Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Before our traditional Chinese food...

If you're celebrating today, Merry Christmas.

I've been heartened again this year to see how many people, charged with the task of finding something to give someone, have chosen to seek books. For the past six weeks or so, our kids' section has been overstuffed with customers seeking childhood favorites, customers frantically texting to find out what the recipients have already read, and customers bringing their kids along to help choose gifts for themselves or for other kids in their lives. I imagine it was the same in all kinds of stores, but from my post, where shelves emptied so fast yesterday that I had to redefine "shelving" as "cascading," it looked like the bookstore was the place to be for the people of Brookline (and probably the people of Newton, the people of Boston, and the visiting relatives from all over).

I'm always especially impressed by the customers who are willing to commit to unfamiliar books based on our advice, especially when the gifts are gestures to kids they don't know well. These are the hardest questions, but they're also a chance to introduce new books, and my co-workers' and my favorites got handsold this season whenever appropriate questions came along. I hope that means a lot of kids are giving new authors a try this morning. (I suppose they can wait until tomorrow if today's a little busy.)

Have a wonderful day today, whatever that means for you.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

On needless words

Books and websites on writing tell you to cut, cut, cut. They tell you to ask yourself if each scene, each paragraph is necessary. Advice on writing for children warns against brick-sized manuscripts in tones implying that most writers are dying to indulge in thousands of words' worth of backstory and description. My sense from the above and from various conversations (most recently at a Kidlit Drink Night) is that it's a fairly common tendency, though the observation is obviously anecdotal.

I've never had this particular problem, and I have to admit, I find it a hard one to understand. Maybe it's because I've spent more time reading children's and YA books than adult books. Maybe its roots run deeper: my childhood difficulty with the motor skills involved in writing meant that my school compositions were short, sometimes too short. It's not that I've never written an extraneous sentence or started to explain something to the reader before I realized it was already obvious. But "writing too much" as a vice? That's a vice that takes a lot of work and a dedication that I can't help admiring, even as I value tight writing and showing over telling. Maybe, though, it's easier for some writers to get all their ideas out before they start chiseling; approaching writing that way could make it less intimidating. I imagine genre makes a difference, too. Fantasies, particularly those with extensive world-building, tend to be longer than realistic stories, and writers who are inclined to create whole worlds might also be inclined to spend a lot of words doing so.

Other writers (of fiction, nonfiction, or anything in between), I'm curious: Do you find it's easier to write too much or too little?

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Guys, I think this stuff might be... literature

It's not news that adults are reading YA. It's not even news that YA has gotten huge, that certain novels have changed the landscape and climbed the bestseller lists and that those novels have plenty of adults searching the YA shelves for read-alikes. Until recently, though, this sort of crossover has had the air of a guilty pleasure. That was certainly the case with Twilight, and adult customers looking for The Hunger Games, or looking for something similar to The Hunger Games, often shrug apologetically and say something to the effect of, "I know it's YA, but... I don't know... I like it."

There's been a shift, and its name is John Green.

I don't think anyone's been surprised to see The Fault in Our Stars on best-YA-novels-of-the-year lists
- an honor in itself, and a well-deserved one. But besides that, the book keeps appearing on general best-of-the-year lists, and yesterday, Time Magazine named it the best fiction book of the year.

Ours is an industry whose writers and editors have been asked for generations when they were going  to work on "real books." Somewhere in there, it became fathomable to consider a book for and about young people among those "real books." It's easy to lump all teenagers together and assume that they and the stories that interest them are only concerned with things that are irrelevant to adults, or to put a finer point on it, things that are beneath adults. But not all teenagers are thinking about the same things. Hazel and Augustus, facing mortality far too closely for people of their age, are concerned with how to make a life meaningful. I don't know about you, but I sure don't think that question is beneath me. And I'm pretty sure I'm a real adult, 'cause I cleaned an oven today.

Congratulations, John. Thanks for signing my copy of the best real book of the year.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

It's tip-o'-the-hat season!

Some people trim trees in December. In the children's lit business, we make lists. (Sometimes, those lists overlap, but there are good reasons for it when they do.) Here are a few, though certainly not the only, 2012 titles I enthusiastically recommend, loosely in order of target audience age.

The picture book I've handsold most obsessively this year is not actually a 2012 title, but it's one that's become much more available since its illustrator's death this year: A Very Special House, by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Maurice Sendak. I've enthused about it before, so I'll leave it at that.

More freshly minted is Z is for Moose, by Kelly Bingham, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky. The alphabet is a pretty predictable story, and most English-speaking three-year-olds know how it ends. But what if it were made unpredictable? What if there were a mistake young readers could identify in the very title of an alphabet book, and what if that book featured a character who, three-year-old-like, could hardly wait for his turn? Ladies and gentlemen, recovered from their tumble out of the coconut tree, it's the cast of Z is for Moose!

On a very different note, Unspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad, is the best case I can make for the use of picture books with older readers, or for the potential for wordless picture books to engender discussion. Customers who are teachers are very excited about this one, and so am I.

It's not easy to pull off an animal's voice without sounding gimmicky. Katherine Applegate's The One and Only Ivan, illustrated by Patricia Castelao, adapts an ambitious true story with decades of backstory and pulls it off. The story has a happy ending but not a perfect one, and the real Ivan's death at age 50 a few months after the book's release underscores the story's appreciation of reality.

Prince Charming seems like a pretty flat character in  most fairy tales, but in Christopher Healy's The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom, we learn that that title actually belongs to lots of different guys, who have lots of different personalities, as do their corresponding princesses. An excellent fairy tale de-flattening.

Jerry Spinelli is a master of using just enough magical realism to make his stories feel like they take place in a special world, while spending most of his focus on real people's feelings. In Jake and Lily, he uses dual point-of-view to showcase all the different kinds of feelings that come with being eleven.

A Wrinkle in Time is full of moments that take creativity just to visualize, right? Eisner winner Hope Larson does a great rendering of Madeline L'Engle's story, and makes Meg as awkward as she should be.

R.J. Palacio's Wonder would be a story worth reading even if it were just told from the point of view of the boy with a severe facial deformity attending a mainstream school for the first time. But just when we're lulled into thinking that will be the whole story, we start to get the points of view of others that Auggie's story affects. Yes, there are moments when the points of view become gimmicky, but overall, it's a powerful story, and I'm glad it's taken hold so strongly.

But even that isn't the best weepy of the year, not when there's See You at Harry's, by Jo Knowles, which is kind of about everything but mostly about lots of kinds of love. Come to think of it, I can say exactly the same thing about The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green. Read them both, and then let John and Hank make you laugh until you feel better.

Or just distract yourself with Code Name Verity, which is not a happy book, but which will blow you away for reasons I will not spoil.

Raina Telgemeier's Drama is on my to-read shelf, and I'm on the hold list for Lemony Snicket's Who Could That Be at This Hour? I have a sneaking suspicion I'll be singing the praises of both. The year ain't over, folks. Happy December.