ve got nothing new to offer, or that we have no distinct personality. (In other words, I don’t want us to resemble your average airport bookstore.)

The strangest part of this venture has been choosing books for a children’s section that’s not likely to see many children. (How weird.) The trickiest part has been buying for a store that won’t (except during Lisa’s hours) be staffed by knowledgeable booksellers. For the past nine years I’ve been wonderfully spoiled by the opportunity to buy a wide range of books in terms of both oddity and obscurity with the relative confidence that we’ll sell most of them, because our staff of booksellers and I will read them (or as many of them as can), embrace them, and then handsell them to our customers. It’s a considerable challenge (and considerably less fun, I think) to select books based, to some extent, on their likely ability to "sell themselves," judging from their cover art, their plot synopses, their already established track records. Is this what the buying life is like the buyers of big chain stores, online-only bookstores, and distributors?  Anyone care to weigh in?

Fellow Blogging Booksellers

Alison Morris - August 27, 2007

Booksellers with blogs are prominently featured in the current Bookselling This Week newsletter from the American Booksellers Assocation. Hooray! BTW‘s write-up takes an interesting look at some of the booksellers writing blogs in their so-called "spare time" and the reasons that many bookstores are deciding to create their own store blogs. Brookline Booksmith, the sister store to my home base, was one of the many to enter the fray this year with its own blog, Brookline Blogsmith.

I’ve reproduced the list of blogs mentioned in the BTW article below so that you can visit the sites of other booksellers who are busy blogging (when we’re not busy buying books, receiving books, shelving books, selling books, displaying books, reading books, reviewing books, promoting books, returning books, scheduling events, running in-store events, running off-site events, running school events, writing reviews, writing shelf talkers, writing newsletters, writing lists of holiday recommendations, writing lists of summer reading recommendations, hiring booksellers, training booksellers, crunching numbers, creating reports, vacuuming the floor, taking out the trash, etc., etc., etc.). Note, though, that the list only includes a handful of the many, many bookseller and bookstore blogs in the blogosphere nowadays, and an increasing number of them have to do with children’s books. You’ll find at least 30 bookseller blogs relevant to children’s books included on Jacket Flap.

The Return of Latawnya the Naughty Horse

Alison Morris - August 23, 2007

When was the last time you saw horses drinking and "smoking drugs"?

At a delightful Houghton Mifflin-sponsored lunch for poet Joyce Sidman yesterday, the conversation at one point turned to the unreliability of customer reviews on As part of this discussion I shared accounts of the (faux) customer reviews posted for a book called Latawnya, the Naughty Horse, Learns to Say "No" to Drugs. Those of you who followed the links in my June "Almost Naked Animals" post may have then discovered the full text and pictures of Latawnya on the forum I’d originally linked to, but in the past month or so it had become a paid site, meaning you could no longer read the book there for free.

Bless Kristen McLean, executive director of the Association of Booksellers for Children, for coming to the rescue! Having heard me talk about Latawnya and its reviews yesterday, she paid for the pleasure of reading the book and is now making it available to you, free of charge, on her own blog, pixie stix kids pix! Read Kristen’s commentary, follow her link to the complete book, and learn something — be it about drugs or horses or maybe the importance of vetting your to-be-self-published book with some knowledgeable, honest readers before you cough up printing fees.

Is it Book Love or Book Lust?

Alison Morris - August 22, 2007

You know that exhilarating crush-like feeling you get when you meet someone new who makes you laugh and laugh and feel 100% good about the world? You know how it is — you think you want to spend all your available free time with this person and get to know everything about them and introduce them to all of your friends, except that (let’s face it) your friends are already getting sick of hearing you talk about your crush, even if they’re being polite enough not to let you see them roll their eyes.

Well… I’m currently having that experience. With a book.

I’ve got another 32 pages to go in Linda Urban’s A Crooked Kind of Perfect, but that’s only because I’m so smitten with this book that I keep trying to stretch out the remaining pages, so that I can spend a little more time with these characters and enumerate the reasons this book has me so starry-eyed. Hopefully by the time I’ve finished it and we’ve spent a few days apart I won’t be in such deep smit and will therefore be able to step back and give this book a proper review, with a plot synopsis and everything.

In the meantime, though, I’m not so ungrounded as to think that A Crooked Kind of Perfect and I have an exclusive relationship so, really, it’s fine with me if you want to read it too.

Dangerous Admissions from a Children’s Author

Alison Morris - August 20, 2007

In my recent review of Sherman Alexie’s new YA novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, I referred to the trend of traditionally "adult" authors crossing over to write for a YA and middle-grade audience. It’s less often that I hear of the reverse — authors who traditionally write for children now writing for adults.

Imagine my surprise, then, to read in the New York Times Book Review that Jane O’Connor, currently best known as the author of Fancy Nancy, has lately penned a novel for grown-ups called Dangerous Admissions: Secrets of a Closet Sleuth.

Since I haven’t read it myself I obviously can’t comment on how successfully the author of 30 picture books and long-time children’s book editor makes the leap to writing a "grown-up" novel, but the NYT review is certainly favorable and the book’s premise shows promise for childhood sleuth-wannabes like me. In O’Connor’s novel, Rannie Bookman, a freelance copy editor, gets caught up in the mystery surrounding the murder of the Director of College Admissions at her children’s private school. She has a rather personal interest in the case, as her son is one of the murder suspects.

It’s the humorous details of the story, though, that make this sound like such a fun read. I had to laugh, for example, at the idea that Rannie was fired from her job at Simon & Schuster when she left out the all-important "L" from the title’s last word in a collector’s edition of the first Nancy Drew book, The Secret of the Old Clock. Nerdy word lover that I am, I also love the idea that a copy-editor’s skills might be essential to solving a complicated case.

Chelsea Cain, who wrote the NYT review, says, "Grammarians, rejoice. You finally have your own sleuth." And no, Fancy Nancy fans, she does not wear a tiara.

The Triumphant Return of Captain Najork

Alison Morris - August 19, 2007

Earlier this week my pal Leo Landry stopped by the store unexpectedly, and it was great to see him there, having previously paid him many a visit on his former bookstore turf, The Children’s Book Shop in Brookline, MA. Owned by the all-knowing Terri Schmitz, The Children’s Book Shop is a venerable children’s bookselling institution, where for 20 years Leo served as store manager. Now he writes and illustrates full-time, creating the same types of books he used to spend his days handselling.

When I asked what Leo missed most about being a bookseller he said it was knowing all the books that were out, all the time. I sympathized with this, as I’ve always feared the panicky feelings I’d experience were I to somehow miss even just one season as a buyer. Given the mind-boggling number of books now published in any one quarter of the year, it’d be so easy to fall impossibly far behind after even only a couple months’ hiatus.

That having been said, it’s impossible to see all books by all publishers, and even those of us seemingly "in the know" will occasionally discover gems that somehow flew past our kid lit radars. I learned about two such books when publisher David R. Godine recently made a sales call to our store for the first time a year or so. Somehow Lorna and I failed to cross paths with him in late 2006, and I therefore missed my chance to make the early acquaintance of two wonderful books he rescued from the out-of-print rolls and reissued last year — two books I feel I should have known about all my life but had never seen before this month — two books about Captain Najork.


Captain Najork is the would-be hero of How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen and A Near Thing for Captain Najork, both written by Russell Hoban and illustrated by Quentin Blake. The books have an exquisitely wacky sensibility that’s a bit Roald Dahl, a bit William Steig, and a lot Russell Hoban. In them we meet Tom, a boy who’s an expert at fooling around with whatever crosses his path — sticks, stones, mud, high things, low things, any things. As the first sentence of How Tom Beat… explains, "Tom lived with his maiden aunt, Miss Fidget Wonkham-Strong. She wore an iron hat, and took no nonsense from anyone. Where she walked the flowers drooped, and when she sang the trees all shivered."

Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong believes that fooling around is a close cousin to playing and that "too much playing is not good." She tells Tom to do something useful, but Tom, being a normal boy, can’t stop fooling around. Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong therefore does as she’s continually threatened and sends for Captain Najork and his hired sportsmen.

"Captain Najork," said Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong, "is seven feet tall, with eyes like fire, a voice like thunder, and a handlebar mustache. His trousers are always freshly pressed, his blazer is immaculate, his shoes are polished mirror-bright, and he is every inch a terror. When Captain Najork is sent for he comes up the river in his pedal boat, with his hired sportsmen all pedalling hard. He teaches fooling-around boys the lesson they so badly need, and it is not one that they soon forget."

Tom soon finds that Captain Najork is not in the least bit a terror. In order to teach Tom a lesson, the Captain and his hired sportsmen attempt to best the boy at womble, muck, and sneedball, which turn out to be variations on Tom’s favorite activities:

The hired sportsmen brought out the ramp, the slide, the barrel, the bobble, the sneeding tongs, the bar, and the grapples. Tom saw at once that sneedball was like several kinds of fooling around that he was particularly good at. Partly it was like dropping things off bridges into rivers and fishing them out and partly it was like fooling around with barrels in alleys.

"I had better tell you," said the Captain to Tom, "that I played in the Sneedball Finals five years running."

"They couldn’t have been very final if you had to keep doing it for five years," said Tom.

When Tom predictably beats Captain Najork, the Captain is, to his credit, very sportsmanlike in his defeat, and always dashing in his blazer and freshly-pressed trousers — so dashing, in fact, that Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong takes quite a liking to him, much as you’ll take quite a liking to these books.

As for the man who penned them, Russell Hoban is best-known in children’s lit. circles for his books about Frances, the plucky badger with a thing for bread and jam and a delightful habit of singing her own songs. Hoban has also written quite a number of novels for "grown-ups" and garnered a legion of fans, some of whom have participate in an annual celebration of his birthday called the Slickman A4 Quotation Event (or SA4QE). Apparently, each year on February 4th, SA4QE participants record a favorite Hoban quote on a piece of paper and post it somewhere in public view. I have not participated in these festivities, but were I to do so I’d probably have to go with one of the poems from the only Frances book that’s currently (sadly) out of print, Egg Thoughts and Other Frances Songs. My two favorites are "Lorna Doone, Last Cookie Song (I Shared It With Gloria)" and "Songs for Television Shows I Would Like to See."

Full Cast Audio Casts About for Readers

Alison Morris - August 15, 2007

In the "too cool" category this week comes the news that Full Cast Audio will be holding auditions later this month for its 2007-2008 "recording season." Perhaps you know an adult or young adult who fits the audition criteria, is in possession of good read-aloud skills and has accessible transportation to Syracuse, N.Y. (FCA’s home base)?

The scoop from the Syracuse Post-Standard is this: "FCA has open roles for men and women ages 16 to 18. The audio publisher also seeks men between the ages of 28 and 32 to audition for the role of Seth Halloway, a fictional defensive linebacker in [Tim] Green’s Football Genius."

In addition to Football Genius, FCA will be recording Emperor Mage by Tamora Pierce and Dark Whispers by Bruce Coville, FCA’s founder.

If you could have (or have had) a part in the "cast" of one audio book, what would it be?

Authors’ Expectations Eclipsed By Stephenie Meyer

Alison Morris - August 13, 2007

I propose a moment of silent sympathy for the writers of the world, in the face of what’s been a rather humbling, reality-bending month in the world of children’s book sales. First, J.K. Rowling witnesses (by proxy) the sale of more than 72 million copies of HP7 within the first 24 hours of its release. Last week Scholastic announced that their initial print run of 12 million copies doesn’t look like it’s quite going to cut the mustard, so they’re headed back to press to print another two million. Ah, yes, business as usual. Just going to print another TWO MILLION books to satisfy American readers.

My sense is that most writers can shrug this off with little more than a sigh and a shake of the head. I mean, c’mon. It’s Harry Potter. It’s the most remarkable phenomenon in publishing history, Rowling has done something no one can fully comprehend (though everyone desperately wants to, so they can then replicate it), and c’est la vie. It’s hard to be jealous of something so… well, freakish.

But then another couple of weeks pass and the children’s market heats up again. This time it’s Stephenie Meyer who’s raking in the cash with the release of her third young adult novel in the Twilight Saga, Eclipse. Its initial print run? One million copies. Ouch. And ouch again at Wellesley Booksmith. Within three days our store had sold through my sizeable initial order of the book, as had all of our distributors — Bryant Altman, Bookazine, Bookstream, Ingram and Baker & Taylor. (At least I’m not the only buyer who underestimated…)

I don’t begrudge Stephenie Meyer her success in the least. She, like J.K. Rowling, has been perversely fortunate enough to tap into something that readers (oh, say, a million of them) have apparently been hungering for. I do, though, have to sigh along with writers everywhere over the comparison of Meyer’s initial print run with those of most authors seeing the publication of their third or fourth or even their 25th novel. With the average advance for a first-time children’s book author hovering around $7,500 and the print run for their first book likely to be 5,000 copies (my source for these figures: Michael Cart), it’s easy to see why most writers find it impossible to make a living writing children’s and YA books, let alone make a fortune.

And so I lift my cap to the non-Rowlings and non-Meyers of the world. Here’s to you and your meager advances, your moderate print runs, your ability to walk the streets unmobbed by screaming teenagers, your dedication to a low-paying (but oh so valuable) cause.

Harry Potter Translations Go-Go-Go

Alison Morris - August 10, 2007

For the past few years Chinese counterfeiters have attempted to fleece the Chinese public with their own Harry Potter creations.  An article in today’s New York Times reveals the very entertaining plots of eight of these fake volumes. Perhaps those readers who were disappointed by Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows will find what they’d hoped for in one of these entertaining alternatives.

My personal favorite? Harry Potter and the Chinese Porcelain Doll, in which Voldemort has a rival named Yandomort, Harry travels by steamer, and his new friends belong to a Chinese circus; though I love that Gandalf lends Harry a hand in Harry Potter and the Waterproof Pearl. The award for "Most Poetic Sentence," however, goes to the person who penned Harry Potter and Platform Nine and Three-Quarters for this gem:

I could not tell anyone of this, I would ride on my favorite flying broom, together with Hedwig and my magic wand, go-go-go, night clouds in the urban sky would cover my trails, and the meteor you saw in the sky was my traipsing manteau.