Monthly Archives: March 2011

Diana Wynne Jones, Chrestomancer

Elizabeth Bluemle - March 28, 2011

From Diana Wynne Jones' official website (click on photo).

The children’s book field is both large and small. It contains multitudes, but is as supportive, close-knit, and passionate a group of people as I’ve ever encountered. That’s why, when we lose one of our own, it feels like a hard kick in the stomach, a loss that goes beyond the professional to touch us personally.
I never had the pleasure or privilege of meeting Diana Wynne Jones (August 16, 1934 – March 26, 2011), but her books (Howl’s Moving Castle, The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Dark Lord of Derkholm, Castle in the Air, and many more) lit a fire under me. She was funny, brilliant, sparklingly and endlessly inventive — and she made it look easy! She was not only adept at world-building, but at creating absolutely unique characters you wanted to know, felt you DID know. Her plots barreled forward without drag, her dialogue crackled, and underpinning every story was substance and philosophy and literary allusion. She was a quintuple threat, and I already miss the joy of anticipating a new Diana Wynne Jones to gobble up and share with other readers. (Her website does mention an upcoming younger middle-grade novel to be published posthumously, Earwig and the Witch, as well as a collection of her articles, speeches, and other writings.) Her books have such an immortal quality that one wanted their author to share that
To me, and to her legions of fans, she was a giant in the fantasy realm; her influence can be seen in the works of so many authors who have come after her. I’m not sure why she has never quite attained the mainstream, household-name status in the U.S. that some of her contemporaries have enjoyed—though she’s certainly been successful by any measure!—but I can report that every bookseller I know does his or best to make that happen.
Is this an appropriate time to lobby for the reprinting of Archer’s Goon and Hexwood, two of my all-time favorites? And to ask Harper to consider re-jacketing the delightful Castle in the Air? It’s a bit of a tough handsell with that art, as beautifully drawn as it is.
May those of us whose lives have been enriched by Diana Wynne Jones honor her memory by sharing one of her books with someone new today. Once a reader has read one, they’ll have to read more, and want to share the wealth with others, continuing her legacy.  She was, to borrow from E.B. White, some writer.
What are your favorite Diana Wynne Jones books, and what kind of reader would you recommend them to?

Demotivation with a Smile

Elizabeth Bluemle - March 25, 2011

I was poking around looking for a demotivational poster for a friend who recently decided to close her restaurant (don’t worry; she’s thrilled about it), and came across a new item at Despair, Inc., home of the kind of irony and cynicism I just can’t help loving.
I’ve been aware of their posters (“the strongest depressant you can get without a prescription) and mugs (“welcome to your latest drinking problem”) for a long time, but didn’t know they’d branched out into children’s literature. (Although, why should I be surprised? Everyone else is doing it, according to wag David Lubar.)
So I present for your viewing amusement (or not): The Lose Your Own Adventure Series.

Despair, Inc.'s newest addition to their line of spoofy 'demotivational' items

Any other children’s book spoofs out there we should know about? I know I saw another hilarious one recently, but darned if my middle-aged brain can locate it. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

A Visit with Kate DiCamillo

Josie Leavitt - March 24, 2011

This is the signing line, which conveniently ran the length of the book display.

This past Monday, we had an author visit with Kate DiCamillo. The excitement was palpable all day and it just created a special air to an event we knew was a gift. A gift of such a talented author coming to Vermont and choosing to come to the Flying Pig.
Our venue could only hold 215 people. By Monday morning we had upwards of 30 people on the waiting list who were calling  to see if they could get in. We had some bad weather and, kids being kids, some got sick, so we had some cancellations. We devised a real 21st-century system for dealing with the wait list, so as many people who wanted to see Kate, could. I was with Kate and Jennifer Roberts at the Edmund’s Elementary School and had the wait list with me. My staffers would email me changes to my iPhone and I’d call based on what the email said. It was a lot like I was a magic fairy when I’d call people and say, “Hi, it’s Josie from the Flying Pig.” And I’d be met with squeals and shouts of, “Really? I got in?” It was amazing.
My two door people were fearless. They almost didn’t let Kate in because she wasn’t on the list. It’s easy to forget how many books Kate has written until you see them all laid out on three six-foot tables, and most of the books have stickers of silver or gold on them. Some kids just ogled the table and walked slowly up and down tapping books: “I’ve read this. This is my favorite, this one made me laugh.” The venue, Shelburne Town Hall, is lovely, and while it may hold 215 people, they’ve only got 130 chairs, so we set up a groundling area for the kids because they pack down so well. The adults got chairs and the room was full, right to capacity.  What I loved so much about this event is the kids and the adults were all leaning forward in their chairs, hanging on every word.
Kate read the first chapter of Because of Winn-Dixie and then took questions. This might have been my favorite part of the whole event. Hands shot up and Kate, who’s got phenomenal hearing, just started answering. Like most good speakers she repeated every question so we all could hear it. My favorite question came from a child who was about six, who asked in a shy voice, “Where do you find your words?” Kate’s answer was brilliant: “I don’t have a problem finding the words, it’s putting them in order that’s the problem.” Kate treated all questions equally whether they were asked by an adult or a child. She didn’t talk about structure but rather imparted the joy and the mystery of writing. She writes two pages a day, that’s it. That’s her goal, she said. “If you write two pages a day, every day, at the end of the year you’ve got a novel. And that’s pretty good.” People looked incredulous. This was what everyone was talking about while waiting in the signing line. To hear someone whose had as much success as Kate DiCamillo say she only writes two pages a day was liberating, especially since we all think of writers of spending all day toiling and writing pages and pages a day.
Kate inspired everyone in the room. A young girl was buying a book and said in response to Kate’s writing two pages a day, “Two pages is a lot, I’m not sure I could do that.” I asked her if she could start with two paragraphs a day until she worked up to two pages a day and she hopped, hugged her book and thought that was very doable.
Parents encouraged kids not to buy paperbacks, but to get hardcovers instead. One father told his daughter that these books were treasures and therefore it should be the hardcovers that got signed. I loved that dad for recognizing and encouraging library collection with his daughter and teaching her early on that some books are really special.
I think many folks left the event knowing their favorite author a little better. And l bet a considerable number of people in northern Vermont have written eight pages since Monday.

Outgoing Messages

Josie Leavitt - March 22, 2011

Bookstore staffers spend a lot of time on the phone. Much of it is leaving messages for customers about a variety of things. When special orders come in all the customers get a phone call about their book’s arrival. I’d like to take a moment to give some pointers.
– We know you love your toddler, but really, they probably shouldn’t leave your message. At least twice a day I listen to messages where I can hear a parent in the background coaching the little one on what to say. While this can be cute, too often it’s hard to the child and these messages aren’t, shall we say, brief.
– Unless you can actually sing, please don’t sing your outgoing message. You know what? Even if you can sing, please don’t sing the message.
– Foreign languages should be avoided as well. I once had to endure a message where a kid counted, not to ten, but to twenty!, in French. Now really, why? What does counting having to do with leaving a message?
– Messages left in unison by husband and wife or the whole family seldom work. I do understand the urge to have members of the family feel like they’ve got a part in the household answering machine, but unless it’s clear, it’s just hard to hear everyone.
– One message that I love, and one I call again just because it makes me smile, is when a child gets a fit of the giggles. That kind of unbridled joy just makes my day.

Community to the Rescue

Josie Leavitt - March 21, 2011

It’s not every day that Kate DiCamillo comes to visit the store. And it’s not every day that finds me hosting an event this big while down four staffers: Elizabeth has to go to Phoenix for a funeral, one staffer has a long-planned vacation, and the other two have classes they can’t miss. I should say that we have seven staffers, so I’m scrambling. I’ve got about eight to-do lists going and I’ve found myself just about hyperventilating, so short of cloning myself, Elizabeth and I have put the word out for help at the store and on Facebook.
The response has been overwhelming. I’ve now got more help than I know what to do with, and that’s a lovely feeling. I asked a customer at the coffee shop if she could help, and she leapt at the chance to give people post-its and pens. We’re having the event off-site — we had to move it, we’ve got more than 200 people coming — and this adds to the need for help with set-up, break down and crowd control.
Also, there’s this pesky thing called the fire code. This means we cannot have more than 215 people, so we’ve got to have great help at the door. One staffer who’s very good with people will work the door, checking people in and ensuring that no one who hasn’t RSVPed sneaks in. We’ve even gone so far as to have walkie-talkies with me and Kelly who’ll be working the door. This gives us the ease of communicating problems without either one of us running around.
A customer used to do crowd control at her college events (one event was the annual Halloween event with the band Phish, so I think she can handle a bunch of excited readers), and she’s going to work seating and the autographing line. I’m relaxed knowing that Trina will do this. Competent help is a lovely, lovely thing. A great customer’s kids signed up for the events months ago, and they will be the runners for the microphone when audience members ask questions during the reading.  Another bookstore owner saw Elizabeth’s Facebook post and offered up her service. Becky Dayton, from Vermont Bookshop, will be helping me sell books before the event begins and then helping with the signing line. How lucky am I to have another bookseller helping out?
The thing that amazes me is how eager everyone has been to help. I’m more grateful than anyone can know, because now I can actually e calmly knowing that I’ve got enough folks to make the event run smoothly. The only thing left on the to-do list is write the thank you notes.

Fairy Tea Party Fun!

Josie Leavitt - March 18, 2011

Last Saturday we hosted a Fairy Tea Party in our loft space above the store. We thought having a bunch of fairies at a tea party would be a fun way to break up what has been a very long winter. We didn’t think we’d get more than twenty or so kids. Boy, were we wrong.
Approximately sixty little fairies arrived, festooned in fairy clothes complete with wands, tiaras and wings. Let’s not forget the wings, lots and lots of wings. Do you know how hard it is to seat sixty little fairies with wings? And I’m not talking small wings. Check out this little one. Adorable, yes. Fits easily on a folding chair, not so much. But oh, they were so cute. As each little fairy filled out her (let’s face it, there were no boys at this event) we had a make-a-wish ritual. We asked each girl to close her eyes and make a wish. As the wish was thought, we sprinkled them with fairy dust. This was the beginning of what was to be a very messy event.
Our staffer, Sandy, set up the room with lovely white paper tablecloths and a purple tulle and small flowers. Every grouping of three seats had some crayons and all the little pixies were encouraged to draw on the tables. This was a lovely distraction technique until we could seat all the little ones. Our first craft was decorating a paper plate that had a butterfly drawn on it. This art project involved glitter glue, feathers, sparkles and crayons. I love that the moms of the littler fairies really hung back and let their kids do their own thing.
Next, Elizabeth read Alice, the Fairy by David Shannon, a great book that lots of folks didn’t seem to know, but loved. Our next activity was making a little book that the kids could keep. We made the notebooks out of 3×3 pieces of paper that we hole-punched and the kids then ribboned together. Everyone seemed very happy with the crafts.
Oh, but we had food, glorious food. Our staffer, JP, made 96 mini cupcakes and frosted them with white icing and then each had a lovely bunch of sprinkles. They were lovely. Elizabeth and I made pixie rolls: decrusted white bread (fairies hate crusts) spread with grape jelly, rolled and cut and dipped in lavender sugar. (Can I say how much fun it was to make these pixie rolls at six in the morning? I’m not a fairy person, and the pixie rolls were harder than it sounds). Sandy made awesome fruit kabobs, which parents were very grateful to see. Oh, we had a fairy punch as well which we served to each little person.
The one thing we didn’t have were books. This was just a party for the sake of having a party. But Elizabeth found a clever way to let the party-goers know that there was a new Rainbow Magic Ocean Fairy in the Scholastic series. We didn’t charge for this party, and perhaps that was a mistake. I did some math after the party at the end of the day. Fairy partygoers spent well over $300 in the store after the party. Perhaps not a fortune, but the goodwill this party generated has been tremendous as I can’t go anywhere in town without a parent thanking me for such a fun party.
So, now that I’m rested, we’re planning an outdoor party for this summer where we’ll gather materials for making actual fairy houses. This time, no pixie rolls.

The Bricks-and-Mortar Bookstore: Last Bastion of Privacy?

Elizabeth Bluemle - March 17, 2011

Image by B. Tal

I have a friend — let’s call her “me” — who recently became interested in an unconventional topic. (Lest your curiosity lead you in bizarre directions, let me assure you that no weapons dealing or illegal activity of any kind were involved.) In researching books I might want to read, I quickly realized how little privacy is left to the modern-day consumer.
While I, as a bookseller, have the luxury of ordering books from distributors and making purchases in relative privacy, my customers must choose between online book ordering — which seems anonymous but in fact leaves quite an information trail — and in-store purchasing, which—while it involves face-to-face interaction with the cashier— is also the only method left to buy a book anonymously.
Think about it. Anyone can come into The Flying Pig, or another store, plunk down some cash, and leave with a book no one can or will trace. Nor will that purchase generate recommendation lists that pop up whenever the customer—or his wife, or children—logs on to the website. No one at the bookstore will sell that information to marketers in order for them to build profiles of customer preferences, spending habits and abilities. No one will violate that reader’s freedom to read, or his privacy.
That is no small wonder in this day and age when every street corner has a surveillance camera, and every online click garners a cookie.
Note: many bricks-and-mortar stores do use their point-of-sale systems to create frequent-buyer programs that reward customer loyalty, and those programs can track customer sales histories. This comes in handy for parents and grandparents wanting to check past purchases, but also creates temptation for federal agencies wanting to link suspects to reading materials. Many stores stopped using these systems altogether after the infamous case during which the Tattered Cover in Denver valiantly defended freedom of speech and privacy for their customers, attempting to protect those records from a search warrant.
As an experiment, I did some random recent Google ebook purchasing, a little like Link and Violet in M.T. Anderson’s Feed, who defiantly typed in a ridiculous variety of search terms to throw off corporate trackers trying to analyze their consumer preferences. I’ll be interested to see what, if anything, will crop up as a result. Will I start getting woodworking- and ballet-targeted ads in my Gmail account?
Does privacy make a difference to you as a reader? Or are you willing to trade that for the convenience of downloading? Where and when does a reader draw the line? And is privacy a thing of the past? Let us know what you think.

The Best Free Advertising

Josie Leavitt - March 16, 2011

There is free advertising that’s truly effective, more effective in many ways than any other advertising I’ve done. It’s called a sandwich or sign board. It stands in front of your store by the side of the road so all folks driving by can see it. On each side you have a hand-drawn poster heralding your store’s next event. It’s so simple, it’s ingenious.
Our store is on the busiest north/south road in Vermont, and we happen to be on a very busy corner of that road. Consequently, the wait at the traffic light can be lengthy, so our sign board gives folks something to read. Last week we had a sign up about our Fairy Tea Party. One little girl apparently read the sign, made her father stop and come in and sign her up for the party. “She’s never read so fast,” the father said, as he delightedly signed up the whole family for the party.
Repeated viewing of a sign reminds folks about an event and gives the impression that they’ve heard of the event everywhere. We put the sign out several weeks before the event so people drive by it countless times before the actual event. We try to convey basic information in large friendly handwriting: who is coming, when and at what time. It’s simple and it works. Often, we’ll go for humor as well.  Our Valentine’s sign, which Elizabeth thought of, got many chuckles: Flowers Die, Chocolate’s Fattening, Books are Forever. This is one of my favorite signs. At Easter time our sign will be smartly decorated saying: Fill Their Baskets with Books. It’s not too much, but it makes the point, without shouting: Don’t just give them candy.
Obviously, the signs can used to convey sale information, although the town frowns on too much advertising that isn’t a community event. During the holidays, one of our most effective signs was simply: We’ve got great stocking stuffers. People literally poured in the store. There is a risk with the sign board as the Highway Department hates them, so periodically they can confiscate them. This hasn’t happened to us, but several other shopkeepers have lost their sign boards.  Another risk with the sign board is the weather. Too much rain can ruin even a sign made with permanent marker, and nothing looks as a bad as a sign that’s faded and torn. Too much snow can literally bury a sign board. This hasn’t happened yet, but the snow banks are so high this year it has necessitated using only the deck for the sign board, which is not quite as effective.
Here’s hoping for an early spring, so the sign board can return to its rightful place on the side of the road.

Cell Phones at the Bookstore

Josie Leavitt - March 14, 2011

Like the opposite of that old Seinfeld episode that centered on people who are “low talkers,” today I want to talk about loud talkers. Lots of folks have conversations at the bookstore, and I encourage that. I never want the store to have a library reverence about it, where people feel speaking above a hushed whisper is frowned upon, but there need to be some standards.
People generally are great about modulating their voices for their surroundings. But all too often, the cell phone throws that skill away. Bad connections often have folks resorting to shouting. Admittedly, our store seems to be a weird black hole for all cell phones, so a connection is a rare and tenuous thing. But listening to someone shout through a call, where every other word is either “what?” or “can you hear me?” can make it hard for other customers to shop in peace. And I’ll be honest — the last thing I want to hear are two divorced parents arguing about whose turn it is to be take their son to hockey. I feel bad for the parents, and I feel really bad for the child. And during that argument, I really hate being asked to gift wrap.
While I can understand a quick call home about which book was asked for or what to do if the desired book is out, it’s another thing to come in on the phone. When you walk in the store talking on the cell phone like you would at home, at well above the “inside voice,” that’s not right. And folks need to know that if you’re standing at the counter, not only can I hear you loud and clear, nine times out of ten I can hear the other person on the phone pretty clearly too. Once a mom called her sick teenager at home to ask what books she wanted. After going through only two titles which we were out of, the teen said, “Does that store actually carry any books?” You know, at the end of a long day, I wanted to say “no” just to end the agony,  but instead, I asked the mom if I could talk to her daughter.
Next thing we know, the girl is explaining to me what she likes, and I found two great options that she was actually excited about. Imagine that, an excited teenager.

What New England Booksellers Are Excited About

Josie Leavitt - March 11, 2011

This past Tuesday the New England Children’s Bookselling Advisory Council met in Sturbridge, Mass., for the first of four meetings of the year. Our meeting was well attended and while it’s always great to see friends, it was great to see so many new voices. One of my favorite parts of NECBA meetings is the title sharing at the end of every meeting.  Below are selections that were the books that everyone is excited about. Some of these books are out now, but most are coming out later throughout the rest of the spring, and even the summer.

These are in no particular order. Of the books are currently out people seemed to love Trapped by Michael Northrop. And with a winter that just won’t stop, it seems all too fitting. Another book that several folks talked about was Exposed, the debut novel by Kimberly Marcus. Told in free verse, it deals with a tough subject really well. Other folks loved, loved the follow-up book to the Quiet Book, The Loud Book. Just as satisfying as the original with the same glorious examples of loud and stunning art to match.

There was universal excitement about Kevin Henkes’ Junonia.

We always get excited when Kevin comes out with something new, and this one seemed to please all the advanced readers. Another perennial favorite, Sarah Dessen, is back with a sure-fire summer hit, What Happened to Goodbye. A restaurant theme permeates this YA novel about a girl trying to figure out who she really is and who she wants to be.  Another solid writer with a big following is Gary Schmidt, and his newest, Okay for Now, is the funniest book that was title-shared.
A big departure from Lauren Myracle’s usual fare is her realistic, gritty YA novel that tackles what could be a hate crime in a small town. Shine is not an easy read, but several NECBA members found it gripping and very well done.
But the book that generated the  most buzz was Libba Bray’s new novel, out early summer, Beauty Queens. Crash a plane of teen beauty pageant contestants on a tropical island and see what happens. This is funny, disturbing, and ultimately a “very feminist novel,” said Suzanna Hermans, who is desperate for the rest of us to read it so she can talk about it. And if that’s not high praise for a book, I’m not sure what is. And judging by the number galleys of it that were taken at lunch, Suzanna will soon have lots of friends to talk to about the book.