Monthly Archives: September 2007

Those Indescribable Books

Alison Morris - September 25, 2007

Last week I posed the question of whether or not my ability to recall the details of a book’s plot details should somehow influence my review of said book, and several of you remarked that, yes, indeed, a story’s staying power is somehow indicative of its quality. Whether or not that’s the case, as a bookseller who has to be able to conjure up snappy, quick, on-the-spot reviews for customers on a daily basis, I can say that the books with the best "staying power" are the ones that probably fare the best on the hand-selling front. The better I can recall their details, the better I can describe them to others… usually.

The thorny bit here is that there are always books that I love and that really have "stayed with me," but which I nevertheless find difficult to describe to others in a way that sounds sufficiently enticing. There are a lot of wonderful books that just sound… boring or exceedingly odd, plot-wise, when you try to describe them to other people, or at least to young people. A grown-up might very well be won over by your descriptions of their fine writing, but many kids have a harder time being wooed solely by literary merits.

One of these books for me is The Book of Everything by Guus Kuijer. Its length works against it, complicating matters, as the book is quite short for the audience I think it most appropriate for ages 12 and up. I have the hardest time telling people what this book is about without them looking at me cross-eyed or dismissing it outright because they don’t like the cover or the thickness of the volume or the fact that the main character has conversations with Jesus. (I’d be hardwon on those details, too, actually.) Selling this book is a true trust exercise — customers who know me and trust my recommendations may be talked into buying it, but others? Forget it.

Sometimes, too, I find it hard to sufficiently condense a book’s plot into a "sound bite-sized" package, making my descriptions feel overly cumbersome. Try to describe The Golden Compass in under two minutes, for example. I’ve managed to cut my description down to something that will usually win someone over, but I still find it hard to do so succinctly, in part because it’s a book that leaves you with so much to say. I had similar problems at first with Listening for Lions by Gloria Whelan, which has three times as much plot as it does pages, a feat that works beautifully in this book. Try to explain how the story begins here, moves there, then advances to another place, though, and you may notice a less-attentive audience shifting their weight with impatience. (Hence the reason my shelf talker explains it, in part, as Out of Africa meets Annie meets The Secret Garden. It insults the book a bit, I think, to imply that it might be derivitive, but it seems to tell customers plenty and we’ve since had no trouble selling the book.)

Is there a book you find it especially hard to convince other people to try reading? Have you discovered the perfect handle or an ideal hook? At our store we each learn the best tricks by eavesdropping on one another’s hand-selling efforts. Give all of us a chance to eavesdrop on your efforts here, and maybe it’ll help us work some magic with those hard-to-sell books.

Fall Events Frenzy (Part II)

Alison Morris - September 23, 2007

Continued from Fall Events Frenzy (Part I)…

On the day of an event in our store, we’ve got to rearrange fixtures in our Used Book Cellar to set up for a book reading, set up a book-signing table on the sales floor, and put the visiting authors’ books in one convenient, easy-to-buy-from location, then one of us has to run/oversee the actual event itself. After the event we have to put all of these things back in their original places. We usually need an extra person helping out with all this, as it can get crazy to try to make recommendations to browsing customers browsing iwhile you’ve got a store full of people milling about in a book-signing line and lots of sales being rung through the registers. On the whole, though, and all preparation work aside, the actual execution of an in-store event isn’t all that taxing, unlike the execution of an off-site event.

On the day of an off-site event, the person (or persons) running the event has to pull the visiting author’s books from all the displays and shelves in the store, assemble said books in boxes, put together a cash box, and create a book price list (including tax) for each of the author’s titles. When all of this has been done, they load up their vehicle(s) with boxes of books, in addition to the following: one or two credit card "machines" (we call them "kerchunkers" because that’s the noise they make when you run them over someone’s card), credit card slips, calculators, ballpoint pens, post-it notes (for personalizations), plastic bags, book stands, event fliers, newsletter sign-up sheets, store bookmarks, any publicity materials the author’s publisher has sent, and the store tablecloth (logo prominently appliqued to the front). After the event, the unsold books have to be carted back the store, put back on the shelves or on a "signed books" display (if we happen to have the space for one) or returned to the publisher. The credit card sales from the event rung seperately through the cash register, and we have to tally and ring in the sales from cash and checks.

In the case of huge off-site author events, along the lines of our events with Rick Riordan and Lemony Snicket, there’s a LOT more work involved than just what’s listed here, and a lot more people involved in making it happen. For your average event, though, two of us tackle all of the above, usually successfully. At library events we have the added benefit and help of several hard-working librarians. For school events, an increasingly common feature of our events calendar, it usually takes only one of us to supervise the show, but the pre-event planning is a lot more involved.

So, why am I putting myself through the paces again this season with all of these events? Because in the case of our store’s children’s events, we seem to be doing reasonably well on balance, and because I hate to give them up! Just like the customers who are overjoyed at the opportunity to meet the person behind their favorite titles, I get positively giddy over the prospect of meeting some of these talents and introducing them to our customers. Likewise, if I already know an author and we’ve become friendly, I’m anxious to do what I can to give a boost to both their visibility and their book sales.

I will readily admit, though, that tending to so many events during the ramp-up to our busiest time of year puts an enormous strain on my time and drains a great deal of my energy. Someday soon I hope to pass our children’s events responsibilities off to someone else who can do all the run-around and follow-ups and let me get back to discovering the authors we’d most want to host, instead of worrying about how best to do so.

In the meantime, though, I’ve been thrilled to kick off our events season with two incredibly friendly and easy-going authors — the kind I’m happy to have back at any time. Last Tuesday we had 90 people at our event with the ridiculously funny Jon Scieszka, and on Friday I had the pleasure of accompanying Kenneth Oppel to a local middle school where he did two presentations and then had lunch with 4 sixth graders who help put together the schools’ annual literary magazine. Both events included many reminders for me of why it is that we’re still happy to do author events. Yesterday as these 4 kids grinned over their slices of pizza and told Ken what sorts of books they like to read, one of them explained their typical cafeteria scenario, remarking "We don’t usually get to, like, have lunch with actual authors!" As the resident "actual author" in my apartment had lunch (and breakfast and dinner) with me today for the umpteenth time, I couldn’t help thinking it’s only right that I share the wealth.

Fall Events Frenzy (Part I)

Alison Morris - September 22, 2007

My store life grows increasingly busy these days, as we’re in the throes of author event season and I’m scrambling to keep up with my usual buying, returning, shelving, displaying, recommending, reporting, reviewing while also trying to accommodate the needs of authors and publicists; arrange a place to host each event; make sure we’ve got the publicity tools we need for each event; work with our wonderful Assistant Manager (Kym Havens) to post the event information on our website, on flyers in our store, and in our store’s e-newsletter; order each author’s books; find a place to store those mountains of boxes; thank our wonderful receiver (Pete Sampson) for not losing his mind; find a place to prominently display each event’s books in the store despite the lack of space caused by all the incoming fall titles and the need to display books for such sales-heavy occasions as Halloween; follow up with authors, publicists, and drivers to confirm where and when each of our special guests will be arriving; pray pray pray that people will actually attend each event; hope hope hope that each of these authors or illustrators are nice, friendly people and dynamic speakers; and then (in most cases) attend and run the actual events.

Doing this a few times a season would be fine, but this year I’ve already put almost 15 names on our calendar and have promised to fit in a couple more, provided I don’t lose my mind before that happens. Many of these folks are "big names" any booklover would be hard-pressed to turn away, but a lot of them are also local authors or illustrators who aren’t especially well-known. While you might think it would be reasonable to schedule only events with the former, the latter can be just as successful (if not more so) at drawing big crowds, IF (that is) they’ve got their own mailing lists comprised of supportive, local friends and relatives. In either case, though, each reading or signing event is a crap shoot. You can do all the publicity and planning in the world and still have anywhere from 5 to 500 people in attendance, with no concrete explanation for why you got those numbers.

Lest any of you think I’m over-exaggerating the work and teeth-gnashing involved in planning and executing author events, let me assure you that I’m not. Many bookstores do very few, if any, author events precisely because they are often a ton of work. It is true, yes, that doing events keeps your name in the public spotlight, makes you look like a "destination," gives you credo with your customers and goodwill in the community. But many stores find that the added publicity and goodwill just aren’t enough to cover expenditures of money, time and energy. Once you appreciate all the work that goes into them, it’s pretty easy to see why.

Basic signings involve relatively little planning and require little space, so they’re pretty easy to run, but they don’t often draw large crowds of people unless the person signing books is a local celebrity, a big-name author, or say, Julie Andrews Edwards. Most authors prefer to do signings in conjunction with readings, and that’s what most bookstore customers seem to want too.

For a long time our store had very little space in which to host readings. We could clear away a section in front of the picture books, but it didn’t hold many chairs, it blocked off a very popular browsing space, and the picture book section didn’t seem like the best "fit" for most authors of adult books. Now that a section of our basement has been finished to create our Used Book Cellar, we’ve got substantially more room to play with, allowing us to accommodate readings for crowds of up to 60 or (with less breathing space) 75.  But if a visiting author looks to draw more folks than that, or if we think we need to reach a wider audience than our own mailing list, we’ll often choose to host events at a larger local venue, usually the nearby Wellesley Free Library. We love the freedom and opportunities provided for us by event partnerships like this one. What we don’t love, though, is that compared to in-store events, off-site events require more staff, involve a lot more work, and don’t bring event attendees into our actual bookstore, which means we miss out on additional sales and sometimes even the goodwill/prestige boost, as visitors aren’t always aware that the event is "our doing" and not a matter of library expenditure.

What has to happen at an in-store or off-site event? I’m going to have to put that explanation in another post, in order to satisfy the needs of this blog tool.  See "Fall Events Frenzy (Part II)."

Tainted Book Love

Alison Morris - September 20, 2007

Continuing the theme of my last post, I’m still thinking about when would be the ideal time to review a book. I often feel like it’s unfair or inaccurate for me to write up my review immediately after I’ve put down a book, as I’m often still in a storybook fog or my emotions are still tied to what’s just happened on the final pages. I feel like maybe I should give the book a little breathing room first, put a little distance between us, from which I can then assess things a bit better. But then again, if that book was able to cast a spell over me, isn’t that part of its success? Am I doing it a disservice by waiting for thrill to dissipate?

I suppose this gets tricker if you’re judging the actual writing in a book, rather than its plot or your overall "enjoyment" of it. I would think that, in judging the quality of a book’s writing, there’s no better time than to make note of its finer qualities than while you are reading and immediately after you’ve finished.

Ideally I suppose I would record my thoughts on the quality of the book’s writing while I’m reading it. I would wait a few days before recording my thoughts on how much I really enjoyed the book, and I would wait still longer before I assessed its "staying power," as mentioned before.

Is it just me, or has reviewing a book suddenly become immensely complicated? In the end would my carefully spaced review sessions reveal results all that different from my post-reading "snap judgments"? Does anyone have the ideal reviewing time window? Please enlighten the rest of us if you do.

The Importance of Staying Power

Alison Morris - September 17, 2007

I spent much of yesterday pounding out quick reviews of the Fall novels I’ve read so far this year, to add to the coffers of the Fall Review Project assembled each year by the New England Independent Children’s Booksellers Advisory Coucil. What happens is pretty simple: we NEICBA members send in reviews of all the fall list books we’ve read, some wonderful person (this year our president, Elizabeth Bluemle) compiles them all into one lengthy document, and we make that document available to everyone who attends our meeting at the New England Independent Booksellers Association fall trade show and post it on the NEIBA website. This review "database" then becomes a handy tool for all of us to refer to and pass along to our staff, for the purposes of interesting them in reading some of these books and giving them some clue as to what books they might want to recommend to customers and on what grounds.

I stupidly fell down on the job this season (not for the first time) as in most cases I didn’t write even short reviews of the books I’d read within a few days of having finished them. I was generally good about jotting down quick notes while I was reading (excellent use of _____, love the ____, see page ___), but those notes don’t fill in all the blanks that sometimes exist for me a month or two after I’ve closed one book and moved on to subsequent others.

As I sat down yesterday to type up reviews of books I finished weeks or, in a couple cases, months, ago I had the same realization I’ve had countless times before: some books just stay with me SO much better than others. This, in turn, makes some of them much harder to review than others, if you’re typing up your reviews a good while after the fact.

Which brings me to this question: Should "staying power" factor into one’s review of a book? Is a book you can remember in vivid detail months after the fact somehow "better" than a book you thoroughly enjoyed while reading but feel hazy about just a few weeks later?

Fantasy World, Real Resistance

Alison Morris - September 15, 2007

I have a confession to make: While I like to think of myself as an open-minded gal, I do sometimes discover that there are stumbling blocks on my road to acceptance of all people, all things, all experiences. There are occasions during which I discover the shameful limits of my own comfort zone.

When I first started dating Gareth and learned that he was on the staff of a then biannual “fantasy adventure weekend” of the wearing capes and casting spells in the woods variety, I’ll admit it: I thought his nerd score had shot too high even for me, who had so often fallen for geeky guys with quirky interests. Throughout the first year and a half of our relationship anytime this “adventure weekend” would come up in conversation I would inwardly groan at the horror of having to participate in such a thing. I would grit my teeth at the knowledge that, were we to still be dating in October of 2006, I would probably have to spend a long weekend in the woods playing the time-honored role of “good sport girlfriend,” this time while wearing some RIDICULOUS costume and fighting monsters with foam swords. Yes, I performed leading roles in my high school plays and musicals. Yes, I adored my summer camp days and love hiking in the woods and sleeping in cabins. Yes, I have fallen under the spell of Tolkien, Pullman, Rowling, our beloved L’Engle, and so many others. And, YES, I have lots of extremely nerdy friends. What was the problem here? Who was I to judge? I don’t know, but I did — all the while HATING myself for doing so and not understanding why I was so leary of participating in a story, just because it was fantasy.

In one of my pre-Otherworld moments of trepidation I distinctly recall saying to Gareth, “It’s not that I don’t think I’ll enjoy it at all – I enjoy almost everything I try. It’s just that it’s "NOT ME." To which Gareth replied that the people who are into "live action role-playing" or members of the Society for Creative Anachronism wind up disappointed with Otherworld, because it’s not what they’re expecting — it’s not serious enough for them, and it’s not competitive. It’s the age-old problem with Otherworld, he explained for the umpteenth time, that the people who would enjoy it the most are the people who would least expect to. I smugly thought I would prove that theory wrong.

But of course (and you saw this coming, didn’t you?) Otherworld turned out to be none of the things I had been inexplicably fearing. My "adventure weekend" turned out, in fact, to be one of the single most entertaining weekends I have ever spent in my entire life. Seriously. I laughed my ass off from Friday night until Sunday morning. So did the other five members of my assigned party, two of them my housemates, three of them complete strangers at the start of the weekend, all of us regular working professionals by day, and one of us 68 years old. We were caught in a mystery replete with humor and suspense, completely unconcerned with our ordinary lives and seemingly light years away from it. 

In short, I had so much fun at Otherworld that I would love nothing more than to be able to go again as a participant and repeat the experience. But I can’t. With few exceptions, each participant is only allowed to attend ONCE. After that you’re left either with the memories, OR (if you’re lucky) an invitation to join the staff of the program, who (like the participants) pay to attend each year. Turns out I’m a lucky one (or a good team player, good sport, decent actress, something), as I am, it’s true, on the staff of Otherworld this year, alongside Gareth and the two members of my party whom Otherworld’s founder had spent eight years trying to convince to attend.

Now I’m also stuck in the same ugly role Gareth was for a year and a half — trying to figure out how the heck you convince non-role-playing, non-gamer types to understand that this weekend is guaranteed to be blissfully entertaining. The best way I’ve found to describe it is to say it’s like falling into a book. You are yourself but suddenly transplanted to an unfamiliar place where you’re surrounded by unfamiliar people. You introduce yourself to them, learn a thing or two about who they are and learn what object your party of six is supposed to be searching for. It could be anywhere and may have been taken by anyone. And your group has about 36 hours to find it. Clue the adrenaline (and maybe a Renaissance version of the James Bond theme). The trouble is that then you mention the costumes and the foam swords and your wavering audience now runs screaming into the hills.

I personally think almost anyone would enjoy Otherworld, but it’s especially meaningful for readers to attend — to literally feel what it’s like to tumble down the metaphorical rabbit hole, not just imagine it. But the fantasy cloak of Otherworld seems to trip up even folks like me, readers of the occasional fantasy novel.

What is it about this genre that is so off-putting to so many people? That’s what I keep trying to figure out. I’ve thought about it often in the context of books, and now I’m thinking about it a great deal as Columbus Day weekend approaches, bringing Otherworld with it.

In my experience the only way to get self-proclaimed non-fantasy readers to TRY reading a fantasy book is to earn their trust first. THEN maybe they can be convinced by themes or plots or descriptions of the writing. But the trust part has to come first. I suppose it’s true that trust is helpful when convincing someone to try something almost anything, but with fantasy it seems almost essential. Readers come to trust you as a person or (better still) trust your taste in books and then, finally, they’re willing to make that leap.

I’m curious if other people agree or disagree with this and curious if anyone has any good theories about why fantasy is so hard for people to stomach, at least until they’ve tried it successfully. Help me solve this puzzle, would you? And feel free to puzzle it out while you’re battling monsters with me in Connecticut over Columbus Day weekend. TRUST ME — it’ll be the cheapest, best fun you’ve had in ages. And if it’s not, Otherworld’s "Ridiculously Overconfident Guarantee" ensures that you’ll get double your admission fee back. (Imagine if bookstores offered that kind of reassurance!)

Shelving by Subject — Yay or Nay?

Alison Morris - September 12, 2007

"Liz" made an intriguing suggestion/wish in the comments of my "Middle Grade Is a Muddy Name" post that generated enough thoughts from me to potentially overwhelm the comments field, so I figured I thought I’d include them here, as another post.

Here’s what Liz had to say: I never understand why a lot of book stores just don’t display books by subject matter, Fantasy, mystery, animal stories, horse stories, etc. Children between 8 – ? should be able to look at a wide variety of books without having them labled at grade level in my opinion. Why limit them to something they may enjoy be it under or over there "grade level?" Some children can read way above their grade level, but would like to read at their age level, while others struggle to read. Putting ages on books has always bothered me. There are even great picture books that adults enjoy! Do we tell them they cannot buy them for themselves they must give them to a child? Stop with the age and grade level, if they can read the book, let them take it home (I mean buy it =:o). I refuse to follow the rules! Liz

I completely see Liz’s point and agree that age specifications can seem unnecessarily limiting. I especially agree that we’re never too old for picture books! However I can say without hesitation that I think most of the customers at our bookstore would be lost or at least frustrated if they weren’t given some guidelines as to where to find books for kids at particular ages, stages, or reading levels.

While most parents are rather in tune with what books their kids are reading and have enjoyed, other family members (or less involved parents) often aren’t that familiar with what little Susie or Billy have been reading or are capable of reading, so it helps to steer them in some direction. This is especially important for gift-buying folks with limited kid experience, who wouldn’t begin to know what types of books kids are capable of reading at one stage or another, or what’s deemed "appropriate" for a 6-year-old versus a 13-year-old (I see this a lot, actually). They want to offend neither parent nor child, and are therefore grateful for some ages and stages steering devices.

From a time standpoint too I think it’s important to make it easy to find books at different "levels." Teachers with limited browsing time (which is most of them) would not like having to pull book after book off the shelf before finally finding one that was approximately the right reading level for the group they’re working with. Likewise, kids would grow frustrated if their interest was piqued by title after title, only to learn that each one of those titles was either too advanced for them, reading level-wise, or too "baby-ish."

From a logistics standpoint, I think subdividing our fiction section by subject could create a lot of shelving headaches. For one thing, shelving by subject would force books into only one category at a time, unfairly limiting their readership, or force booksellers to shelve many, many books in multiple locations, which (trust me) generates a lot of confusion.

A lot of stores do what Liz is suggesting on a small scale — for example having a fantasy or mystery section within their overall assortment of middle grade books. In our store, though, we reserve the sub-sections mostly just for non-fiction children’s books. We have a classics section, but apart from that the fiction (not counting picture books) is all grouped together according to reading and content level.

I worry that shelving fiction by subject sometimes reinforces kids’ (often) naive stereotypes about what books they do and don’t like reading. In other words, I think that the subject-related shelving model could in fact be just as "limiting" as shelving by age might at first seem to be. I can think of countless occasions, for example, when kids who claim to dislike fantasy have unknowingly purchased and loved a book that was technically fantasy — they just didn’t recognize it as such, because it didn’t fit their notion of what "fantasy" means. Were we shelving all of our middle grade fantasy books together in one section, I think a lot of kids would never deign to browse that section, which would be a loss. And if we had our sports novels shelved in a separate "sports novels" section I can’t tell you how many boys would browse there and nowhere else!

I know, I know… That’s what Liz is saying, right? That it’s fun for a book-loving browser to be able to find all the books (ALL the books) on the same subject, jumbled together in a delightful cacophony of ages and stages and sizes and reading levels! It does sound like it might make for a very cool browsing experience. But I think it would be easier to do this in a store where each and every person is only shopping for themselves, and not for other people. And maybe also a store where no booksellers ever have to do any shelving!

In the end I think there’s no easy way to organize a store that brings all potentially good fiction books to the eyes of every customer who might love them, but most of the time shelving them by ages has worked quite well for the three stores I’ve worked in. I also find that most customers don’t allow age categories or recommendations to act as restrictions.

As for how not to send the message that there’s an age "cap" on a book’s readership, though, I love Lisa Yee‘s suggestion from the "Middle Grade…" post comments:

I would love to do away with ending ages. For example, instead of "Age 8 – 12" it would be "Age 8 and Up."

An excellent idea, I think! But only if that book really IS supposed to be for an 8-year-old in the first place. I often see publishers label books as 8-12 that I think are a better fit for ages 10-14. Then again, I have a much harder time deciding where to shelve books when they straddle that line. Is that book really more for age 10 or for age 14, in terms of its content? Do I put it in "Intermediate Fiction" where it’ll be seen primarily by kids in the 10-12 range or do I move it to "Young Adult" so that the 14-year-olds don’t think it’s beneath them, but where the 10-year-olds might not find it? Ay yi yi. In the case of those books, Liz, I think I’d be wishing for your subject-based shelving system!

Any other booksellers or librarians out there want to weigh in on their shelving preferences? Anyone else have a dream arrangement? Thanks to Liz and Lisa Yee for comments that have given me plenty more to think about (and type about, apparently!).

Middle Grade Is a Muddy Name

Alison Morris - September 7, 2007

A question for the masses. If you worked in a bookstore or library and were creating a section containing middle grade fiction, would you actually label it as "middle grade" or would your sections signs feature some other moniker?

At Wellesley Booksmith our children’s fiction sections currently run in this order (youngest to oldest): Beginning Readers, First Chapter Books, Intermediate Fiction, Young Adults, with "Intermediate Fiction" being home to fiction the publishing industry would call "middle grade." This "Intermediate Fiction" name was inherited from our Brookline store, which I’m sure coined the name years ago, and it’s always seemed a bit confusing to me, but then so does the term "middle grade," now that we also have something called "middle school." And so the "Intermediate Fiction" designations in our store have remained, just as the section signs at the Dartmouth Bookstore continued to be labeled as "Middle Readers" during my days there, even though customers frequently asked me what the name meant — were those the books for kids in middle school?

I’ve asked a number of other booksellers what they call the middle grade section of their stores, and most seem to either label it "Middle Grade Fiction" or label it according to ages, e.g. "Fiction Age 8-12" as I recently observed on the section signs at Books of Wonder. The former seems to mean about as much to the general book browser as "Intermediate Fiction" or "Middle Readers" (meaning, not much). The latter imparts more specific information and seems apt to steer most customers in the right direction, but it makes me grimace on behalf of those kids who aren’t reading at grade level. The 14 year-old reading books intended for 10 year-olds is frequently book-shy enough without having to be reminded that he’s reading books written for kids many years younger than him. Imagine browsing at age 14 and realizing that 8 year-olds are browsing the same books as you — ouch! And then there’s the confusion of stating that books are for ages 8 to 12. Your average 8-year-old may be able to handle the content in a lot of those middle grade books, but be much better suited to the reading level in our first chapter books section. Likewise a lot of 12 year-olds are ready for the content of many of the books we call young adult. I don’t want the parents of either child to mistakenly say, "But you should be browsing HERE, because the sign says that this is the section for you."

So, what’s the solution? Is there a name that could possibly suggest "ready for Sharon Creech but not Edward Bloor"? Something that means "Moderate Content for Fluent Readers"? How about "Neither baby-ish nor grown-up"? It’s so easy to see how someone arrived at "middle" grade, as these books are rather betwixt and between… Hmm… Of course the section could be called "Betwixt and Between" but the question would be the same asked by "middle" or "intermediate" designations — betwixt and between what?

Send me your wild and not-so-wild section name suggestions, and if our store adopts yours for use I’ll send you a lovely reward (read: gift certificate and totebag).

Visiting Melissa Sweet (Maine Post #3)

Alison Morris - September 6, 2007

For many years now Melissa Sweet has held the distinction of being one of my absolute favorite illustrators. I love her bright, playful watercolors, particularly those that incorporate collage elements that add surprising splashes of texture and color to her delightfully uplifting images. Melissa and I met for the first time at the New England Independent Booksellers Association fall trade show several years ago, when she and Jacqueline Davies were signing copies of The Boy Who Drew Birds. Since that time we’ve exchanged intermittent e-mails, with them recently taking the form of sharing our favorite means of distraction (have you seen this blog? looked at this artist’s collage work? bought this fabric? etc.). We had spent almost zero time together, though, until this past Saturday, when Gareth and I visited Melissa and her husband Mark at their home and studio in Rockport, Maine.

Suffice it to say that Melissa’s house, studio, and husband are every bit as bright and welcoming as the books Melissa illustrates (and writes, in the case of Carmine: A Little More Red and the forthcoming Tupelo Rides the Rails). Gareth and I stayed at Mark and Melissa’s place for four hours and could easily have lingered for several days more had we not eventually had to drive back to Boston (and had Mark and Melissa not  needed to get on with their lives). What follows is an inside look at Melissa’s studio and a sneak peek at the book she’s currently illustrating, A River of Words. It’s a picture book biography of William Carlos Williams, written by Jen Bryant, to be published by Eerdmans.

As an aside, I’ll mention that I really enjoyed Jen Bryant’s free verse novels The Trial and Pieces of Georgia — enough so to include the galley of her forthcoming novel Ringside 1925 in the pile of books I took with me to Maine… and then barely touched during my time there. The one thing this vacation lacked was a plane flight that would grant me some uninterrupted reading time!

But back to Melissa. Here we see Melissa’s studio (on the left) and house (top right), plus a backyard view of both, hinting at the prodigious greenery that surrounds them. (Apparently Melissa has quite the green thumb…)

And now we take a look at the first floor of Melissa’s studio, where she’s got copious volumes lined up on shelves, countless pieces of art in flat files, and a table currently covered with old books she’s dissecting for the illustrations for A River of Words.

On we go, up the stairwell, where Melissa has written a wonderful John Berryman quote on the wall. I’ll type it out here so that no one has to reach for his or her reading glasses: "The artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he’s in business."

And now we’ve arrived at the second floor. In the top photo we see Gareth on the left, Melissa on the right, and Rufus on the floor, playing with his favorite toy. In the bottom photo we see Melissa’s desk.

The wall Melissa is facing in the top photo above functions as a "storyboard" wall, where she can map out sketches for the pages and spreads of whatever book she’s currently working on. On Saturday, September 1st it looked like this:

Below is a close-up photo of the one watercolor currently tacked to the board, and some of the sketches around it. See the sketch on the right of the boy reclining beside a stream (or some other flowing body of water)? Look back at the photo of Melissa’s desk. There’s a watercolor near the back of the desk based on said sketch.

Here’s Melissa holding up one of the illustrations she has almost completed alongside the sketch of how she originally thought it might look:

And here’s a larger shot of that same illustration for those of you dying to get a closer look:

Haven’t had enough? Okay, then, here are two more watercolors in the works. Notice the old book spine Melissa has cleverly altered in the bottom photo.

I asked Melissa how far ahead she’s booked, and the answer was two to three years. In other words, it won’t be long before these watercolors and sketches are replaced by an entirely new set, and more Melissa Sweet-illustrated books are delivered into the hands of readers. Lucky, lucky us!

As I mentioned in a previous post, I always enjoying seeing illustrators’ work in progress, and seeing where they do that work is yet another treat. Whose studios have you seen, and which gave you the greatest studio-envy? What would your dream studio look like and where would it be? (I’m beginning to think that mine might be in Maine…)

Visiting Ashley Bryan (Maine Post #2)

Alison Morris - September 5, 2007

Continuing the story from my last post…  My third Maine children’s book encounter was an intentional one — a visit to Ashley Bryan‘s house on Little Cranberry Island. About eight years ago, when I was working at the Dartmouth Bookstore Ashley dropped in to pay a visit to the wonderful Phoebe Stebbins, then owner of the store and long-time friend of Ashley’s. When Phoebe introduced us she insisted that I absolutely HAD to visit Ashley’s house some day and Ashley extended the invitation for me to drop by anytime. Phoebe sadly passed away a few years ago, but at age 84 Ashley is still alive and well and as sociable as ever, his door seemingly always open. When I called to see if he’d be "on island" last week he said to come by anytime and that I should just ask anyone on the island where he lived — they’d point the way. (The island’s year-round population is less than 100 people.)

Gareth and I rode a water taxi out to the village of Islesford, where we met up with our friends Aaron and Julia Green, and walked on to Ashley’s house, which is (as Phoebe had told me) more like a museum than a set of living quarters. Almost every surface in sight is covered with works of art and objects of play, which Ashley has collected on his journeys throughout the world or been given by various people over the years. The result is a feast for the eyes, an overwhelming menagerie of puppets and playthings, paintings and sculpture — all of it presided over by a man who seems never to tire of sharing it with others.

The photo below shows just one little corner of Ashley’s house, but it gives you some idea of what you’ll find throughout: toys suspended, carved objects, puppets, and dolls on every flat surface, pictures on the walls, cloth hangings in the doorways.

When we arrived at Ashley’s house he was already entertaining visitors but more than happy to entertain more. We were introduced to Darwin Henderson of the University of Cincinnati and Barbara O’Brien of Georgia Public Broadcasting, who’s been producing a series of documentaries about Ashley. She was waiting for him to make her copies of some of his childhood photographs, but he was distracted by the arrival of Maine puppeteer Nancy Tyndall and by our motley crew, whom he welcomed warmly, whisking us off to see the stained glass windows he’s been making since the 1950’s out of beach glass and papier-maché. The results are stunning, the uneven surfaces of each shard bending the light in unusual ways, the stamped letters of various bottle logos lending additional meaning to Ashley’s bright compositions. See for yourself:

Next we were ushered upstairs to Ashley’s studio, where he tends to work on his book illustrations in the evening, following a day of painting in the garden. Below, Ashley shows Julia an illustration from The Night Has Ears, Ashley shows off some of his recent garden paintings, and Gareth admires one of Ashley’s carved linoleum blocks.

Back downstairs we go… This time to another studio space, where Ashley showed us the puppets he makes from items he finds on his daily walks around the island. In the second photo below, Ashley is talking to Aaron, while Mochi (world’s most well-behaved puppy) stretches to catch the sunlight streaming down through the skylight above her.

Julia, a teacher at South Natick’s Eliot Montessori School was salivating at the idea of making puppets like these with her students. What a great lesson in recycling!

Propped up amid the collection of heart-shaped rocks in the photo above I found the note captured in the photo below — no doubt one of thousands just like it that Ashley has received from his fans.

I lost track of time while we were at Ashley’s house, as we took in shelf after shelf after wall after rafter after table of interesting objects, all of which clearly still excites Ashley and each of which comes with its own story.

After about three hours of socializing and oohing and ahhing and laughing, our group of four realized we’d have to catch the water taxi or spend the night on the island (though it occurred to me that I could think of worse things than being stranded with a man this entertaining, in a house this filled with stories). Below is a photo of Darwin Henderson, Aaron Green with Mochi, Ashley Bryan, Barbara O’Brien, and Gareth. Note the endless array of books and objects in the background and the button bouquet Ashley’s holding — my own contribution to his collection of whimsical, handcrafted fun.