Monthly Archives: July 2012

Future Funny Writers of America

Elizabeth Bluemle - July 12, 2012

I just got to do one of my favorite “duties” of the year: announcing the winner of the humor award we give out annually at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. I’ve written about the origins of the scholarship here; it’s a small recognition of the great contribution humor makes to children’s literature. Even books we mainly think of as serious, powerful, deep, and inspiring (think of Katherine Paterson’s work, for example), are often leavened with levity, mirroring real life, rich life, generous-hearted, big-spirited, funny life.
Here’s how VCFA describes the award on their website:

Flying Pig Grade-A, Number-One Ham Humor Award

This is the program’s one and only humor award! Students enrolled in any semester of the program are eligible to apply for this annual award of $775.00. We are so grateful to alumna Elizabeth Bluemle (7/04) and Josie Leavitt for sponsoring this special prize.  [Snipped to excise many embarrassingly kind words about us and the store.]  Elizabeth and Josie read blind copies of the humor manuscripts and select the winning submission each spring.
We love giving this award. Only students who are as yet unpublished may submit manuscripts; we hope that, in addition to recognizing the importance of humor in writing for children, the award provides a little bit more confidence for these talented aspiring authors.
This year, we had our biggest crop of submissions yet, and along with the winner, there were three honorable mentions. Since these are works in progress, I don’t want to give away too much, but I can’t resist sharing a little bit of what we loved, and alert you to some names you should be watching out for in the coming years:
2012 Winner: Aimee Payne, for Candy from Strangers. In addition to being crisply, sharply funny, this short story—which we hope the author will turn into a novel—has great characters, well-wrought creepy suspense, and beautifully vivid sensory details. Funny and creepy; not a combination you see often in books, although it works really well in teen horror movies. If this were a novel, teens would be all over it.
2012 Honorable Mentions:
Stephen Bramucci, for What’s the Worst That Could Happen? The kind of delightful MG farce you don’t see enough of these days. Sheer silliness and over-the-top situations — in a good way.
Bonnie Berry LaMon, for The Backward Life of Selah Selim, whose refreshing, appealing, sporty main character lights up every page she’s on.
Laurie Morrison, for Worst-Case Scenario, which shows a teen coping with a difficult and unusual situation through writing and her sense of humor.
Past winners include: 2011—Sharon Van Zandt; 2010—Susan Barker; 2009—Katie Bayerl (summer); 2009—Sarah Ziegelmayer; Simon Fill (spring); 2008—(not given); 2007—Erik Talkin; 2006—Dianne White; 2005—Zu Vincent.
Ours was one of several scholarships awarded this evening. It was a lovely event, and the students’ rousing cheers for each other’s successes filled the room. After the prizes were given out, there was one more special event: a reading given by a student who is the first person to be in both the Writing for Children & Young Adults MFA program and the adult Writing program. Patrick Downes is his name, and I mention him not only because (as I discovered this evening) he works at Montpelier’s Rivendell Books, but because he read an absolutely dynamite picture book manuscript, Angus Runs Away, and trust me, you’ll want to remember his name along with the FPGANOH-HA! winners.
In celebration of the funny stuff — what are your favorite funny books of 2012 so far?

Did She Have a Dress On?

Josie Leavitt - July 10, 2012

When little kids shop at the bookstore they often come with things. Sometimes they come in clutching a beloved doll or stuffed animal. I’m always amazed at the plethora of animals kids have. They range from tiny dogs to seemingly full-sized pandas and rabbits.
The kids with dolls are often the cutest because they usually will introduce you to their doll. There was one little girl who started speaking so fast after I asked her what her dolly’s name was. She went on and on telling me about their latest tea party. It was adorable, but I was hard pressed to keep up.
Today a parent was trying to hustle her family out the door and I kept hearing her asking, “Did she have a dress on? Didn’t she have a dress?” At first I thought her young daughter had taken off her clothes. There are times little kids will trail their boots, socks, pants and shirts behind them as they make their way into the store. I actually take it as a compliment that they feel comfortable enough here to treat the store like their house.
It turns out there was a naked doll in the store. Abby, the young doll owner, had been reading and taken her doll’s dress off. After a small search involving her two very patient teenage older brothers, the dress turned up under the picture book section. I loved that the whole family was involved with this search. Apparently, the mom has suggested that rather than remove her clothes in public, Abby could take her doll’s dress off. Nice suggestion and it turned into a fun family activity.
In all the years we’ve been open, no one has ever said, “Did she have a dress on?” when referring to someone in the store. I was still laughing about it when I got home.

Re-Organizing, Via Text

Josie Leavitt - July 9, 2012

I worked on Sunday and it was slow, and I made the mistake of texting Elizabeth to ask if she had a project for the three of us at work. She did. It was a nightmare. She said very casually, “Why not re-organize the Gift and Fun cases?” We all blanched. We wrongly, perhaps, think of those cases and anything to do with sidelines, as Elizabeth’s bailiwick. She has expressed the wish that others would help out here. The problem is she just does them so well that we all marvel at how she does it.
I have no skill for display. I often joke that if it weren’t for Elizabeth, the store would still have the display we opened with 16 years ago.

What the finished case looks like. Stay tuned for how Elizabeth makes it amazing.

Instead of balking at the suggestion, PJ, David, and I set about to try to make at least one case better. We stood in front of the case for several long minutes before PJ said she was scared of the sidelines. I concurred, but tried to keep up a good front.
Sidelines are great. They sell well, but only they’re displayed the right way. A store can have the best sidelines around, and if no one can see them properly, they just won’t sell. Most people don’t come in with the idea of buying a sideline. They come in wanting a book, see a toy, card or game, and then leave with a book and a game. Sidelines need to be seen, and often, played with, so there needs to be room for them. I stand in front of the sideline case and I all see are things that need to be shelved according to height requirements. Elizabeth sees that same case and in three hours, it’s a thing of beauty that’s earning far more than it did yesterday.
We moved a few things around until PJ had the organizational brainstorm of grouping the shelves by category. Once we hit upon that and could see how it could work, we were on fire. We emptied two shelves, something I would never do because of the mess, and regrouped. It was working. I would have never done it that way, but PJ was right. The top shelf was done and I texted a picture of it to Elizabeth. We got an enthusiastic YES to our question of do you like it? Then we changed two things and sent a new text. She hated it. It went like this for a while before everyone was happy with the top shelf.
The others are mostly done, but not signed off on. David has just started working for us and he said, “Well, we did it.”
PJ and I smiled at each other because we both knew full well that whole case would be redone by Elizabeth and it would be a marvel.

Getting Feedback

Josie Leavitt - July 6, 2012

Every day, booksellers go out on a limb and recommend books. Often we never hear back about the success, or failure of those recommendations. The other day, I was cleaning out a massive pile of mail and came across a postcard that a customer sent recently.
She came in a few days before Easter seeking a book that would “distract me from my in-laws for the whole weekend.” I knew this customer well enough that I felt comfortable suggesting the 1,312 page classic Count of Monte Cristo. She looked askance and I could almost hear her thinking: are you crazy? I told her about the store and she reluctantly left with the book. I told her that if she gave it a chance, she’d be riveted.
The postcard was addressed: To the Books Goddesses of the Flying Pig. And it’s clear she loved it. This card now adorns my fridge door to remind me that there is a real joy in connecting someone with a book they’d never had read or thought of for themselves. And to save a whole weekend for someone is always going to be a gift.
That she was moved enough to write me is my gift.

What Makes a Modern Classic?

Josie Leavitt - July 5, 2012

Every once in a while as I’m shelving new books, I think about what books will become new classics. We all know not every new book that is published is great, in fact it seems like half the books I buy won’t make it three seasons before they’re declared out of print. But every now and again a book comes along and you just know it’s going to be around forever.
There are books that resonate with readers for a variety of reasons; I’ve been wondering what makes a classic. Is it just great writing? Or is it a book that captured a generation of readers? Is a story that works for any era?
I look back on the books I loved as a kid: Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, The Great Brain, Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, Maurice Sendak and the Little Bear series, almost every Dr. Seuss book, and I could go on. These were great books and most could arguably be classics. What makes them work for me is the story holds up after repeated readings and the scrutiny that a close reading can bring.
I see kids reading dystopian novels and wonder if any of these are destined to be classics. Sometimes, there can be so many entries in a genre that the genre itself starts to feel diluted. Because there are so many, you run the risk of saying,  “It’s a great dystopian book,” sort how we treated vampire books two years ago; they’ve almost ghettoized themselves. There is a glut of YA novels out there where the Mom is gone, the Dad is doing his alcoholic best and the anorexic sister pulls you out of the story and the narrator sounds like a clever, slightly smart-alecky kid who’s doing his or her best in the face of such family travails. While these books might be passing fun to read, they don’t stick with you; nothing is remembered a month after you’ve read the book. I once read an entire Gossip Girl book on a plane to Kentucky. I thoroughly enjoyed the read, but when my father asked me at baggage claim if I’d read anything on the plane down, I couldn’t remember a single fact about the book. A classic book fuels you when you think about it. You remember things about it because it stays with you.
And what of picture books? There are the books that people clamor for, but often these feel like “what’s hot now.” It’s hard to know what’s driving picture book sales sometimes. Often it’s nostalgia and some of the illustrators now haven’t been around long enough for kids who read them, to be buying them for their own kids. David Wiesner, Jerry Pinkney, Chris Van Allsburg all seem destined to have several books land in the classics. These are books you pore over. I think the easiest way to see what picture books are going to be classics is to see what people are giving as baby shower gifts to build libraries. The flavor of the month does not often get chosen, but Sandra Boynton books are happily given. A staff favorite, Good Night, Gorilla feels like a classic, as does Guess How Much I Love You, All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon and Marla Frazee, and Mary and the Mouse, the Mouse and Mary, to name a few.
My store has been open 16 years and that’s just about a generation. I’m wondering what books from 1996 on will be considered classics in 2046. I can think that Kate DiCamillo will surely be on the list. M.T. Anderson seems a likely contender as well. J.K. Rowling will be even though there will be some who think the enormous popularity of Harry Potter somehow will have tainted it. Philip Pullman, Shannon Hale, and Grace Lin’s simply perfect Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, just about anything by Christopher Paul Curtis.
So readers, what books are turning into your modern classics?

Another Reason Not to Get an E-Reader

Josie Leavitt - July 3, 2012

I read with horror the Wall Street Journal‘s article about people’s reading habits being logged and sifted over by their e-reader. Honestly, I’m not surprised that Amazon and Barnes & Noble are poring over the data about how people read on their e-reader. They are watching you read and paying attention.
Do you skip ahead in Fifty Shades of Grey? Do you read horror novels quickly? How many pages do you read in a sitting, do you skip to the ending of mysteries and then start at the beginning? etc. This seems like a mind-boggling trespass of a very private act. Someone is watching you read every time you flick a page. Reading is a private, solitary act that needs to be respected. How a person reads should remain between them and the book.
One of the true of joys of reading is doing it any way you want. Sometimes I read and then reread the character names in my Swedish mystery many times before I continue.  I will just go over the name until I can figure out some way of remembering it. Some names I can grasp, but others with their accents I don’t know and a combination of letters that makes no sense to me are a bit of a struggle. I will often resort to giving them my own names. If I were doing this on an e-reader would that data somehow get picked up? Are lots of people reading like this? Will this information somehow find its way in the hands of publishers and change the way books are translated?
What passages people choose to highlight in a book is also an available aggregate. This to me is the most chilling. What I choose to underline in a text is between me and the book. Margin notes that are typed in your e-reader are also researchable. Wow. So, what I write in my own book is now fodder for the number crunchers at Amazon?  Am I the only one who thinks this is a very slippery slope of invasion of privacy and free speech?
David Levithan from Scholastic was quoted as saying, “You very rarely get a glimpse into the reader’s mind,” he says. “With a printed book, there’s no such thing as an analytic. You can’t tell which pages are dog-eared.” While I see the allure of knowing this, books are not movies. They should not be test-marketed and tailored for the highest rating. Why someone dog-ears a page is their business, not the publishers.
Books should be written by writers who want to share a story and read by people who want to dip into that story in their own way. Just know that every time you pick up a book and smell that wonderful book smell, there’s not a person around mining your reading time for usable data. There’s just you and your book.

“I Was Reading”

Josie Leavitt - July 2, 2012

This past week we had family visiting from Indiana. We love their visits because it gets us out on Lake Champlain, fishing and just having fun. But it also gets us reading – well, most of us.
Calyn, who will be a high school senior this year, has a tradition of getting lots and lots of books at the store. This year, to help her celebrate her 18th birthday next week, she left with a box of books, which her dad had to carry out to the car it was so heavy. In nine days she had read six of the books! She was anxious for sequels of Wither and Immortal Beloved.
We were reading on the dock one day and she was getting quieter and quieter. She was so focused, almost red-faced when she turned the page and said, “Oh, now I am really angry!” The book was placed on the arm of the chair and she walked away. I noticed she was reading The Fault in Our Stars, which I have read and loved, so we talked about it. Calyn is an excellent person to talk about books with because she’s a really insightful reader who is passionate about books.
My nephew Will maintained his tradition of reading comic book series at the end of the school year. Last year it was Calvin and Hobbs, this year it’s the Foxtrot series. Jake, my younger nephew, confessed at dinner the other night to “staying up until 11:30 to read Diary of a Wimpy Kid.” He’s only nine, so 11:30 might as well be four in the morning. What I loved was he was how gleeful he was in admitting why he was so tired at dinner. “I was reading.” It was the first time he stayed up late to read.
I loved it, because in that instance I felt my nephew had just become a life-long reader.