Monthly Archives: December 2023

The Final ShelfTalker: An Interview with the Year 2024

Kenny Brechner - December 29, 2023

I approached the Glade of Years with a tang of melancholy in my heart.

Kenny: Hello there, Year 2024.

The Year 2024: Hello, Kenny.

Kenny: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us.

The Year 2024: Not so fast.

Kenny: Eh?

The Year 2024: I understand that this is the final ShelfTalker post ever. That its long run is coming to an end today.

Kenny: Yes. That is so.

The Year 2024: In that case, I’ll do the questioning here and interview you.

Kenny: What! Hold on a minute. A little warning would have been nice. You’ve caught me entirely flatfooted and unawares.

The Year 2024: Oh, come now. Chin up!

Kenny: Oh, all right!

The Year 2024: Now then, first things first. Is there anyone you want to thank or recognize?

Kenny: Well, certainly all the ShelfTalkers should be praised. In order of advent that would be Alison Morris, Josie Leavitt, Elizabeth Bluemle, myself, Leslie Hawkins, Meghan Goel, and Cynthia Compton.

The Year 2024: Well-spotted in recognizing your bookselling colleagues! But isn’t there a mighty figure who reigns in the shadows you want to thank?

Kenny: Well, yes I do. Diane Roback, PW’s Children’s Editor, is the creator, editor, and cheerleader of ShelfTalker. She’s the smartest person I know in the business, a person of vision and integrity, and a real pal. Diane deserves a giant dollop of thanks.

The Year 2024: Yes, I have heard nothing but praise of Diane from preceding Years. So, what has led up to this moment of finality?

Kenny: I would say that the pandemic was like a slow leak in an aging tire. Though I personally continued to fling a post up once a month, the regular practice of writing by the group never reanimated.

The Year 2024: I see. And how many posts were made during ShelfTalker’s 15 year run?

Kenny: 2693.

The Year 2024: Well! And what was the most read of any post?

Kenny: The runaway winner was The Real Reason Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Is Not Here Yet, which I wrote in 2017. One should note that it is still relevant as book three continues to be nowhere on the horizon and I don’t suppose you will have any news to share of it during your tenure.

The Year 2024: You are quite wrong about that. In fact, I can now reveal that book three, The Doors of Stone, is already here.

Kenny: What?!

The Year 2024: Yes. As I’m sure you know Rothfuss recently published a duplicative tidbit of a book, The Narrow Road Between Desires.

Kenny: Yes, though why it was published baffled me.

The Year 2024: Ah. Well, it will be revealed that every word of The Doors of Stone is present somewhere in The Narrow Road Between Desires. To read book three of the Kingkiller Trilogy all you have to do is unlock the complex secret algorithm used to shrink The Doors of Stone into the tiny new book and then reverse engineer it to read book three in full. So you can see that the long wait is over.

Kenny: That’s quite a sense of humor you are sporting, Year 2024.

The Year 2024: I’ll need it. And now, returning to ShelfTalker, how many posts did you personally produce?

Kenny: 354.

The Year 2024: Indeed!  And do you have a favorite?

Kenny: Not really a single favorite, though I do  have some favorites. For example, I think The Problem with Problems was the most important. The State of Maine’s Apology to Lev Grossman is a favorite. The interview with Gail Carson Levine’s Book Covers is a favorite interview.

The Year 2024: I see. I know you wrote a number of spoofs regarding Amazon. Do you have a favorite there?

Kenny: Sure, I’ll go with A Surprising Suitor for the Amazon Headquarters II.

The Year 2024: All right then. What about the fun contests you ran from time to time? I myself was tempted to enter them, but since I had foreknowledge of the results I restrained myself.

Kenny: Hmmm… I did love The Best Behaved Blurb contest, but my all-time favorite was The Valentine for Blobfish Contest and its charming Submissions Page.

The Year 2024: Ah, yes. You also wrote a bunch on free speech and even gave your reasons for resigning from the ABA Board in a post. Any thoughts there?

Kenny: Children’s books are filled with magical mirrors of dubious character and certainly the ABA’s continuing impulse to strongly defend the speech that they agree with and feel legitimated by the support of people who agree with them leaves them in the position of being a mirror image of everything they dislike. For example, they encouraged everyone to support the ALA’s Freedom to Read statement but, steeped in their well-established antipathy to the First Amendment, they are themselves at odds with all seven of the Freedom to Read Statement’s precepts. There is no end run around the First Amendment principle of tolerating speech we are offended by that doesn’t result in censorship, hypocrisy, and autocracy. We must criticize rather than suppress written works. The harm of censoring to protect from perceived harm only escalates into a kind of harmageddon.

The Year 2024: “Harmageddon,” eh? Did you make that up?

Kenny: I did. Don’t think about appropriating it.

The Year 2024: Ah, but as Gandalf said, “Do not tempt me! I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe, unused. The wish to wield it would be too great, for my strength. I shall have such need of it.”

Kenny: Fair enough. You do seem to be in for a rough ride. Can I ask you one thing?

The Year 2024: Sure. 

Kenny: Is there any book coming out in your year that provides a kind of counterbalance to all the travail you’ll be overseeing, Year 2024?

The Year 2024: There is, actually. Chris Raschka’s Tomorrow’s Lily. What a sweet, deep, healing book that is.

Kenny: Oh, that is a truly lovely book.

The Year 2024: Any last thoughts, Kenny?

Kenny: Presentism, the projection and superimposition of the present onto the past, is a form of narcissism that is fatal to literature. All books and their authors are creatures of a particular moment in time and each of them simultaneously adhere to and transcend aspects of their present. The flaws of a book or its author are aspects of a whole, a whole which also contains other, sometimes vitally important aspects. Books are vast interior spaces and their integrity is critical, a necessary constant in a world of variables. Defense of that integrity is crucial in order to safeguard the experiences of their readers from being made subject to autocratic suppression, the lethal hubris of presentism rooted in a mad belief that we, unlike every other generation who had the same false belief, have it right and are justified in expunging wrong from creative works.

Children’s books are the most magical portals of all, leading to enchanted schools, fabled sanctuaries, homes, friends, monsters, dangers—and other things a child, however challenging their circumstances, could desperately need. Children with terrible parents can be raised inside books. Children who can’t find hope anywhere else can find hope in their pages. Respect the power and the unique interplay of every child’s experience in the literary worlds we sell.

The Year 2024: Thanks, Kenny. Goodbye now!

Kenny: Goodbye, everyone!

Forever Shelf Talking

Alison Morris - December 28, 2023

ShelfTalker, PW’s blog written by booksellers, is ending its long and successful run at the end of the year. When Diane Roback invited me to come back and write a final ShelfTalker post I was immensely grateful. I was also stymied, because after 13 years of not blogging, there is so much I’d love to say!

At Diane’s invitation I originated this blog back in March of 2007, during the decade in which I was the children’s book buyer for Wellesley Booksmith (now Wellesley Books). In my first ShelfTalker post I mentioned my then boyfriend (graphic novelist Gareth Hinds) to whom I got engaged then married during the 3 years in which I contributed to the blog, and in 2010 we moved to NYC where I joined the editorial team at Scholastic Book Clubs – a job I was offered because folks there discovered my expertise and writing by way of this blog.

ShelfTalker gave me a national stage in the days before social media was (in theory) providing such opportunities to everyone. But having a TikTok, webcam, and understanding of algorithms is still not the same as working for a trusted institution that will back your expertise, hand you a pre-existing audience, give you an excellent editor, and (the biggest of all) pay you for your work. I’m forever grateful that Publishers Weekly (and specifically Diane) did those things for me. And I’m grateful they did them at a pivotal mid-point in my career – I was 30 years old, with 8 years of industry experience under my belt and the certainty that this – putting books in kids’ hands – would be a thing I’d want to do in perpetuity. 

After 3 years in NYC, Gareth and I moved to Washington, DC, where today I’m in my 11th year as the Senior Director of Title Selection at nonprofit First Book. I oversee the buying of children’s and young adult books for the First Book Marketplace, helping put millions of books each year into the hands of kids in need, and helping build new generations of readers, book lovers, and (hopefully also) future book world colleagues.

The amazing indie booksellers who’ve been “shelf talking” here over the years (the wonderful Elizabeth, Josie, Kenny, Cynthia, Leslie, and Meghan) are in the same important business of reaching readers. They’re also creating lasting relationships with their communities and building book-centered ecosystems that center the needs of local kids and local families. Their work continues to make a critical difference, and I’m grateful that ShelfTalker provided them a place to share sage insights, great ideas, and funny anecdotes with those of us who don’t stand face-to-face with customers each day.

I’m hopeful that the posts we’ve shared on ShelfTalker are a reminder that we all should make space in whatever ways we can for motivated early- and mid-career booksellers, librarians, and other industry professionals (in particular those from communities historically excluded from industry conversations) to have opportunities to share their ideas and opinions, expand their circle of industry connections, and learn from others. While ideally this means hiring them to do paid work (e.g. creating social media content for you or hosting online author events), it can also mean inviting them to cocktail parties, offering them free badges to conventions, arranging opportunities for them to Zoom with your editorial team or join your children’s book trivia team, or simply offering to talk with them about their jobs and the work they might want to do in the future. Actions like these help us continue to cultivate an industry of passionate and compassionate advocates for work that I think is more important and more impactful now than ever.

The children’s book industry has changed dramatically in the 16 years since ShelfTalker got its start, and so have the books themselves. Extensive efforts to diversify books and diversify publishing are creating what I truly believe is a golden age of children’s books – one in which kids across a broad spectrum of cultures, communities, identities, and experiences can now see themselves and their families reflected on the page and learn more about one another. My small team of buyers considers more than 10K new children’s and YA books each year from our 50+ publishing partners, and our task of choosing titles gets harder each year as the array of available books becomes more robust and more reflective of our world’s people and the very real needs of kids. To me that is the biggest, best thing I’ve seen happen to our industry in the past 16 years.

I think about that progress whenever I’m fretting about what our industry might look like 16 years from now. I am genuinely concerned about the impacts of book banning, advances in AI, publishing mergers, and the increasing pressures on (and lack of appreciation for) the hard work of thoughtfully creating, editing, choosing, and providing books to kids. Many of the most knowledgeable and experienced people in our industry are aging out, retiring early (not always by choice), and/or moving on. Meanwhile their mid-career colleagues are jumping ship because they’re overworked, underpaid, or (in the case of too many teachers, librarians, authors, and others) under threat. I worry about the expertise (or lack thereof) that’s left behind, and the impact it has on our long-term ability to meet kids’ needs. I also fret daily about the intentional erosion of public education in this country and what that means for book adoption by schools and libraries, for literacy rates nationwide, and (of course) democracy at large.

But we still have the books. I have not stopped (and will never stop) believing in the power of the book, and the printed book in particular. I still see how print books emanate their own tractor beam of interest (among kids fortunate enough to have them), through a technology that is great precisely BECAUSE it is designed to do just one thing and do it exceedingly well. We know books are like magic tickets to bearable bedtimes; tools that open doors, inform, educate, entertain, and provide escape – that introduce kids to ideas beyond their own and to people beyond their block, their school, their community, their country. 

When I was blogging for ShelfTalker people were predicting the end of the printed book, and they were dead wrong. The printed book is still alive – so much so that it’s now being treated like a snake in the Garden of Eden – something so alive that some want to cast it out for fear it might open kids’ eyes to reality. But reality is as beautiful and complicated and valuable now as it has ever been – and we need reality, honesty, truth to combat the falsehoods and false promises inherent to other forms of tech.

Whoever you are – whatever your role in this industry – please keep doing what you’re doing to create opportunities and access for kids to get their hands on books, so they discover art and words and stories and all of the good things that go hand-in-hand with those three critical elements of being human. Please also continue to pay humans to do what we do best – to empathize with one another and create art and words and stories that pull from that well of understanding. And please continue to support humans who are passionate about this work and eager to learn more, do more, connect more dots in this industry so we can continue to build, educate, inform, and inspire new generations.

To sustain this industry we have to plant the seeds of its future employees and the seeds of future authors and illustrators – the most capable of whom are not being made in a lab somewhere. They’re the ones sitting on a caregiver’s lap or curled up on a sofa, falling in love with a new favorite book.