Monthly Archives: July 2008

Is Your Reading Relationship Monogamous?

Alison Morris - July 31, 2008

Normally the trains of my attention span travel on several simultaneous tracks, but when it comes to reading novels or lengthy non-fiction I generally have a very straightforward forcus: I will only read ONE BOOK AT A TIME.

Exceptions to this rule are books of poetry, graphic novels, and audio books. I can and do stop these midstream and go back to them again without feeling they interfere with the "other book" I’m currently reading. But woe be to any printed book written in prose form if I happen to put it down and start another book of the same type, as the odds of my ever returning to the original are painfully, unaccountably small.

I can’t tell you why this is, because I don’t actually understand it. For whatever reason, though, when it comes to reading I am a Serial Monogamist. Which I know many of you reading this are NOT!

So… what type of reader ARE you?

To get you thinking about this, I’ve listed a few of the different types of readers I’ve observed.

1. The Whimsical Polygamist: you dip in and out of multiple books at once — whichever strikes your fancy or fits your whim anytime, anyplace.

2. The Placebound Polygamist: you read multiple books simultaneously but each in its own locale — say, you’ve always got one book you’re reading at home, one you reserve for your workplace lunch break, and another that’s the sole domain of your subway ride.

3. The Noncompetitive Polygamist: at any one time you are reading one fiction book and one non-fiction book, or some similar combination of multiple books that does not involve reading two books of the same type at the same time.

Any of these fit the bill? Know of other types I haven’t listed here? Please tell!

Crying Over a River of Words

Alison Morris - July 30, 2008

I can be a sentimental sap. It’s true. I tear up when things make me deeply sad. I tear up when things make me deeply happy. I am moved by pain and beauty. And, on slightly rarer occasions, I am sometimes moved by the very sight of a book, when it’s one that was created (meaning written, illustrated or possibly even edited) by someone I know personally.


Today our first copies of A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams (Eerdmans, August 2008) written by Jen Bryant and illustrated by Melissa Sweet arrived at the store. I never saw an f&g for this book but ordered several copies on spec, having seen some of its illustrations-in-progress when I visited Melissa’s studio last year. Having already been a fan of  Melissa’s illustrations, Jen’s writing, and this book’s subject, I expected great things from this book. What I didn’t expect was to find myself actually CRYING over it. But I did. And then I had to ask myself WHY. Yes, this is a great book. An interesting story, well-told, accompanied by beautiful illustrations. But why did that make me cry?

What I’ve come up with is this: it moves me, deeply, to see someone I care about accomplish or create something that truly wows me — that outdoes their previous work or reveals some new piece of their talents to me. The pieces Melissa created for this book just blow me away. I love the way she’s incorporated the pages, spines, and covers of old books into the illustrations. I love the way the bright colors of her palette stand out against their deep browns, dusty reds, and goldy yellows. I’ve always loved Melissa’s collage illustrations, and I love the way she’s used mixed media elements here. Mostly, though, I think I love knowing that Melissa, this wonderfully kind and fun-loving person, created the artwork for this beautiful book. I know she worked hard on it. And WOW! Look at what she did!

I’ve had this "my friends amaze me to the point of tears" experience a few times before. I can readily recall, for example, listening to NPR during my drive to work one morning in fall 2006 catching their report on the previous night’s National Book Awards ceremony. When I heard the familiar tones of my friend M.T. Anderson’s voice filling the car as he spoke his acceptance for the Young People’s prize, I cried with happiness for him, just as I’d cried with happiness for him when I first read the book (The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing Volume I, The Pox Party) that earned him a National Book Award. (Of course I also cried because the book was just so darn heartbreaking, but that’s another story…) Clearly the more people I befriend in this business, the more tears I’m likely to shed — for all the right reasons.


I suppose what I really want to acknowledge here is the fact that we work in an industry that is filled with truly REMARKABLE talents and (just as important for the enjoyment of our jobs) truly WONDERFUL people. In the best of cases, the two overlap. Having the opportunity to get to know great people who create incredible things – magnificent stories, awe-inspiring illustrations – is an aspect of my job that I couldn’t value more highly. I love that I’m often just as interested in hanging out with the creative souls I meet as I am in seeing whatever it is they create next. And when I come to really, really like one of them, watch them work hard at something, then feel wowed by the results, well…? I feel weepy. I feel honored to know them. And the added bonus? I feel doubly inclined to handsell their books too.

Anyone else feel this swell of joy and pride (with or without the tears) when they’ve read something/seen something created by a beloved friend or admired colleague? If so, could you make me look a little less sappy by admitting so? Thank you, thank you.

A Gold Star for Kathryn Otoshi

Alison Morris - July 29, 2008

While meeting with my PGW rep recently, I read Kathryn Otoshi’s forthcoming picture book One (September 2008, KO Kids Books). While the topic of bullying is ages old, it is rare for me to read a picture book on the subject that doesn’t feel dated. Or unoriginal. Or preachy, or too tidy, or specific only to one type of bullying or specific incident.

One, though, doesn’t fall into any of these traps. It’s simple enough to use with young children, but thought-provoking enough that I think it’d make a great read-aloud for older students too. (Middle school teachers, I’m talking to you!) The simple illustrations, comprised of splotches of color and (later) large brushstroked numbers, depict two concepts in clean, bold fashion: one person can make a difference, and everyone counts.

In One, a big red splotch of color named Red is bullying a smaller blotch, Blue. Yellow, Orange, Green, and Purple (other blotches — can you guess what colors they are?) see what’s happening but are too afraid to stand up to Red. Soon Red starts bullying them too. Growing larger, Red now towers over the other splotches, who cower in Red’s presence. Then One arrives (a grey 1), his sharp lines enabling him stand tall in in the face of Red. One stands up to Red, who backs down. Let me give you a taste of the text, to show you what happens next.

One turned to the colors and said,
"If someone is mean and picks on me,
I for One, stand up and say, No."

Then Yellow felt brave and said, "Me, TWO!" (illustration: the yellow splotch is now a yellow 2)

Green agreed and said, "Me THREE!" (illustration: the green splotch is now a green 3)

Then Orange became FOUR. (you get the idea, right?)

And Purple became FIVE.

Feeling emboldened by the others’ example, Blue stands up for himself too, becoming (yep) SIX. Furious, Red attempts to roll over Blue (now a blue 6), but all the numbers line up together and say "NO!"

Defeated, Red grows smaller and smaller and begins rolling away until Blue calls out a hesitant invitation for him to join their ranks. One tells Red that "[He] can count too."

Red rocked and rolled and turned into… SEVEN!

All the numbers then announce, "Everyone counts!"

Then Red laughed and joined the fun.

Sometimes it takes just One.

I love the power of this book’s simplicity, and its originality too.

ONE more reason to love this book — Otoshi’s dedication, which appears at the back: "To indy booksellers, my librarian friends, and loyal readers. You keep my spirit alive."

Not Your Mother’s ECards

Alison Morris - July 28, 2008

I don’t know if you’ve discovered the entertainment available to you at, but if not? Today’s your day for enlightenment. Here are two "reading"-theme cards available on their site, which is chock-full of cheeky and tongue-in-cheek greetings. Click on either one to be whisked away to the very place from which you can send them to others!

What’s Next – Roll Your Own Literature?

Alison Morris - July 24, 2008

I’m really not quite sure what to make of this idea…. In 2007 the U.K.-based TankBooks published a series of classic books in small form – cigarette pack-sized form, to be exact – and packaged them in, essentially, cigarette packages. They called this series "Books to Take Your Breath Away." Here’s how TankBooks describes the venture on their website:

As one habit dies hard, another takes hold.
The ban on smoking in public places comes into operation in the UK on July 1, 2007. Tank is launching a series of books designed to mimic cigarette packs – the same size, packaged in flip-top cartons with silver foil wrapping and sealed in cellophane. 

TankBooks pay homage to this monumentally successful piece of packaging design by employing it in the service of great literature. Cigarette packs are iconic objects, familiar, tried and tested, and over time TankBooks will become iconic objects in their own right. The launch titles are by authors of great stature – classic stories presented in classic packaging; objects desirable for both their literary merit and their unique design.
TankBooks are for people on the move, lovers of literature and connoisseurs of design. Try one and you’ll be hooked.

Um… okaaaaay.

I’m not exactly sold on the idea that these books will actually get people reading, though I do admire the cleverness of their packaging, and I definitely enjoy the humorous images this cigarette-to-book metaphor brings to mind…. Just think of all those literate people out there trying desperately to quit to break the habit of reading. How long have publishers known the effects that books’ content would have on their readers? And why do we sit idly by as they target their products to our youth??

All joking aside, the TankBooks venture has apparently been a bit TOO successful, at least in the design regard. An January 2007 article in the Guardian explains that the publisher is being sued by British American Tobacco (BAT) who claims that the pack containing Ernest Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro and The Undefeated bears too close a resemblance to their own Lucky Strike pack. BAT is concerned that the public might mistakenly believe they’ve endorsed or sponsored the Hemingway stories, "which can dilute the goodwill in the Lucky Strike brand."

Sounds to me like someone at B.A.T. needs to be sent a certain t-shirt

Assembling Our Store’s Summer Reading Recommendations

Alison Morris - July 23, 2008

At our store we’re heading into what’s usually a relatively quiet time, business-wise. (Note that it’s never quiet in our buyers’ office and rarely quiet in the world of event planning.)  Wellesley and the other surrounding towns tend to empty out in late July, as families head to Maine, Cape Cod, or places further afield. Until that happens, though, we are busy, busy as families come in to stock up on books for… SUMMER READING.

To accommodate this surge in business and the many, many requests we get for personalized recommendations at this time of year, our staff puts together wonderful booklets of summer reading suggestions that we hand out to all customers who walk through the door. We’ve got one booklet of recommendations for adults, and one for kids in 1st grade through high school. You can download the children’s booklet in pdf form right here, though it won’t actually look like a "booklet" until you copy the pages back-to-back and then fold them in half so that the front shows the cover and the lists progress chronologically by age.

Our children’s summer reading booklets have been a labor of love for me for many years now, and have become a tool that customers find useful long after the summer months have passed, which makes all the hard work that goes into making them seem that much more worthwhile. It’s a tremendous challenge each year to whittle our store favorites down to just 12 or 13 books for each of two grade levels (1st and 2nd grade, 3rd and 4th grade, and so on). I put a lot of time into the booklet’s design (yes, I do all that) and give it a new theme each year, because I want its overall appearance to reflect the quality of its contents. I try to make sure that each list in the booklet represents a good mix of books with appeal to boys, girls, historical fiction fans, contemporary fiction fans, fantasy fans, non-fiction fans, reluctant readers, eager readers, and so on. I include some hardcovers but mostly paperbacks, some older favorites but mostly new titles. Except in VERY rare cases, I will not put a book on the list that has already made an appearance there in the past two years. The only time I break this rule is when something was on the list in hardcover two years ago and now it’s out in paperback, AND it’s a book that’s not going to easily "sell itself," AND it’s a book that’s just so good that I can’t help myself. And there’s one more thing I take into account: I try very, very hard to make sure that each list includes at least one book that is NOT about "white kids."

The latter should not be difficult, but EVERY YEAR this one little step in my list-tweaking feels like a serious hurdle. ESPECIALLY when it comes to finding/choosing books for younger readers (say, first through fourth graders). The simple fact is this: we need more well-written, high quality beginning reader series and chapter book series with contemporary settings about (or at least including!) kids of color, mixed families, and mixed groups of kids. I love Ann Cameron’s books but I can’t put Julian, Huey, and Gloria titles on EVERY year’s summer reading list.

Publishers, please GO TO A BOOKSTORE. Look at the books in a store’s beginning reader and first chapter book sections. Notice the whitewash effect there. And do something about it. Not just something with an urban flavor, and NOT something that’s historical fiction, please! Just something well-written and entertaining about contemporary kids who happen to be something other than Caucasian — kids with whom anyone can relate and about whom anyone would want to read more. You do it all the time for books about white kids. It’s well past time to get some other kids in the mix too.

Anyone else see holes in the stacks that you’d liked to have filled? If so, shout out those requests! I look forward to seconding many of them.

(Oh, and curious about our store’s summer reading picks for adults? You can download the pdf of that booklet, compiled primarily by Lorna Ruby with much help and design work by Kym Havens, here.)

What Do Your Digits Spell?

Alison Morris - July 22, 2008

You know all those companies that have phone numbers that spell things, along the lines of 1-800-DIAL THIS (which I know has one too many digits, thank you very much)? Have you ever wondered if your own phone number spelled something?
You can figure this out on your own, of course, by simply writing down your phone number with the three-letters that correspond to it written over each number, then look for familiar words or word-letter combinations in the mix. OR, if puzzles of that sort aren’t your cup of tea, you can visit, which will do all the letter permutations for you and tell you whether or not your number spells something unique.

I once had a friend whose number (without the area code) spelled PLACEBO. I know someone else whose current digits are BIG THUG.

My own number contains too many 1’s and 0’s (numbers with no corresponding letters) to generate anything fun. Not even THIS 1 IS A 0, which I suppose would actually be a pretty insulting number to have…

I hope some of you out there have some doozies rather than duds. If so, unravel their mysteries for us here! (Without giving us the area code, you’re unlikely to get any crank calls from readers.)

The Year We Disappeared

Alison Morris - July 21, 2008

I had planned to spend last Saturday being WILDLY productive — writing a few blog posts, spending at least four hours working on my book, and also (if possible) reading all the pictures books on Penguin’s spring list, in anticipation of my appointment with sales rep Biff Donovan. But on Friday evening I made the mistake of reading the first few chapters of The Year We Disappeared: A Father-Daughter Memoir by Cylin Busby and John Busby (Bloomsbury, August 2008), whose story is so completely, totally, and immediately enthralling that it made the better part of my Saturday disappear. It also made my adrenaline rise, made my heart race, and made me look pretty ridiculous. I know this because Gareth actually laughed at me, so incapable was I of successfully putting this book down and not going back to it again. At one point I even laughed at MYSELF (as I’m wont to do anyway), when I realized I was attempting to take food out of our refrigerator with my right hand without looking up from the pages of my ARC, splayed open in my left. I’ve gotten lost in the pages of a lot of books lately, but can honestly say that none of them (not even The Hunger Games) has been quite as un-put-downable or half so disturbing as this.

For those of you not already familiar with it, here’s what will appear on the flap copy of the finished book, to give you the gist:

When Cylin Busby was nine years old, she was obsessed with Izod clothing, the Muppets, and her pet box turtle. Then, in the space of a night, everything changed. Her police officer father, John, was driving to work when someone leveled a shotgun at his window. The blasts that followed left John’s jaw on the passenger seat of his car—literally. Overnight, the Busbys went from being the "family next door" to one under 24-hour armed guard, with police escorts to school, and no contact with friends. Worse, the shooter was still on the loose, and it seemed only a matter of time before he’d come after John—or someone else in the family—again. With their lives unraveling around them, and few choices remaining for a future that could never be secure, the Busby family left everything and everyone they had ever known…and simply disappeared.

As told by both father and daughter, this is a harrowing, and at times heartbreaking account of a shooting and its aftermath, even as it shows a young girl trying to make sense of the unthinkable, and the triumph of a family’s bravery in the face of crisis.

What this brief synopsis doesn’t tell you is that this book is also about politics: SERIOUSLY UGLY politics. In 1979, the year of John Busby’s shooting, the Falmouth, Massachusetts police department knowingly botched the investigation into John Busby’s attempted murder, and the sickening injustice of this is half of what makes John and Cylin’s account so riveting. John and his fellow officers had little doubt as to the identity of his shooter (or at least the person who ordered his death), but the powers-that-be (or rather, the-powers-that-then-were) were unwilling to take down a man as feared and well-connected as "Raymond Meyer" (a fake name, though any newspaper story recounting the event will reveal the real one). The town of Falmouth paid thousands and thousands of dollars for John’s medical bills during his remarkable recovery and for the 24-hour surveillance of his family, but the police department tried to make this particular crime just disappear, as they had done in previous cases of death and arsons to which "Ray" appeared to have been connected.

WHY? Fear. "Ray" (who is, yes, still alive) had managed to make plenty of people afraid of him (with good reason) and cozied up to enough people within the department to make everyone else squeamish about the possibility that any actions they took against him would come back to haunt them in the end. Which is exactly what happened to John Busby.

Reading this book I kept shaking my head to think that this is FALMOUTH we’re talking about. Corruption at this level and characters this large are things I associate with big cities and seedy towns. Not quiet (except maybe in the summer) Cape Cod communities. And that might just be the scariest thing about this book. In reading about this one scary person, and the effect his senseless brutality had on the police department of one small town, it’s hard not to wonder if corruption like this could be the norm for every community with a madman in its midst.

I love the structure of this book and the alternative points of view delivered by John and Cylin, who was nine at the time of her father’s shooting. John’s chapters open a window onto the anger he experienced as he struggled with a long, painful recovery and watched his department tiptoe around the issue of arresting the man responsible for his shooting. Cylin’s chapters reveal what it was like to be a child living through the horror of seeing your father missing half his face; being escorted to and through school by police officers; losing your friends because their parents won’t let them talk to you for fear something will then happen to them; losing, really, all sense of normalcy. Together these twin perspectives reveal what something like this does to a family. And they make you marvel at the fact that this particular family remained intact.

The events (and suspicions) described in the book are corroborated by newspaper reports of the time, leaving me with zero doubts as to the truth of the Busbys’ story. The statute of limitations on John Busby’s attempted murder has run out, so the best John, Cylin, and the rest of their family can hope for now is that other will read their story and take something positive from it. The question is, how are the residents of Falmouth likely to react? Carol Chittenden, whose bookstore Eight Cousins occupies a spot on the town’s Main Street, confessed to some nervousness about the book’s release in the Galley Talk she wrote for Children’s Bookshelf, for which I certainly don’t blame her. The wounds left by John’s shooting and "Ray’s" mishandling (or lack of handling) were never afforded any real opportunity to heal. A "Where Are They Now?" section at the back of the book explains what’s become of the story’s leading players, and a number of them are still alive and living in town. Who can guess how they’re going to receive it?

I think the average reader, though, is going to find this book completely absorbing. At our store, we plan to shelve it in both the adult and young adult sections of our store, because this is a book sure to have crossover appeal. And it’s sure to give EVERYONE something to talk about.

Funny Rhymes for Spring ‘09

Alison Morris - July 17, 2008

My first few glimpses of the spring 2009 lists have yielded a number of oohs and quite a few chuckles, several of them brought on by two forthcoming poetry books from Hyperion. Each of those books just HAPPENS to include a poem related to the topic of reading, I thought I’d feature each of those poems + one other here and in that way give you a taste of the good fun in store for you when you read these books in their entirety.

First, a reading-related poem from Food Hates You, Too and Other Poems written and illustrated by Robert Weinstock (Hyperion, April 2009) who is also the author/illustrator of the VERY entertaining Giant Meatball (Harcourt, June 2008).


You may not know your brain is eating
Every word you’ve just been reading.
Its appetite is most exceeding.
Food for thought, worth oft repeating.

The other poems in this book generally (though not always!) tackle the subject of more "traditional" foods, though in VERY untraditional ways! For example, take the double-page spread on which Weinstock has recreated the Great Green Room of Goodnight Moon fame but replaced its loveable bunnies with praying mantids. As if that doesn’t skew things enough, here’s the poem that accompanies that scene:


I ate your father. Yes, it’s true.
That’s what we praying mantids do.
His last words to me were "Adieu.
If only I could eat you, too."

Admit it! You chuckled, didn’t you? Maybe even guffawed? I thought so.

Next up: two samples of fun from Orangutan Tongs: Poems to Tangle Your Tongue by Jon Agee (Hyperion, March 2009), who is also the author/illustrator of the VERY entertaining The Retired Kid (Hyperion, June 2008) and many, many other books that provide entertainment for ALL ages. Truly.

The key here: READ THESE POEMS OUT LOUD. Seriously. Who cares if anyone hears you? You work in children’s books, right? You’re supposed to be weird.


Reading writing
When it’s written really rotten
Can cause your eyes and intellect to strain.
When it’s written really rotten,
Writing’s really rotten reading.
Yes, reading rotten written writing really is a pain.

Aced that one, did you? Well then here’s a REAL challenge for you:


I have a new Swiss wristwatch.
So does my old pal Mitch.
If you switched his wristwatch
With my new Swiss wristwatch,
Could you tell which wristwatch was which?

A Sexy Bedtime Story?

Alison Morris - July 16, 2008

Yes, sexy. I don’t know if that’s what the BBC had in mind when they hired Richard Armitage to record a series of bedtime stories for their CBeebies channel, but… Well, to read the comments from YouTube viewers, that is exactly what they got! One commenter remarked that Richard’s "Night night. Sleep tight." following a reading of Gorky Paul’s Winnie in Winter is the sexiest thing she’s ever heard. Do you agree? If not, who would you most like to see reading and (while we’re having fun with this) what BOOK should he or she be reading from?