Monthly Archives: January 2012

Funny, Sad, and Really Good

Josie Leavitt - January 31, 2012

A few weeks ago I promised to talk about some of the books I read during the week that we were closed. I was happy to find these galleys and while they are decidedly different from each other, they share one thing in common: humor. All to often the humor is missing from young adult novels as we spend more and more time in dystopias.
The first book I read was Pete Hautman’s What Boys Really Want.  I was immediately taken in by this book because it’s really funny. Funny from the first chapter when one of our narrators, Adam, gets caught in a no-win discussion with his friend about how skanky she is. By the end he freely admits that he doesn’t really know what skanky means. Adam’s honesty rings true and his best friend, Lita, understands and accepts him for all his foibles.
The book alternates short chapters from Adam’s point of view and Lita’s. Hautman does an admirable job of making each voice unique and equally compelling. Lita has been a secret and very popular advice blogger at her school and has aspirations to write, so she’s angry and sad that Adam suddenly begins working on a book about What Boys Want. Being an enterprising teen, Adam sells the book before it’s written. Feeling pressure to now actually write a book, Adam starts stealing material from the web, including content from Lita’s Ask Ms. Fitz blog. The book sails along until the slightly unbelievable ending which I won’t give away. Suffice to say it was a tad farfetched, but it didn’t spoil my ultimate enjoyment of the book. I laughed out loud so often it didn’t matter.
John Green’s long awaited, The Fault in Our Stars was another realistic young adult fiction I read. This book’s humor is definitely of the dark variety as the book focuses on kids with cancer. Hazel is a depressed 16-year-old with terminal stage IV thyroid cancer. She is forced to go to a cancer support for kids with cancer. Everything she says is funny, biting and a little tragic. As a reader, when I know books are about terminal kids, I try to put up a wall so I’m not crushed if they die. I couldn’t do this with this book.
I was right there with Hazel the whole book. She meets another cancer survivor at the group, Augustus, who sweeps her off her feet. Augustus had a leg amputated because of bone cancer that’s now in remission. Hazel and Gus share books (I love this idea), introducing each to their favorites. Hazel’s book is The Imperial Affliction about cancer and Gus’s book is about a video game. They couldn’t be more different, but their attraction towards each other has them reading and rereading the books. Gus, while at first comes off as a knight in shining armor, is a richly portrayed character who is trying to live life fully.
This book is also devastatingly sad even while it’s being funny. Sometimes, there’s no humor as funny as black humor. It’s also touching and reminds one of the good in the human spirit. I don’t want to give anything away, so all I will say is don’t read the last 40 pages in public and make sure to have to plenty tissues on hand. I read this at home and was down right sobbing on the couch. Elizabeth kept asking if I was okay and the poor dog had no idea what to do. Even through the tears I told Elizabeth she should read it, too. It’s not shocker that a book about kids with cancer might end on a sad note, but it’s totally worth the journey.

The Happiness Continues

Josie Leavitt - January 30, 2012

Friday’s post, A Happy Resolution, had me speaking about a mix-up with The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Well, if I was thunderstruck at how well the customers handled the situation, I was completely blown away by my Scholastic rep’s response.
Friday’s blog post had been live for barely two hours when I got an email from Nikki Mutch, who has been my Scholastic rep for more than a decade. Nikki is the epitome of a great rep. She listens, she lets me read F&Gs without giving away the ending to adorable picture books. Like all good reps, Nikki has gotten to know my store: what we like, what will sell, what we should take a chance on, and what we can safely skip.
The email was quite simple. Nikki had a copy of Hugo in her office and she was going to overnight it to the store so I could give it to the customer who had gotten one that had already been written in. I thought this was extraordinarily lovely and I thanked her profusely for being so thoughtful.
Well, the box was delivered on Saturday. I opened it and found… not only a pristine copy of The Invention of Hugo Cabret. There was also a copy of The Hugo Movie Companion. Oh, wait, there’s more. Nikki also enclosed a copy of Wonderstruck. And if this wasn’t enough, everything came in a very snazzy Wonderstruck bag. Honestly, all that was missing was Brian Selznick himself.
I called the customer and explained what I had just gotten in the mail. She kept saying, “Are you sure?” I kept saying that I was. She was giddy with the riches, and I was giddy to be able to fully right a wrong. It’s these gestures that make me love reps. They work so hard in an ever-changing field.  Just as bookstores are facing huge changes in day to day operations to stay competitive, sales reps are facing similar shifts as well, and they have to listen to us — booksellers who call wondering where their order is, why they can’t get this author to come to their store, etc. It’s a rare day that I call a rep when there isn’t a problem.
Perhaps this is the nature of the beast, but Nikki’s gesture reminded to take a minute and thank all the hard-working reps who make my life go so much more smoothly.

A Happy Resolution

Josie Leavitt - January 27, 2012

During the holidays someone had called to ask if we had The Invention of Hugo Cabret. We did not have it because it was back-ordered. As we talked on the phone, a customer was in the process of returning a copy of Hugo Cabret.
Happiness ensued. Or so we thought. Until we got a very angry phone call December 27th. A message was left for “the owners,” to call back immediately. It seems the copy of Hugo Cabret had inadvertently been inscribed to Matthew. Sadly, the book was unwrapped and opened on Christmas morning by an eager boy named Aaron. It had never occurred to us to check the returned book before we resold it to see if someone had written in it.
Needless to say, the mom was mad. She didn’t understand how that could happen. We explained that it hasn’t; this has never happened before, never once in 15 years. We promised her a new book as soon as it comes in. She wanted to know what we were going to the woman who returned the book (and got a store credit for it). I punted a little because I hadn’t spoken to that customer yet. I thought she was ending the conversation by saying, “I just needed to talk about it.” And then she proceeded to talk about it, all over again.
I was able to look up who returned the book. I called her and explained the situation. She felt horrible about it and came in yesterday to pay for the book. She was absolutely hilarious. She approached the register with her head hung low and said, “I’ve come to atone for returning that book.” And then she laughed and apologized for returning an inscribed book. Her kids were adorable and there was just something relaxed about the way she paid for the book that was a relief. There was no underlying tension or discomfort with the transaction; she knew she had messed up and was taking humorous responsibility for it.
I was reminded again at the many ways customers surprise and delight me. Her little boy came right up the counter and just said,”I’m so tall because I’m almost four.” Well, okay then. It was a great way to end the day.

What Fresh Hell Is This?

Josie Leavitt - January 26, 2012

Elizabeth and I were having lunch yesterday and we were talking about the latest Amazon assault of having Houghton Mifflin Harcourt be the publisher and distributor for their New Harvest line of adult books. I think Elizabeth summed it up best when she said, “What fresh Hell is this?”
It’s funny how quickly a happy mood that is largely because I’m focused at work and working on my budgets and trying to make this year more profitable than last year, came crashing down when I read the news about Amazon’s latest deal. I feel attacked by Amazon every time I turn around. If it’s not the ridiculous discounts, the Kindle ereader that drives folks away from bookstores, it’s the constant feeling that Jeff Bezos won’t rest until all the Amazon competitors are out of business. Now it’s the co-opting of one my favorite publishers. This move by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt underscores that the publishing playing field is shifting away from indies. Amazon is turning into the Walmart of the book world who dictates prices with threats of Buy Now buttons being removed, the insidious price checker app, etc.
Of course it might make sense for HMH to team up with Amazon, who knows how many more books they’ll sell through this deal. They have a bottom line they need to attend to. I’m sure Amazon sells more books a year than all the indies combined. I wonder if there will be a time that publisher backlists will only be available to Amazon customers or the lucky few bookstores that can afford an Espresso Book Machine. The book world is changing very fast and all the indies are doing their best to keep up with the changes, but when a favorite publisher gets into bed with Amazon, it’s hard not to take it personally.
I am tired. I’m tired of publishers I’ve supported wholeheartedly for the entire time I’ve been open, now forcing me to choose between buying some of their books and supporting the very company that seeks to put me out of business, or buy not buying the books at all and potentially losing those sales to the company that seeks to put me out of business. On dreary winter days this dilemma almost feels overwhelming. I love HMH books, but this new deal really makes me view the whole company differently. I know they’re just looking out for themselves, but it sure doesn’t feel good right now.
So, rather than lament and stew endlessly, I will have a drink as Ms. Parker would recommend and I will keep doing what I know how to do best: sell books and recommend unique  books and offer the kind of personal service that Amazon will never be able to. I will be proud to be an indie, and will fight for my bookstore with my purchasing dollars and continue to create a space that makes all readers feel welcome as I continue to point out the differences between Amazon and the Flying Pig.
I just hope that’s enough.

The Awards by Publisher

Elizabeth Bluemle - January 24, 2012

The awards are out! Seventy-one American Library Association Youth Media awards and twenty-eight Sydney Taylor Book awards by the Association of Jewish Libraries were announced within the past week. Combined with last fall’s National Book Awards for Young People’s Literature, that makes a grand total of 104 awards and honors for children’s books, audiobooks, visual media, and adult books with crossover teen appeal.
We’re celebrating the wonderful winners, and doing that happy/sad dance you do while appreciating those and shedding a few tears for some of our favorites that didn’t get a nod. With a field as rich in talent as ours, the books that don’t get awards can truly take your breath away. Last year, author Kate Messner wrote a poem for children’s book writers and illustrators, a comforting read if you didn’t win (and a lagniappe if you did).
Since the full award lists are readily available online (ALA Youth Media Awards here and AJL Sydney Taylor Book Awards here and the National Book Awards for YPL here, I like to present the results for my colleagues in the bookselling and publishing worlds a little differently.
Last year, I looked at the Newbery, Caldecott, and Printz awards by gender — and I suspect folks will be discussing that topic some more, given this year’s numbers (nine men, three women for those three awards, which includes a clean male sweep for the Caldecotts), and also at the 2011 awards by publisher. I’m repeating the latter breakdown for this year’s awards, because I like to take a look at these things and think it will interest you folks, too.
There are still children’s book awards yet to be announced this year, including the Boston-Globe Horn Book Awards and the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, among others. We’ll keep you posted on those, as well.
Before we get to the publisher breakdown, here’s a shout out to a few children’s book creators whose work received multiple awards:

  • Susan Goldman Rubin took home three awards: the Sydney Taylor Book Award for Older Readers, a YALSA finalist nod for Music Was IT: Young Leonard Bernstein (Charlesbridge) and a Sydney Taylor Notable citation for Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto (Holiday House).
  • Thanhha Lai won both the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and a Newbery Honor for her book, Inside Out & Back Again (Harper).
  • John Corey Whaley’s Where Things Come Back (Atheneum) won the Printz Award and the Morris Award.
  • Kadir Nelson won both the King Author Award and the King Illustrator Honor for Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans (Balzer + Bray)
  • Albert Marrin‘s Flesh So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy (Knopf) was both a National Book Award YPL finalist and a Sydney Taylor Notable Book for Older Readers.
  • Maggie Stiefvater was awarded a Printz Honor and an Odyssey Honor for The Scorpio Races (Scholastic).
  • Eric A. Kimmel won two Sydney Taylor Notable Book for Younger Readers citations, for The Golem’s Latkes, illustrated by Aaron Jasinski (Marshall Cavendish) and Joseph and the Sabbath Fish, illustrated by Martina Peluso (Kar-Ben).
  • Gary D. Schmidt‘s Okay for Now (Clarion) was both a National Book Award YPL finalist and an Odyssey Honor Book.
  • Guadalupe Garcia McCall won the Pura Belpré Award and was a Morris finalist for her book, Under the Mesquite (Lee and Low).

I will post the full breakdown of awards by publisher in the next blog post, but here is the quick-and-dirty publisher summary. (Please note that some of these numbers include multiple awards for a single title.)
Random House – 18 (5 for Knopf, 3 for Schwartz & Wade, 3 for Listening Library, 2 for Crown, 2 for Delacorte, 2 for Doubleday, 1 for Tricycle)
Macmillan Group – 11 (3 for FSG, 3 for Henry Holt, 4 for Roaring Brook, 1 for Bloomsbury)
HarperCollins – 9 (2 for HarperCollins, 2 for Balzer + Bray, 2 for HarperTeen, 1 for Amistad, 1 for Ecco, 1 for Greenwillow)
Lerner – 7 (6 for Kar-Ben, 1 for Graphic Universe)
Simon & Schuster – 7 (or 5 if you don’t count Ashley Bryan and Susan Cooper’s lifetime achievement awards as S&S awards) (4 — or 2 — for Atheneum, 1 for S&S BFYR, 1 for Free Press, 1 for Simon Pulse)
Candlewick Press – 5
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt – 5 (3 for Clarion, 2 for Houghton Mifflin)
Penguin – 5 (2 for Dial, 2 for Viking, 1 for Philomel)
Lee & Low – 4 (3 for Lee & Low, 1 for Children’s Book Press)
Scholastic – 4
Hachette – 3 (all for Little, Brown)
Charlesbridge – 3
Boyds Mills Press -2 (both for Calkins Creek)
Cinco Puntos Press – 2
Disney – 2 (both for Hyperion)
Holiday House – 2
Marshall Cavendish – 2
National Geographic Society – 2
And one apiece for Abrams, Artscroll/Mesorah, Brilliance Audio, Eerdmans, Gale/Sleeping Bear Press, House of Anansi/Groundwood, Jewish Lights, Lethe Press, Walker & Co., and Weston Woods Studios.
Congratulations, everyone!!
Readers, which of these books have you read and loved? Which ones do you recommend to all of us, your fellow confirmed children’s book devourers?
P.S. From Paul O. Zelinsky comes this wonderful little tidbit of information: “Stephen Colbert will be interviewing Maurice Sendak on his show in two parts, tomorrow and Wednesday evenings.” Wahoo! Thanks for the heads-up, Paul!

So, You’re Telling Me Not to Buy a Book?

Josie Leavitt - January 23, 2012

Sometimes part of providing good customer service means not selling someone a book. I know it sounds wrong to suggest that folks can have a great experience while being told not to buy a book, but it’s true.
Case in a point: on Friday a mom and her sweet but very quiet 10-year-old daughter, let’s call her Denise, came in looking for a book. Shy kids often struggle with answering the question, “What’s your favorite book?” This question gets asked after “What kind of book are you looking for?” has gotten no response other than a shy smile. She couldn’t articulate her thoughts, so I went back to the cardinal rule when talking to shy readers: ask yes or no questions.
This worked like a charm. I discovered she like adventure and fantasy. Finally, I could make some recommendations. I suggested Tunnels, The Sisters Grimm, The Frog Princess and The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles. I handed her each book slowly and gave a sentence description of each book. Then I told her to curl up on one of our fabric cubes and see if she liked any of the books and I went back to the register. I could hear them talking about each book.
A short while later they came to the register holding the stack of books. Denise looked a little sheepish and I looked at her mom who said, “The ones she likes the best we have at home.” I took that in and then said, “Well, go home and read them because you’ve got the books you think you’ll like.” I forget that kids have bedside reading like adults. And, like adults, that stack can be full of treasures that might have been forgotten.
“Wait, so you’re telling me not to buy a book?” the mom asked. Yup. The mom really couldn’t believe it. She asked why and I told her it’s because she has the right books at home. It’s not always about making a sale, it’s about helping folks find the right book, and if that book happens to be at home, well then, that’s okay with me.
Happily, Denise chose The Sisters Grimm and Tunnels, both firsts in a series. So, if she likes them, then she’ll come back to the store for the sequels. This totally works for me.

The Vultures Swoop In

Josie Leavitt - January 20, 2012

The store next door to my bookstore is closing. They sell eco-friendly products and composting supplies. Home Ecology: Your Green General Store has been open less than two years. And it saddens me that they are closing. But what really disturbs me isn’t that they’re closing, it’s that some folks are just now shopping there.
Our customers here in Vermont have surely embraced the Shop Local credo for the bookstore. They are making a point to let us know that they are deliberately choosing to shop with us and not with a chain or Amazon. But Home Ecology, a store with more diverse competition, has had a harder time defining the enemy around whom potential customers can rally, and this has been part of the problem for them.
The other thing they seem to be missing is support. The book industry has done a really good job getting the word out about why every local bookstore needs your business. Between the ABA, all the regional trade organizations, and all the work the indies do themselves, the message seems to be getting through. I don’t know much about other retail organizations, but it seemed to me that Home Ecology had no help from a trade group. This made me all the more appreciative for the resources, talking points, etc., that I have at my disposal.
Every day I’ve seen the parking lot full of cars who have come to buy fixtures and stock, all at steeply discounted prices. These are the same people who’ve never set in foot in the store. I spent some time in Home Ecology the other day and watched as folks amassed large piles of goods and someone asked if a display case could be broken down immediately and taken away that day. I felt awful. I was happy for them that they were moving the inventory, but the predatory nature of the folks made me mad. If only some of these customers had thought to buy a compost bin or a set of glasses in November, perhaps the store wouldn’t be closing. I know I’m oversimplifying, but the difference between failure and success is the  number of people through the door buying things.
And now that word is officially out around town that Home Ecology is closing, I’ve heard more folks say they wished they’d gone there. I try not to bang my head against the wall when I hear that. This seems to be a cautionary tale for all people, me included. If there’s a store in your town you’ve always wanted to visit, well, make 2012 the year you go. It’s really simple: if you don’t go to your local store, whether it’s a bookstore, record store, shoe store or restaurant, it might not be there when you finally decide you want to.
Full of conviction, I’ve started a list of places I intend to patronize before June. There are restaurants I’ve been meaning to visit, shops I haven’t been to in a long time, dog toys I should buy locally. The list is long, but I’m galvanized. I need to do my part to help my fellow merchants. Plus, it’s actually really fun.

Girls in Gowns

Elizabeth Bluemle - January 19, 2012

Hi, designers and alert readers. It’s time to do another round-up of YA book cover trends. Last year, we saw lots of big close-ups of flowers, interlocked hands, silhouettes, faces covered by blowing hair, giant keys, and more (gathered in this post: The Season of Windblown Hair). (Last year also saw scads of black-and-white, and predominantly black/blue, covers, but I lost the cover art downloads in a tragic laptop incident before finishing that post, so you’ll have to trust me on that.) Finally, last year, there were girls in gowns. Lots of them. Lots and lots of girls and gowns,  ballgowns and Sex in the City-esque dresses and period costumes. Regardless of the time period of the books, almost all of the models looked extremely modern, which we are certain was deliberately done to telegraph to skeptical contemporary readers that, while a book may be set in the past, it is still “relevant” to 21st-century girls.
Sales of those titles must have been incredible, because this year, guess what? There are lots and lots of girls in gowns. I am a little gowned out. It’s not that the book covers aren’t attractive; so help me, they can be quite beautiful. Some of them are almost extraordinary. But the sea of similarity becomes daunting. Are readers going to bother to distinguish between those titles — the books are all so varied inside the covers, so interesting and different and worthy of individual distinction — to find which ones might resonate with them?
Since the girls-in-gowns trend shows little sign of abating, I am assuming these jackets must be effective with many readers. In our store, the teen girls complain about the sameness of covers. They often don’t like photos of models on book jackets, primarily because they don’t look like the character they imagine from reading the book. Crystal clear, close-up photos do work against the reader’s imagination. And the age of the models can be an issue. “She looks 25!” a girl might snort. But if they like the author, or the cover strikes them as beautiful, they’ll give the book a chance.
Below are some of this winter/spring’s gown covers. Major props and thanks go to Sandy First, a Flying Pig bookseller who noticed and pulled out nine of these ARCs from our galley boxes, spurring this post.
Some of these jackets are more distinctive, intriguing, effective than others.

Readers, what do YOU think?
Do covers that fall into this kind of trend or pattern serve you, by telegraphing their genre and likely audience via photographic shorthand? And if so, what does and doesn’t work for you about them? Do you care about the actual dress? The model? Can a small thing turn you off, or are you willing to overlook a glitch in the cover to peruse the actual story? (One example for me from this group was the cover for Lauren DeStefano’s Fever. The first book in this series, Wither, featured a girl/gown cover that was striking, unusual in color and composition, and I really liked it. But Fever‘s cover image strikes me as very modern, a party girl caught on a bad night. I didn’t realize the two were even from the same series until I noticed the title design treatment.)
Conversely*, can a small thing also make a trendy book stand out from the crowd for you? For instance, I keep coming back to the treatment of the font on the cover of Aimee Agresti’s Illuminate (see below), with the little filigree of lights surrounding the title. I just love it. (*This is not strictly a converse statement, for those of you who care about such things. I know it and you know it, but let’s let it go for the moment? It’s getting late. Thanks.)
Are you harder or easier on book covers that fall into genre groupings? Do you judge the book more or less by its cover in this circumstance?

The Lull of January

Josie Leavitt - January 18, 2012

I always forget that after the crazy blur of the holiday season, January really feels slow. Our sales days are good for this time of year, but the precipitous decline from the record-breaking sales always catches me off guard. I feel like there should be a bridge month for retailers so we don’t go from the lunacy of the holiday to the slowest month of the year. Maybe if could move Easter or Valentine’s to January, then there wouldn’t be such a stark contrast.
I look out the window to a grey, rainy, 34-degree day and feel tired even though I’ve done comparatively little. It’s funny how much more tiring a slow day can feel than a day that has me running from nine in the morning until I drop, exhausted, at six. The rhythm of a January day is leisurely. This leisure allows for projects such as massive returns and intelligent restocking, as opposed to the frantic grab of December. We do a lot of planning in January. Normally, this month would find us at the ABA-sponsored Winter Institute, but we’re skipping this year, so we are around for the whole month.
One of the big things we do in January that adds to the sense of change is we furlough staffers. We ran the numbers and realized that January, February and March are slow enough that we don’t need our full complement of staffers. Fortunately, we have staffers who are flexible with their schedules and are happy to have the time off. So, we went from a store brimming with five staffers to a skeletal crew, and I must admit, it’s kind of nice.
Elizabeth and I are working together more to make up the difference and it’s so nice to have it be just the two of us some days. It reminds me of when we first opened and we worked together all the time. The only real change is there are no mice fighting over our heads in this building as there were in the early days of our old store.
The best part of the winter slowdown is I get to read more. Next week, I’ll post about what I’ve been reading and loving.

World Book Night

Josie Leavitt - January 17, 2012

Okay, I have to confess, I’m not really sure about this venture. On the one hand I think World Book Night is a cool idea: on April 23rd a million free books are to be given out to folks who might not normally read books or have easy access to them. On the other hand, thousands of books being given away might cut into book sales. But, I do love the idea of folks getting books who might not normally read. So I have two minds about this. But, in my new spirit of saying yes more (one of my New Year’s resolutions right after going to the gym) I’ve signed up to be a book giver and a pick-up spot.
I absolutely love the idea of giving books to under-served populations. Getting involved means one of two things. Either you’re one of the people who signs up to give 20 books away or your store is designated a pick-up place.
To become a book giver you have to apply and then be selected.  The World Book Night folks are hoping that 50,000 people will sign up before the February 1st deadline. You select your top three book during the application process and then I guess someone picks out 17 other books for you to give away, it’s not really clear on the website. I will say, the book list is fabulous and peppered with many of my favorites. The goal here is get folks excited about sharing beloved books with folks who might not know about them.
For instance I’ve signed up to be a giver and I’ll be giving my books to the women’s prison. I’ve been working with the prison and know that books are scarce and very needed. So it makes me happy to share some of my favorites with these women. Hopefully, they’ll enjoy the books as much as I do. This seems to be the real goal of World Book Night: sharing the love of books and highlighting literacy issues.
To be a pick-up location is an odd feeling. Basically, folks will come in and get a free box of books and leave the bookstore. We have signed up to be a pick-up location and I have no idea what to expect. Will we be overrun with boxes? I doubt it, but you never know. Honestly, I signed up because I didn’t want to be left out of the fun.
Apparently, the books featured in World Book Night last year in the UK saw a massive increase in sales because of the interest generated by the giveaways. I’m really hoping that happens here. There’s no way to know, but I’m optimistic about it.