Monthly Archives: July 2014

It’s Official—The Funniest Bookseller in Vermont!

Elizabeth Bluemle - July 31, 2014

Josie comedy

Josie Leavitt; photo © Stephen T. Knight

Okay, “funniest bookseller” wasn’t actually the category for which Josie Leavitt won top honors; it was Best Stand-Up Comic, in the annual contest run by Vermont’s arts weekly newspaper, Seven Days. The Seven Daysies are coveted awards covering 177 topics ranging from Best Restaurant to Best Place to Get Naked. Seven Days takes voting seriously; you have to vote in at least 50 of the 177 categories for your votes to count. This year, around 10,000 Vermonters sent in their picks for “best,” and Josie won Best Stand-Up Comic! The Flying Pig is bursting with pride.
This is actually Josie’s second win; she tied with “The Logger,” Rusty DeWees, in 2011, the first year that Seven Days included the stand-up comedy category. Winning the category’s first year was fitting, since Josie has been so instrumental in creating the now-blooming Burlington stand-up scene. As Seven Days put it so aptly and wonderfully in the award announcement this year:

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Psst! All Books Are Interactive

Elizabeth Bluemle - July 29, 2014

interactiveRecently, I came across catalog copy for a book with a big starburst sticker on the cover that boasted that this book had some extra feature that made it “INTERACTIVE!”
I’m a little mystified by the impulse to add moving parts or noises to books to make them seem more interactive than they already are. Reading a book not only requires a complex set of skills involved in decoding words and making meaning from them, but involves the imagination, engages predictive thinking, and—depending on the content and challenge of the material—invites reflection and the processing of new information. Readers create the world of a book alongside the author. Reading lights up the brain all over.
The truth is, the more “interactive” a book is, the less a reader is required to engage meaningfully with it. When you add bells and whistles that do the work for you, you’re actually making it less interactive, neurologically speaking.
Readers necessarily interact with a book by creating mental images and making connections as they read; the brain is quite active while reading. In fact, reading is apparently one of the top ways to exercise your brain, along with learning another language, meditating, and getting some physical exercise.
So the interactive label seems more like marketing hype to hook consumers more than something that adds true value to a book. I’m not a total curmudgeon; as a young reader, I adored books that did fun things. Bennett Cerf’s pop-up joke books were read to tatters, and for a solid year, the See-n-Say was my favorite word-related toy. Heck, I *still* encounter pop-up and lift-the-flap books that knock my little reader self’s socks off. But I don’t think anyone would have claimed that the pop-up book or the See-n-Say made me a better thinker.


Image source:


Somewhat serendipitously for this post, Salon just ran an article by Sara Scribner titled, “Your iPhone addiction will rot your kid’s brain,” with subtitle teasers “iPads and other devices aren’t really interactive. An expert on the need to read for kids.” In the article, Scribner interviews Jason Boog, author of Born Reading: Bringing Up Bookworms in a Digital Age — From Picture Books to eBooks and Everything in Between. This new book takes a look at interactivity from a slightly different— and just as important—angle: the interactivity that happens when a child and adult read and discuss books together.
I haven’t read the book yet, but will look forward to seeing what it has to say about young readers and books and devices.
As for the type of “INTERACTIVITY” shouted by burst-shaped stickers on book covers, well, I’m not sure how many parents are taken in by that label. But I’m entirely certain that they will be able to assess its relative value, for better or worse, after a single reading.

An Interview with Amy Zhang

Kenny Brechner - July 28, 2014

We (children’s frontlist buyers that is) cannot fail to note the dramatic rise in the publication of YA books whose authors share the ages of their protagonists. Most of us have our presumptions about the why and the what of these books.
I assume, for example, that one reason behind the sudden rise is a line of thinking which goes that young readers will connect with young authors. This seems to be a strong presumption. I also assume that there is a good chance that the writing may not be quite the thing. This is often the case, and yet some novels appear that are highly polished and strong on style. The excellent work of Stefan Bachmann is a good example. Perhaps not coincidentally, Bachmann’s editor, Virginia Duncan, has been working with another high school age prodigy, Amy Zhang. Zhang’s debut novel, Falling into Place, is coming out this fall.
Falling Into Place recounts, through multiple first-person narratives, what appears to be a very unlikely suicide attempt of a popular and forceful high school girl Liz Emerson. Liz is controlling and harmful to those within her sphere, seemingly more the person to drive someone else to suicide rather than attempt to take her own life. The book explores her psychological dynamics through physics metaphors, suggesting that the lack of resistance to her will ultimately rebounds back on her.
With its young author and its theme of attempted suicide, Falling into Place has two popular tropes going for it. The richness of its language and its conceptual depth are both a surprise and a delight. To explore Falling into Place here’s a Q&A with its 18-year-old author.
Kenny: If you could recommend a book for your character Liz Emerson to read, what would it be?
imgQ2UqtYAmyZhangAmy: I’d give her The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. I’d leave it on the brown couch in her basement on New Year’s Eve, Because I think she needs a love story. I’d also give her The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I think it would make her feel less lonely.
Kenny: Did her suicide attempt need to occur for Liz to have her emotional epiphany, or could that have been achieved in another way?
Amy:  I think the problem with Liz was that she didn’t believe in epiphanies or at least not for herself. She didn’t think there was a solution, just an ending, and she went with the ending. I do think she should have talked to her physics teacher more. In every school there are teachers who don’t want to be there and teachers who frankly are not very good at their job, but there are also teachers – lots of them – who genuinely care about every single one of their students, and Mr. Eliezer was one of them. For starters, he could definitely have explained the whole “cause and effect ” thing to Liz again. And he would have listened, he would have listened to anything, and maybe eventually Liz would have told him everything. My teachers were everything in high school. I’d go to their rooms to steal candy or to have makeshift therapy session or to ask questions or to decorate their rooms on their birthdays. I don’t know if she could have had the emotional epiphany, but I think she should have known to go to Mr. Eliezer instead of her guidance counselor for help.
Kenny: If you could change one thing in one of your favorite books, what would it be?
DeathSeventhSealAmy: I’d put my name on the cover of The Book Thief instead of Markus Zusak’s – kidding! Hmm. I’m honestly not sure that there is anything I’d change about it. I’ve honestly sat here wracking my brain and flipping through my copy for about an hour now, and it’s one of the most perfect and complete books I’ve ever read. Maybe a few more of death’s little comments? I remember that when I read it the first time there would be a few pages without the excerpts and I’d catch myself thinking “Gosh, I really miss Death.”
Kenny: The physics principles really work as metaphor. Is it simply metaphor, though, or is there an actual casuistry between physics and the psychology of emotion?
Amy: Honestly? My physics and psychology classes were both primarily lecture classes with teachers that never checked notes I spend most days writing in the margins of my note books. So I’m not sure how well I can answer this question. Back in March I was doing a project for psychology about cognitive biases with a focus on the Efallacy of the single cause, and I came across this Tolstoy quote: “When an apple ripens and falls what makes it fall? Is it that it is attracted to the ground, is it that the stem withers, is it that the sun has it dried up, that is has grown heavier, that the winds shake it, that the boy standing underneath it wants to eat it? No one thing is the cause.” Every event is caused by infinite factors but our minds are wired to fixate on one. I think that’s what makes physics, at least at the high school level, so conceptual. You have to focus on one factor, gravity or direction or mass, to solve the problem so you disregard all the others. I think the actual connection between physics and emotion is that fault in our heads, the tendency to name a scapegoat to match one effect to one cause. That’s what Liz did. She named herself as the scapegoat, and she didn’t want to be the cause anymore.
Kenny: The unidentified narrator was a marvelously ingenious and effective device. Avoiding the horrible shoals of a spoiler, can you tell us a bit about whether this device was always envisioned in the story or developed at a later point?
20306804Amy: The first version of Falling into Place was a short story about a girl who committed suicide, who left behind a journal explaining her reasons why through Newton’s Laws of Motion. I knew it was a story that I wanted to develop into a novel-length work. A few months later, I wrote a story with an unknown narrator who watched a little girl grow up. I had saved both stories in the same file, so when I went to open the first to outline the project that would become Falling into Place, the second caught my eye. I had been unsatisfied with the narration of the first short story, so I played with the idea of combining the two short stories, and I had a lot of fun with it!
Kenny: What can you tell us about your next book?
Amy: I’m working on a book tentatively titled This Is Where the World Ends, which is about a boy who’s obsessed with apocalypses and a girl whose goal in life is to make the entire world fall in love with her. There’s spray paint and a coffee shop full of origami cranes and a dictionary of made-up words, and I can’t wait to share it with everyone!
Kenny: Thanks, Amy.
Amy: My pleasure.

What to Do About Leveled Readers?

Elizabeth Bluemle - July 25, 2014

star wars a new hope coverLeveled readers are, in some ways, a bit of a fly in the bookselling ointment. They sell extremely well, which is terrific, but they are also notoriously uneven when it comes to leveling. Teachers, parents, and even many kids are obsessed with the levels (for a variety of reasons, some unavoidable), but every staffer in a bookstore’s children’s department knows that levels are not consistent between publishing houses, and sometimes not even within the same house.
Recently, we received DK’s Star Wars: A New Hope, labeled a “Level 1: Beginning to Read” book. I knew the book would be wildly popular with early readers, and was curious to see how the author, Emma Grange, would translate the Star Wars story into words and sentences appropriate for someone just beginning to read. I think of someone beginning to read as being ready for something along the lines of “See Spot run,” or Hop on Pop, or Sam and the Firefly.
So Star Wars seemed to me to be quite a challenging job to turn into a beginning reader, given the many unfamiliar names and fantasy concepts that would need to be explained to an audience too young to have seen the movies. And the truth is, I doubt it is truly possible to retell this Star Wars adventure in a way that most children just beginning to read could manage on their own.
The book has lines like, “The rebels are a group of people who want to free the galaxy from the Empire,” and “A brave rebel named Princess Leia is determined to defeat the Empire,” and “R2D2 and another droid named C-3PO flee in an escape pod to the planet Tatooine,” and “Luke and Han rescue Princess Leia, but then they fall into a waste disposal unit.”
I think Ms. Grange did an excellent job of distilling the story into a short, easier-to-read form, and I know that kids reading Level 1 books will be deeeeelighted to have the opportunity to chat about Star Wars with their elder siblings. And I know that parents will be happy to help their new readers work through the more complicated words and concepts (the illustrations help there, as well). And yet, does that make the book a Level 1? There are Level 3 books simpler than this one.
With schools and publishers using standards from any of five or so different leveled reading programs, there is bound to be plenty of fluctuation. What this inconsistency in levels means for booksellers is that we need to be very familiar with all of the series we carry, so that we can better match young readers with books at just the right level of challenge.
And that is a challenge and a half for those of us on the sales floor. 

The Littlefield Letters

Kenny Brechner - July 24, 2014


Mrs. Newall’s Fourth Grade Class of Who Was fans.

I’ll come straight out and admit it.  I have a goal for this post. To prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the Common Core has done a wonderful thing for reluctant readers. As we all know the adoption of the Common Core has led to widespread grant writing by schools for purchases of non-fiction books from trade publishers. Publishers have responded to this opportunity by dusting off the non-fiction denizens of their backlists, and acquiring and publishing strong new non-fiction titles. These titles began coming into libraries and classrooms in significant quantities last fall.
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Fun Books for Heat Waves

Josie Leavitt - July 22, 2014

The temperature is hitting in the low 90s here in Vermont, and much of the country is also suffering from the first wave of hot summer weather. People stream into the bookstore and the first thing everyone says, “Oh, it’s so nice and cool in here.” Most folks in my neck of the woods don’t have central air-conditioning, so a store that’s 25 degrees cooler than the parking lot is a good, good thing. People seek a different kind of book during a warm stretch and come in with specific things in mind to help them beat the heat.
nancydrew Generally, the first thing people seek are books that “are easy to get into” and “page-turners.” Clearly, the summer heat has effected the brain of the average reader. It’s like the reading experience is as short as the season, so every book must be a winner. Or, maybe everyone only has room for one book in their beach bag and they want a good story. Even the kids say the same thing. Except they cut right to the chase. “I want something fun to read.” They have no judgment about what they need, they just know they want a pleasing book.
So, this got me thinking about when I was a kid and what was fun for me to read during the long hazy days of summer. I was one of those kids who skipped the middle grade section and went right for the adult horror books. Stephen King, Peter Straub and Mary Higgins Clark were hugely popular with me. I think one of the reasons I only read horror books in the summer was because it was light so much longer, so there was less chance of reading a truly scary part of a book in the dark of night. Some kids like to be scared these days, and honestly, with some dystopian novels being serious nightmare fodder, kids don’t really seek out horror books.
It seems a lot of kids this summer are coming in wanting funny or realistic books that aren’t sad, The greenFault in Our Stars being a notable exception. I love that kids are not leaving the middle grade section too soon. They are craving stories that mirror their lives. This might explain the popularity of the Middle School series by James Patterson with various co-authors, including Vermont’s own Chris Tebbetts. These books, like the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, offer up a humorous take on the very challenging middle school time. What’s good about these is they shows the challenges of those hard years with accessible characters who make it all seem okay. Mostly, because none of the character’s exploits are actually happening to the reader. 
There is something delightful about a mystery in the summer. You have time to unravel the plot and guess who might be guilty of the crime. The Westing Game is always a popular favorite. The Great Brain series is old-fashioned fun, and believe it or not, there are still lots of kids who haven’t read Holes yet. The newest addition to the mystery section is Varian Johnson’s The Great Greens Heist which is just flying off the shelves. It’s also funny to me that the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books surge in popularity this time of year. 

So, readers, what do you gravitate towards in the summer? And, booksellers, what books are you recommending this summer?

Credit Where Credit is Due

Josie Leavitt - July 21, 2014

I think it’s safe to say that bookstores and credit departments feel like they have an antagonistic relationship sometimes. We both need each other, so being friendly makes more sense. But often the issue of money and paying bills can be fraught on both sides. I have a friend who works in the credit department at a snowboard company and he shared with me some of the things that make him crazy. It was illuminating, to say the least. “If people would just be nice to me when I call about their owing us $10,000 for custom boards, it would be delightful.” He finds customers to be sometimes rude, evasive and generally unpleasant. I can say that I’ve often found some credit reps to be rude and sometimes unpleasant. So, below is a list of things that I think could change the nature of the credit rep/bookstore relationship for good.
– Sending reminders with the statement attached is actually very helpful for me. But do not threaten, directly or implied, that if the check doesn’t get processed by the last day of the month, I’ll go on credit hold.
– I will strive to pay my entire bill by the due date. I know there are stores out there that never miss an end of month bill. But I remember Avin Domintz (former head of the ABA) leading a 2% Solution workshop years ago who suggested taking as long as possible to pay your bills, up to 60 days, to stretch your funds. While I don’t agree with that strategy it brings up the next point.
– Not all publishers will put you on credit hold if you’re two weeks late. Know who these are and pay accordingly.
– Who is your credit rep? Get to know him or her. I am getting to know my Random House rep because I asked her if her workload doubled with the Penguin merger and she said, “Pretty much, yes.” We had a lovely chat and now I’m not afraid of taking her calls because she’s fun. I think credit reps can be demonized because we are at odds with what they represent: our ability to pay bills and the shame that comes with having a hard month and needing to juggle who to pay.
– Be honest with your rep. Rather than avoiding calls or emails, take the bull by the horns and do one of two things: actually pay the bill you’ve been forgetting to or tell them why you can’t pay the whole thing. Offer up a payment schedule and know that you might be on hold for a bit.
– Credit reps can send statements that include all available credits. Baker and Taylor comes to mind as the chief offender here: the monthly email reminders do not include any of the credits. Why? Surely this is easily accessible account info to include.
– This brings me to the thing that bothers me the most: emails that say how much I owe for everything I’ve purchased and not just what’s due by the end of this month. Please don’t make me do math every time I need to pay. If we’re talking about what’s due for July, then don’t include all my open invoices (which can sometimes be things that aren’t due for another month or two) in that email.
– Do not make me send an email every time I want credits applied to my account. Of course I want you to apply the credits! No bookstore is ever going to say: No, please don’t use my credits from returns to pay all or part of my bill, let me write you a check for the entire statement balance.
– Another thing to add to that: do not send me a statement with credits and debits that aren’t tallied up. Again, let your spreadsheet tally things up for me, so I don’t have to add up all the open invoices and then subtract the credits. Having to do that work for you is irritating and it’s often the part of the task that gets interrupted because we all get called away from our desks so much.
– Be nice to your credit rep. They have a hard job. They’re under the gun to collect this money and more often than not, they are extremely reasonable if you actually speak kindly to them and offer a solution. And, they have more control over your books getting shipped out than anyone else. So, it’s helpful to treat them with respect.
– Lastly, pay your bills on time and this won’t even be a problem. But, should you over-extend or have a big school delay their payment to you or you’re waiting for the event returns to get logged in the publisher’s system, be patient and honest.
As more and more publishers merge and we’re writing bigger checks to fewer companies, it’s going to be vital for all of us to have strong relationships with the credit departments. I know I’m planning on spending much of my day today making sure I’m all ready for the end of the month.

Beach Books and More!

Josie Leavitt - July 18, 2014

It looks to be a great weekend for going to the beach here on the East Coast. I’m actually planning to zip up to a friend’s house on the lake and read, swim and generally have fun by not working. I always like to do a thorough check of the galleys that await before I go away. I noticed an envelope on my desk that was soft and inviting. There is always something exciting about the seasonal promo mailings. What does the publisher think we’ll use or need? Will it be helpful? These are clearly subjective issues, as everyone has different tastes, but I think it’s easy to agree that we could all use a beach towel or two, and maybe a beach bag to tote around our books.
beachbagWhat I didn’t expect, and honestly, have never seen before was a towel that is also a beach bag. Call me simple, but I marveled at this delivery from Hyperion for Jennifer Donnelly’s new book, Deep Blue. The envelope sat on my desk, from yesterday’s mail,  I opened it and at first I thought it was a nifty beach bag, but then Sandy suggested that it did something. A bag that does something? I opened it up and it turned into a towel, and back again. Okay, this is clearly simple fun, but still, I was delighted. And it holds a lot.
Then seemingly in a parade of beach things, we got a towelsdelivery from Scholastic suggesting that I needed to lounge by the water. Their package came with many things. A beach towel, sunscreen (how did they know I was out?), a water bottle ,and a bag. Okay, that is a full set of fun things needed to not only enjoy the summer, but to enjoy it safely. All the necessary items are included, down to a book. Sure, I might complain about reduced co-op funds being available, but getting promo items that are not only useful but fun is always a lovely thing.
sunblockAll these beach-going items are making me consider what books to bring to the lake this weekend. In addition To Catch a Falling Star, I’ll be bringing some adult novels with me: the new Sarah Waters galley, The Paying Guests, and also the new Chris Bohjalian, Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands. What will you be reading while you, hopefully, lounge by the water?

John D. Rockefeller Speaks Out on the Amazon-Hachette Controversy

Kenny Brechner - July 17, 2014

With the Amazon and Hachette controversy in the forefront of many of our minds, it seemed wise to seek the opinion of someone who could offer a fresh view based on hard-won personal experience. Fortunately, John D. Rockefeller agreed to share his perspective here.
johndKenny: Hi John. I appreciate you taking time from your… retirement, to weigh in on on the current societal controversy regarding’s role in the economy and in the publishing world in particular.
John: It’s my pleasure, Kenny. Well overdue that someone took the time to make contact with me on this issue. Initiative is never without its reward, my man.
Kenny: Now some people have suggested that Jeff Bezos is out to make you look like a piker in the monopoly department.
John: That is a very foolish statement. Standard Oil was marked by honest, clearly stated aggression with clearly intended results. We sought to do our part in ridding the world of the evils of competition, and helping people to govern themselves more effectively by placing them in the rigid and rigorous structure  which mediocre individuals require to better themselves and perform on a higher level., on the other hand, seeks to extinguish competition through propaganda, pandering to weak human impulses to achieve an ignoble effect, and on cheap dissimulation.
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The Post-Privacy Era

Elizabeth Bluemle - July 15, 2014

George Orwell’s 1984 (Signet Classics)

“We had a strange phone call this morning,” said our staffer David as I walked in the door this morning. “Strange” is not generally a harbinger of good things, so I was alert. He continued, “A gentleman called and asked if our credit card machine stored information about his purchase, because he bought a book about Gatlinburg here, and a couple of days later, a tourism ad for Gatlinburg showed up on his phone. He was very upset.”
This was strange, certainly, but of course had nothing to do with our store. David had tried to reassure the caller by letting him know that our credit card machine, a stand-alone unit connected only to a power source and a telephone line, is essentially a magnet-stripe reader and a keypad. It is completely separate from our point-of-sale system computers. The only information that goes into it is the credit card swipe itself. Even if we’d wanted to violate our customers’ privacy in such a gross and unethical manner, it isn’t possible.
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