Monthly Archives: October 2007

Starting Over from Scratch (A Correction)

Alison Morris - October 30, 2007

So, I goofed. Remember how I expressed my extreme displeasure with an unnamed publisher’s plans to put a coffee-scented dust jacket on the cover of one of their forthcoming young adult novels in my "Smells Like Caffeine" post of 10/21? Scratch that. As it turns out, I misunderstood their intentions. The dust jacket on the novel in question will NOT, in fact, smell like coffee—the small scratch-and-sniff sticker affixed to said dust jacket will, but hopefully only when scratched.

Feeling both relieved and humbled by this revelation, I’m asking you to overlook my misstatements about this one publisher’s plans. Please don’t, though, overlook my feelings about the very idea of a scented dust jacket, as those certainly haven’t changed. (Ick!)

Punk Farm Goes Organic

Alison Morris - October 29, 2007

The past couple weeks have seen me running around like crazy, to author event after illustrator event after author/illustrator event. I’m working on a post that’ll bringing you up to speed on all of them, but first I give you this: a photo feature of one of my all-time favorites—our event with Jarrett Krosoczka last Thursday.

The background: a couple months ago, Jarrett e-mailed me to ask if we’d be interested in hosting him for a reading & signing of Punk Farm on Tour, before Random House sent him on tour to promote the book. He also mentioned that he’d be happy to do a free school visit in conjunction with the store event, which prompted a series of lightbulbs to go off in my mind. I knew a school that would be a great fit for Jarrett, and I knew what sat on the land immediately adjacent to theirs—the Natick Community Organic Farm. I’d never been there myself, but I’d seen it from the school parking lot, I’d often thought to stop at their roadside stand, and I knew them by stellar reputation. What better place, I thought, to host a farm-related book event than at an actual farm? So I called them, spoke with the remarkably enthusiastic Jane Harvey, and got her emphatic answer to my "Can we host this event at your farm?" question: "YES!!"

A few weeks later Jane told me she’d sent 7,000 fliers home with kids in the Natick school district and mailed 3,000 fliers out to families on the farm’s mailing list. She’d put a book and poster in each of eight public libraries in Natick and neighboring towns. "Can we hire you to do publicity for ALL of our events??" I asked her.

We didn’t get 10,000 people at Jarrett’s two afternoon farm events, but we did get about 55 people, which is pretty darn spectacular for anyone, let alone a picture book author/illustrator who hasn’t yet won the Caldecott Medal or topped the NYT bestseller list. Even better than the enthusiastic groups of fans at this event, though, was the setting. And the weather. And the joy of being outside and out of my windowless basement office and on what was a perfect fall day.

I honestly think last Thursday afternoon was one of the single most enjoyable afternoons of my bookselling career. Friendly crowd, friendly author, friendly hosts, fantastic space… I’m pasting some photos here so that you can see for yourself why Jarrett and I felt like we were (both literally and figuratively) in hog heaven.

Here’s the view as you drive up the short lane to the Natick Community Organic Farm:

The shot below shows some young new volunteers helping to muck out one of the barnyards, while each loudly announcing their success at having found the largest cow pie. Kid in black: "Mine’s WAAAAAY bigger!"

Here’s Jarrett beside the cozy woodstove, reading to the day’s first crowd:

And here’s Jarrett’s number one fan, Ben, who showed up wearing a visor he’d made that reads "I’m the Boss"—an homage to the hat worn by the farmer in Punk Farm:


Here’s Jarrett reading to another adoring crowd. (What a bunch of turkeys!)

And below, captured in my favorite photo of the day, are Jarrett’s BIGGEST fans. (Note that I could hardly take this picture because I was laughing so hard, and that Jarrett couldn’t stop commenting on the size of these guys. "I’m realizing I took a lot of liberties with my pig illustrations!" he said.)

Other animals we visited when Jarrett wasn’t reading or signing or answering my questions about his wedding, which took place three weeks ago (congratulate him!):



And here, finally, we see Jarrett accurately predicting what the Red Sox would be saying at the conclusion of this year’s World Series, a big trophy in hand:

What Happens in Hogwarts Stays in Hogwarts

Alison Morris - October 25, 2007

There’s been lots of serious discussion emerging this week about J.K. Rowling’s pronouncement of Dumbledore’s sexuality, but it’s been great fun to see some entertaining spins emerging too. For one thing, New York magazine has written a list of "Ten Other Fictional Characters Whose Outings Won’t Shock Us That Much" that’s rather amusing. Better still, though, is The Onion, who’s done my favorite piece on the subject, in part because I couldn’t help feeling some affinity for the comments of Larry Hahn, Water Delivery Man. (And because Ralph Draper, Tow Druck Driver casts BY FAR the funniest spell of the week.)

I’ve been feeling frustrated with Rowling’s decisions to tell us more about her books’ characters than what she revealed outright in the books themselves. Today I found an essay by Columbia University law professor Michael C. Dorf that pretty well summarizes my thinking. Dorf says the following (and then compares this situation to the ways in which people interpret the U.S. Constitution): "[G]iven that the Potter books, now complete, make no mention of Dumbledore’s sexuality, Rowling would not appear to have any authority to declare the print version of Dumbledore gay, straight or bi. Her views on such matters are naturally of interest to fans of her books, but the work must stand on its own…. To be sure, learning something about an author’s intentions or life experiences may lead a reader to discover an interpretation that might not otherwise have occurred to him…. In the end, though, an author of a work of fiction is, at best, first among equals in interpreting that work. Her intentions do not control the meaning of the text."

I also agree with the thoughts of Rebecca Traister, a devoted Harry Potter fan at, who writes the following:

There’s a very cheerful side to Rowling’s decision to directly address Dumbledore’s homosexuality. Throughout the series, she has been diligent not only in her narrative exploration of bigotry and intolerance, but also in her commitment to the inclusion of characters of different races, cultures, classes and degrees of physical beauty. It would, in fact, have been a glaring omission had none of the inhabitants of her world been homosexual…. But while it’s all well and good to see kids giddy at the news of their hero’s homosexuality, Rowling’s interest in making things perfectly clear (or queer, to borrow queer theorist Alex Doty’s pun), not only about Dumbledore but also about the future and livelihood of all of her characters, provokes thorny questions about the role and responsibilities of an author once she has concluded her text…. My brother, an adult reader who has been irritated by Rowling’s loquaciousness and was sent over the edge by this latest round of fortune-telling, said to me this weekend, "If she wants to tell us what happens, I wish she would write it in a book, because until she does, then as far as I’m concerned, she’s just describing what’s showing on the teeny TV screen inside her head, and that’s not playing fair."

I personally don’t like hearing about characters’ lives off the printed page, because to my mind that’s NOT those characters. Characters exist only as we know them as readers, and the information we’re given about them is what appears in the stories that are written about them and nowhere else. If an author believes something about her characters but doesn’t make those beliefs clear in her writing about them, there’s no guarantee that the reader will pick up on or share those same beliefs. Those character may not, then, "BE" what the writer envisioned them to be.

I think the semantics of Rowling’s original announcement are significant. “I always saw Dumbledore as gay,” she said. And that’s exactly it. SHE always saw Dumbledore as gay. But many of her readers did not, and it seems unfair now to suggest that they/we were somehow wrong.

As readers we each come to a book with our own ideas, our own experiences, our own interests, and those things inevitably influence what we see on the printed page. In the end, Dumbledore is gay if you read the Harry Potter books and believed he was gay, he’s straight if you read the books and believed he was straight, and he’s non-sexual if (like me) you just never bothered to think about his sex life at all.

No matter how you view it, Dumbledore’s sexual orientation has no real bearing on his significance to Harry Potter’s story, as it’s a fact that influences his actions off the printed page—a place we readers can go only in our own minds.

In a Costume Quandary

Alison Morris - October 23, 2007

Halloween’s a-coming and this year I am stumped. I’d appreciate hearing any costume suggestions you can cook up, especially those that are book-related!

The sartorial plan this season had been that Gareth and I would go to our friends’ Halloween party together as the subjects of Grant Wood’s famous painting American Gothic. But it turns out we cityfolk don’t have easy access to any but Devil-themed pitchforks, which pretty well robs our idea of its linchpin. And so, after a lengthy visit to our favorite vintage clothing and costume shop, our Gothic duo disbanded, leaving each of us to do our own thing.

Because I typically give my costume a second whirl at work on Halloween day this separation is probably for the best.  (I couldn’t exactly have dragged Gareth to work with me, solely for the purposes of rounding out our portrait.) Nevertheless, it leaves me scrambling to find something by next Saturday, and preferably something that I’ll recall with as much fondness as the costumes I’ve created in years past. My best = Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedron’s starring role) from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds; Nancy Drew (created using the same outfit I wore as Melanie Daniels); an anti-social butterfly (I hastily painted "I Hate People" on a black t-shirt and found it worked perfectly with my black antennae and monarch wings); a subtly sinister tooth fairy (pink dress, cute wings, chocolate coins and pliers); and Stevie Wonder Woman (Wonder Woman with big hair, dark glasses, and a lot more soul).

This year I’m turning back to books for inspiration, as I’m finding it nowhere else. Captain Underpants is an entertaining option, but Lorna’s already done that justice at our store, and I wouldn’t try to compete. We both keep saying we’ll take inspiration from the wonderful Stuart’s Cape by Sara Pennypacker — staple many neckties together, add one purple sock for a pocket, and you’ll have the perfect cape — but outside our bookstore I don’t think many will get the reference. The Scarlet Letter? I’ve seen it done, and it’s kinda funny but… Not quite what I’m looking for. Bandying about options this morning I thought I might roll two into one and become Ophelia Earheart (Renaissance-inspired dress, aviator cap and goggles) but…  Too silly, perhaps? I don’t know.

Right now I’m leaning towards Gulliver — blousy shirt, cropped pants, black boots, a tricorn hat, and lots of tiny plastic men dangling from strings. Why I’m hesitant to commit to this one: the tricorn hats I saw this morning were pricier than I’d like, and I don’t yet have a source for cheap little men. (Don’t you love the sound of that sentence?)

So… Anyone got any inspiration for me? Any tiny action figures? How about a free pitchfork, with postage? Send ’em my way!

Smells Like Teen Caffeine

Alison Morris - October 21, 2007

(STOP! Before you read this post, please read "Starting Over from Scratch (A Correction)," which I posted on 10/30 to correct some of the information contained below.)

I was going through a publisher’s catalog a few weeks ago with one of our sales reps, when the discussion turned to a title on the spring list that will feature—yes, it’s true—a scented dust jacket. A scented dust jacket. The book in question is a novel largely set in a coffee shop, and the dust jacket will smell like coffee. I kid you not.

While I was rolling my eyes at this nasally invasive marketing scheme, Lorna—who buys our "grown-up books" at the desk right next to mine and had overheard the whole conversation—jumped in with, "I’m sorry, but I think scented book covers are a true sign of the Apocalypse." I get the giggles every time I think about that remark. Plague of locusts or scented book covers?

While it’s probably hyperbole to put odoriferous dust jackets on par with, say, famine and pestilence, I do agree that this is going too far. Can you imagine what bookstores will smell like if other publishers decide to follow this lead, adding whiffs to their wares? For us booksellers it’ll be like working in a pack of Mr. Sketch markers or the headquarters of Yankee Candle. Having colored with the former and visited the latter I can tell you that my nose couldn’t spend 8+ hours/day with either. Yankee Candle proudly refers to its South Deerfield, Mass., location as the "The Scenter of New England," and I’d prefer we didn’t rival them for that distinction.

I do find it funny, though, to imagine what scents one might apply to specific novels or (why stop there?) works of non-fiction. Of course books with an edible angle lend themselves to some obvious odors: The Lemonade War by Jacqueline Davies, for example, or Sharon Creech‘s Granny Torrelli Makes Soup. But it’s much more entertaining to think of less obvious flights of fragrance. The Eyes of the Amaryllis by Natalie Babbitt could smell like the ocean, for example. And Looking for Alaska = cigarette smoke. (Mom: "Have you been smoking again??" Teenager: "No, just reading John Green‘s first novel.") Other suggestions?

There’s a reason I can associate these books with particular scents, though, that’s got absolutely nothing to do with their dust jackets—the writing in these books brought their settings to life. Their authors successfully followed that old "show, don’t tell" adage, which I suppose could also be restated as "tell, don’t smell."

If I’d written a novel that was largely set in a coffee shop and my publisher wanted to put a coffee-scented jacket on it, frankly, I’d be a bit insulted. While I’m sure this publisher’s very savvy marketing team never intended to suggest that their soon-to-be-scented book has any shortcomings, I can’t help but wonder whether scenting this book is giving it something it doesn’t have or forcing it to do double duty. After all, if the writing in this book is up to snuff, it oughtn’t need any help with setting the scene for its readers.

What do you think? Am I wrong? And if not, where do we draw the line? Vibrating YA novels, perhaps?

Return (and Review) of the Teenage Sidekick

Alison Morris - October 16, 2007

After a brief hiatus, my teenage sidekick, Katrina Van Amsterdam, is back with a new review for ShelfTalker readers, and a new job at Wellesley Booksmith!  After several years of grooming her for the job, we’ve now hired Katrina as a bookseller at our store, and are pleased (but not surprised) to report that she’s a natural at it. Newly 17 (Happy birthday, Katrina!), she’s also newly enamored of Jake Wizner’s Spanking Shakespeare, as you’ll see from her review below.

Spanking Shakespeare
by Jake Wizner (Random House Books for Young Readers, September 2007)

Have you ever realized how hilarious it is to be a socially challenged boy? I certainly didn’t… at least, not until I read Spanking Shakespeare. Jake Wizner’s brilliant debut novel details the high school escapades of Shakespeare Shapiro, a high school senior whose primary goal in life is to get a girlfriend. Or get some action… whichever comes first. His one claim to fame is his writing ability, which is put to good use as he writes a comical memoir for his senior project. Wizner chronicles Shakespeare’s last year of high school with such skill that he sent me into gales of laughter. Spanking Shakespeare has rocketed to the top of the list of my all-time favorite books, and I have no doubt in my mind that Shakespeare Shapiro will win a place in the hearts of all who read it.


Alison again: Whether or not you’ve already read Spanking Shakespeare, you might enjoy playing with the Spanking Shakespeare Obituary Generator Random House has created to promote the book. My first attempted yielded the following results:

World-renowned writer/artist/traveler Alison died today in a hospital in Harrisburg. Doctors are still unsure of what exactly caused the death, but believe it was due to complications after Alison harangued too fast and suffered pains in her earlobe. She was 4 years old.

Alison was a exquisite person, who enjoyed everything about life. She was known for her passion for freshly baked bread, which she often ate 42 times a day. She loved to share freshly baked bread with everyone, and would even offer freshly baked bread to strangers. Alison also enjoyed traveling, especially to historical landmarks, and loved meeting people around the world. On her trip to Johannesburg she even met the president (and yes, she offered him freshly baked bread). After meeting him, Alison said the President was blushing.

Alison is survived by her partner Gareth, their 16 children, and their pet quetzal named Resplendent.

(When I asked Gareth how he’d feel about having 16 children he said, "As long as we can have 4 maids." He later revised that, saying, "The question is really how YOU feel about having 16 children!" I shuddered in answer.)

As for Jake Wizner’s relationship to other children’s authors, get a load of this bit, excerpted from his bio:

I went to Wesleyan University, and it was in one of my English classes that I made my first serious attempt at writing fiction. I was immensely proud of the piece I had submitted and remember smiling confidently at the student next to me as our professor returned our work. He got an A. I got a B-. After college, he dubbed himself Lemony Snicket and became the second most famous children’s book author in the world. I moved to New Orleans to teach public school, dubbed myself the Phantom Bard, and chronicled my experiences in the local Teach for America newsletter.

Non-Fiction: Who’s Borrowing? Who’s Buying?

Alison Morris - October 11, 2007

Okay, booksellers AND librarians — weigh in on this discussion, would you? I’ve been having an interesting e-mail conversation this week with Elizabeth Vaccaro, the Media Specialist at Hillside Elementary School in Needham, Mass. Here’s the pared-down progress of our exchange so far:

Elizabeth: I wish I had been able to hear Steve Jenkins [when he visited Wellesley Bookstore on Sept. 29th]. He’s one of the best authors for those many children who only want non-fiction.

Me: What books do your devoted non-fiction readers seem the most drawn to? Any types of books or subjects in particular? I’m forever trying to get our non-fiction sales to pick up a bit but find that most browsers (apart from teachers and librarians) just skip the non-fiction section entirely, which is sad.

Elizabeth: How interesting because non-fiction is my biggest area of circulation. I have a hard time getting children to choose fiction, and I even have to legislate "at least one from the fiction side." This is particularly true among second grade boys and less able readers of all grades. Jon Scieszka writes about how boys read, and while the boys I’ve asked disagree with some of his points (some really like to lose themselves in books, for example), I see a lot of boys prefer the perusing, fact-finding type of reading.

Pet books of all types are the most popular. Sports books, especially of favorite teams, animal books. The kids like photographs and enough text to tell them something, not just one or two lines of information. (They consider those baby books here.)

Maybe they are popular at school because they aren’t allowed to buy these types of books?

I was particularly intrigued by Elizabeth’s final question, so when Lisa Rogers of Hardy Elementary School in Wellesley stopped by the store yesterday afternoon I asked for her observations. Are the students at her school flocking to the library’s non-fiction section? NO, was Lisa’s emphatic answer. It seems the Hardy students, like most of our store’s young customers, are moths to the fiction flame.

Hmmm… Is this a Needham/Wellesley dividing line? Does our store need to move one town over to talk more families into owning biographies and nature books? I suspect the answer’s not anywhere near that simple, but I’d love to hear some others weigh in with their experiences.

What’s hotter with the young browsers in your store or library, fiction or non-fiction? And have you got any theories as to WHY? If so, Elizabeth, Lisa, and I would love to hear them!

Robot Dreams and Sweaterweather

Alison Morris - October 8, 2007

Last weekend Gareth and I watched Hayao Miyazaki’s animated film Castle in the Sky and suddenly Sara Varon’s Robot Dreams had even more meaning for me. Gareth owns all of Miyazaki’s films, but given our limited movie-watching time I’ve been slow to work my way through the canon. Color me clueless, then, that one of my favorite graphic novels of the year includes several clever nods to this movie — the most obvious being that Varon’s robot borrows Castle in the Sky from the library and watches it; the most important being that her robot bears a striking similarity to those of Miyazaki’s creation (though he’s considerably smaller).

By now most of you have probably seen or at least heard about Robot Dreams, the wordless graphic novel about two friends, a dog and a robot, who are seperated when a terrible thing comes between them — rust. (You can read an excerpt on the First Second website if you haven’t yet experienced this book for yourself.) Crisp color, beautiful brushwork, wonderful details, and quirky characters — these are the Varon trademarks and the reason she’s currently charming the socks off readers aged 8 to 80.

Most of the book world began discovering Sara’s visual charms with the publication last year of her picture book Chicken and Cat. A lucky few of us, though, are the proud owners of her earlier graphic novel Sweaterweather, which is now sadly out of print. I urge you to go in search of a copy at your favorite source for out of print books, as it’s a doozy of a graphic novel, and a fitting choice, timing-wise, for those of us heading into sweater weather right about now.

Sara has kindly given you the chance to preview the book by posting three of its short comic stories on her website. Learn about the dangers of smoking (for snowmen) from the book’s winter comic. Catch a character reading Bitch magazine in alphabet sandwiches. And be sure to introduce all the turtle-loving knitters in your life to the turtle comic.  There are also a few pages available on an old interview with Sara.

If you’re charmed by Varon’s work and looking for something with a similar simplicity and sweetness (but considerably more text), I’d recommend trying Good-bye, Chunky Rice by Craig Thompson. After you’ve fallen in love with Craig’s work (be sure to read Blankets) you can join me in my eager anticipation of his long-awaited graphic novel Habibi. Every now and then Craig posts a few pages from the book (which he now says is likely to be released in 2009) on his blog.

Wimpy Kid Rules in Round Two

Alison Morris - October 4, 2007

Yesterday morning I thought I’d just glance at the first couple pages of Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules before I ate breakfast. An hour later I’d finished the book and was feeling woozy, proof that I probably should have been reading and eating at the same time. (If only books could feed more than just the mind and the soul…)

Obviously, though, the correct conclusion to be reached here is that the sequel to the bestselling Diary of a Wimpy Kid is indeed a worthy follow-up. In fact, I think I laughed even harder reading this one. Gareth was working on his computer in a different room at the time, with no idea what I was doing. By the time I’d reached page 30 (an absolute winner of a page) I was guffawing so loudly that he had to see what all the fuss was about. Once he realized the cause of my laughter, of course, he didn’t want me to ruin the fun for him, so I wasn’t allowed to tell him much. For the same reason, I won’t tell you much either.

I will say, though, that it’s such ridiculous fun to read books narrated by a complete idiot. No, really! It’s Greg Heffley’s total conviction that he’s right about everything when in fact he’s 100% clueless that make these books so wickedly entertaining. You hear Greg say X but his cartoons show you Y. Most of the time I don’t derive much pleasure from laughing at people’s stupidity, but if the people in question appear on the printed page AND are middle school students (in the prime stupidity of life), I’ve got two reasons to be so motivated.

Don’t get me wrong, I love middle school students. Or at least I love most of them, most of the time. But they do make themselves pretty easy targets for ridicule from those of us who’ve already been through that awkward, trying-on-a-different-personality-every-day, loud-all-the-time-and-don’t-realize-it, completely-distracted-by-your-peers stage of of life. I worked for three amazing, eye-opening summers at a very reputable enrichment program for "gifted and talented" kids ages 12–16 and during that time had PLENTY of opportunities to shake my head at the naiveté of almost all kids in this developmental stage, even the brightest of them. Our program staff actually had an acronym we used amongst ourselves when referring to the clueless antics of our charges—G.M.A., which stood for Gifted, My A**.

In the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, Greg Heffley doesn’t exactly qualify as academically gifted, but he clearly thinks he’s socially gifted, which is why it’s so easy to read these books while shaking with laughter and thinking, "G.M.A.!" on every page. What I love and find encouraging, though, is that even kids who are Greg’s age can read these books and have the same basic reaction (minus the acronym). The kids who find these books funny (which seems to be all of them) are the same kids who are seeing that Greg is often cruel, is usually clueless, and almost always gets his comeuppance. Maybe after watching Greg tread those paths before them they’ll be slightly disinclined to follow in his cruel and clueless footsteps. Or perhaps they’ll just be more inclined to read, write, draw, laugh at themselves. Whatever the results, I consider these books an absolute win, and I can’t wait to turn kids on to this new one!

Not that they’ll need my help finding it. In my nine years of bookselling, I have NEVER seen a book sell itself as well as Diary of a Wimpy Kid. NEVER. Not even close. Each kid who sees the cover and reads the title picks this book up, carries it to their parents and (often without even looking inside) says, "I want this one." No joke. It’s remarkable. We’ve sold 171 copies since it first came out in April. Normally I’d credit that kind of success to our staff handselling the book, my shelf-talker singing its praises, and the fact that we included it on our store’s list of summer reading recommendations. In this case, though, I’d wager that most of those sales were the direct result of a great cover, a great title, a great concept and (most importantly) a great book. My hat’s off to Jeff Kinney and Amulet Books (part of Harry N. Abrams) for those accomplishments.

To see how eagerly kids are anticipating Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules, see how they responded to the book’s announcement on Jeff Kinney’s blog. ZOO-WEE MAMA!