In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Monday, December 23, 2013

One day more...

Dear Annie,

Ah, Isabel is having such a fascinating journey into the literary world.  I'm so glad Bone was a hit.  Also, I'd suggest checking out Marcia Williams' graphic novel retellings of classics: they're delightful.  There's also a whole world of early chapter-level graphic novel series: Babymouse, Squish (he's an amoeba), the Lunch Lady (she's a superhero), Pet Shop Private Eye (a guinea pig), and more, which I'll write about soon. 

Just one more shopping day until Christmas.  It's been crazy-busy, but also a lot of fun. One of the many interesting phenomena of this season is that adults seem much more adventurous when they choose books for kids.  I've sold more Thurber in the past week than in the last six months.  Ditto Mistress Masham's Repose  and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.  Yesterday someone bought The World is Round by Gertrude Stein (illustrated by the great Clement Hurd) for a ten year-old who hasn't yet found a book she really loves.  It's an odd, very Stein-ish book, with lots of circuitous sentences.  It could be a terrible choice for a reluctant ten year-old.  But then and again, it could be refreshing and different enough to change her whole attitude toward chapter books.  I hope I find out what she thought.

Two days ago I had a conversation straight out of this blog.  A mom talked about her five year-old who's very resistant to the idea of reading chapter books.  His eight year-old sister is a voracious reader and the mom suspects the younger brother is rejecting chapter books -- even before anyone has a chance to open them -- as a way to say I'm-not-my-sister.  Sound familiar?  I talked to her about Isabel and recommended a couple of books.  Then, as she made her way to the front of the store, the synapses connected: I grabbed Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle from the shelf and ran after her.  So we'll see what happens.

Then there are the Who Was... books that we've talked about.  Five new ones came out last week, an even odder-than-usual assortment: Frida Kahlo, Milton Hershey, Ernest Shackleton, Steven Spielberg and Laura Ingalls Wilder.  They sold out in two days.  The first to go was Milton Hershey -- go figure.  Which leads me to another lovely conversation of the past weeks.  A mom was talking about how much her son loves this series.  But he only likes the "outside people."  He sees the world of biography as comprising people who live their lives primarily either outdoors or indoors.  The presidents: not so good.  Davy Crockett: yes.  Steve Jobs: no.  Jane Goodall: yes.  In the list above, maybe Shackleton and Wilder are outside people?  His favorite, though, was very clear:

  Sacagawea, definitely an outside person.

Have a lovely Christmas out there in Illinois. 

Merry, merry,


Saturday, December 21, 2013

Give the people what they want

Dear Aunt Debbie,

In my continuing quest to find books with longer narratives that Isabel will tolerate having read to her, I have two more success stories -- or rather, one semi-success story on my terms, and what appears to be one slam-dunk on her terms.

The semi-success (which is also a HUGE success for Eleanor):
Eleanor has been reading another series by my friend and prolific YA and middle grade author Tui Sutherland, whose book The Menagerie was a hit in our house last summer. The series is called Pet Trouble, and each of the eight books follows a different kid in the same town. Each kid owns a dog who causes some kind of trouble: a golden retriever runs away, a beagle howls incredibly loudly, a poodle can't stop getting dirty.
Each book can stand alone as a story, but there are sightings of the dogs and characters from one book in other books, which makes for fun connection-spotting. Eleanor loves the dialogue, and finds the situations hysterically funny. There's a little bit of suspense, but the trouble of the title doesn't get too serious -- they're fun reads.

Isabel has always loved dogs, so I thought that Pet Trouble might work for her as an early chapter book read-aloud. We've been reading Mud-Puddle Poodle together this week (that's the book Eleanor is reading on her own in the picture above), and it's worked pretty well as a mutual read-aloud. The narrator, Rosie Sanchez, is a girly-girl who wants her new poodle to be clean and ladylike, but Buttons turns out to be obsessed with rolling in the mud, and doesn't want to be dressed up in doll clothes.  Rosie's four older brothers are at first dismayed by the cute little dog, but Buttons wins them over by being smart, energetic, cute, and a magnet for the girls who one of the brothers wants to attract. (Side note: as with The Menagerie, I appreciate here that Tui's main characters are a variety of races. Rosie and her family are Latino, which is both clear throughout and not made into a big deal at all.) Isabel loves the descriptions of Buttons's dog-play behavior:

She ran in big circles on the grass in front of us as we walked. The wind blew a leaf past her nose. With a ferocious yip, she pounced on it, then blinked in surprise when it didn't try to run away. She poked it with her little black nose, then looked up at me like, Did I win? Did I win?

Isabel said to me last night, "When you read it, it's like I can see the pictures in my head!" And I thought, yes! This is the revelation I've been hoping for!

But truth be told, even Buttons's antics don't make Isabel clamor to read a book without pictures.  So now we come to...

The slam-dunk (and one of your recommendations to me over Thanksgiving): 
Jeff Smith's Bone: Out From Boneville. This is an odd, wonderful series focused on the adventures of three small white bone-people: Fone Bone (the sweet hero), and his cousins Phoney Bone (the schemer who's always getting them into trouble) and Smiley Bone (the dim-witted, cheerful one). In Volume 1, the Bones are kicked out of their hometown of Boneville because of Phoney Bone's antics. They become separated in a desert, and Fone Bone finds himself in a valley populated by huge toothy rat-monsters (visually scary with hairy faces and red eyes, but made somewhat comic through their bickering over how they plan to cook Fone Bone for dinner). There are also kind possums, bugs shaped like leaves, a beautiful, kind human girl named Thorn, and her incredibly tough grandmother, Gran'ma Ben, who raises racing cows. And of course a big red dragon with furry ears who is protecting Fone Bone (no one knows why). I've only read the first book (there are nine, plus a couple of prequels and a connected series), but so far it is weird and wonderful. Rereading your description of Jeff Smith's appearance at the National Book Festival a few years ago, I like him even more.

Why on earth haven't I gotten graphic novels for Isabel earlier? I picked up Out From Boneville earlier today at the library, and gave it to Isabel to look at in the car as we drove up to my parents' place. She was immediately excited: "It has pictures on every page! Oh, thank you, Mommy!" By the time we got to the Upper West Side, she had looked through every page, and was already making up names for the characters. She was thrilled to have Jeff read it to her tonight, and warned him ahead of time that she knew there were going to be a few scary parts. She loves monsters. She loves pictures. She loves humor. We have a winner here.

I hope that business at the store is humming, with Christmas right around the corner, and look forward to hearing from you when you get a chance to breathe!

Love, Annie

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Bobbledy Books: the gift that keeps on arriving

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I love knowing that you're helping guide people's holiday shopping,and are so open to customers' great finds. Who Made This Cake? sounds like a fabulous book, especially for kids who are mesmerized by construction vehicles.

One of the fun things that's been happening here is that both Eleanor and Isabel are working on writing and illustrating books for a contest that's part of our favorite subscription series: Bobbledy Books. It's the creation of married couple Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr, founders of Idiots'Books (full disclosure: we went to college together). Our guest blogger Faith wrote here about Matthew and Robbi's first foray into children's literature: My Henderson Robot, which is a favorite in our house as well.

I bought the girls a subscription to Bobbledy Books last Christmas, and renewed it this year, as it's been a huge hit. Every couple of months, they get a new book in the mail (stories by Matthew, pictures by Robbi). It is enormous fun to get books in the mail. Way better than pulling out my New Yorker issue every week and getting me to explain what the cover is supposed to mean.

The books themselves are pleasantly loopy: a boy refuses to get out of bed and builds robots in his room to get him food (Bobby and the Robots), a dragon is told that he's not real, and has an existential crisis before realizing his importance to the town around him (The Imaginary Dragon), a girl with an enormous head eats a lot of lollipops and grows other enormous body parts, one at a time, allowing her to develop a variety of special abilities (Henny Wampum Had a Really Big Head). 

When this last one arrived, Eleanor grabbed it, sat down on the couch, and read it straight through. Then Isabel asked me to read it to her three times in a row. I think it may be the next book she memorizes. Once a year, the subscription includes a CD of new children's music by Drew Bunting (another college classmate). The girls' favorite songs from the first album, "I Don't Wanna Brush My Teeth," include "Where Does It Go?" (an imaginative answer to the very good question about toilets) and "Mothra," which appeals particularly to Isabel, with her current penchant for monsters. 

Once a year, Matthew and Robbi send out a book with a title, text on a few pages, and a little bit of art on each page, for subscribers to finish. One kid's completed book is chosen to be published; all kids who enter get their names and one drawing from their book printed in the back of the winning book.The due date for this year's entries -- The Snowmen Below -- is Dec. 15 so the girls are working on finishing theirs this week. (Unfortunately, I seem to have passed on my tendency toward procrastination.)

A good Christmas gift, for those who are looking!

Love, Annie

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Bookselling symbiosis

Dear Annie,

We had such a lovely time seeing you and the extended family over Thanksgiving!  A crowd of mostly-related-to-each-other people, mixed with a few newcomers from distant shores: it was excellent.

Your last post brought one of my regular customers into the store looking for Global Babies.  She got it, and another wonderful photo board book which is going to appear under your tree this Christmas: My Face Book. It's from Star Bright Books, publishers of Eating the Rainbow, and stands out for at least two excellent reasons.  First, it's the only book in this genre that I know with a majority of non-white faces.  And one of the smiling babies is a child with Down syndrome.

This time of year of course brings more people into the store, some of whom I see only once a year.  One of the things that gives the book section its character is the constant input from customers.  Some of the best and most off-the-radar books I carry were introduced to me by customers. 

Who Made This Cake?
This week, a woman came to the store looking for Who Made This Cake? by Chihiro Nakagawa.  I was unfamiliar with it and offered to special-order the book for her.  She described the delightful plot to me: a mother leaves various ingredients on a table and then leaves the house with her child.  About 100 tiny people swarm over a group of construction vehicles, fire them up, and create a cake.  They mix:
 They bake, then bring on the decorations:
And a helicopter adds the final touch:
The book ends with a family birthday celebration; the little people are nowhere to be seen.

I was entranced by her description.  She asked me to order it for her, and another mom who had been browsing piped up and asked me to get one for her too.  And of course I ordered a copy for the store.  It was a perfect example of how a neighborhood store and and the people who shop in it build something special.  Made me happy.



Sunday, December 1, 2013

Global babies

Dear Aunt Debbie,

What a pleasure it was to see you and Bob for Thanksgiving, and to gather around our packed tables with family and friends!

As you saw on Thursday, Will has reached a couple of book milestones: understanding he now has the ability to pull books off of low bookshelves onto the floor, and reaching consciously for board books illustrated with pictures of babies.  He's not quite able to turn the pages yet, but he can open and close a book when I hold it, and pats the faces of babies with great glee.  We've written before about great baby-picture board books: cute baby facesbabies and animalsbabies and food, more babies and food, and baby signs.

Two of Will's favorites which we haven't yet covered are multicultural treasure troves:

Global Babies contains text in English and Spanish, stressing how much babies everywhere are alike, and how all are loved. Global Fund for Children is listed as the author, and the book does have a little bit of a written-by-a-nonprofit, not an author vibe, but the pictures (by Keren Su and Frans Lemmens) are lovely. Each page is labeled with the baby's country of origin, and there's a lot of traditional-looking baby garb. Many skin colors, many expressions, some very sweet sleeping babies.

Then there's My Teeth, by Richard and Michele Steckel. It's another simple premise: each page has a picture of a baby (again labeled with country of origin) smiling to show off an ascending number of teeth, from "No teeth (South Africa)" to "10 teeth (Belize)."  The last two pages are "Bite! (Turkey)" and "Let's brush! (Ireland). Will, who at the moment has three teeth, is impressed.

Sandra Boynton's Doggies is another big favorite -- I'll keep you posted on where we go from here.

Love, Annie