Thursday, June 30, 2011

"Squee!" said the Anne-girl fangirl.

For the past decade or so, every visit to a used bookstore included a check for L.M. Montgomery's journals. Various articles had indicated that the journals would shed light on the novels I'd read so many times in adolescence, but they weren't easy to find. Until now. A co-worker let it slip at a party that she admires LMM and... has her first journal, which she has graciously loaned to me, and which I've almost finished reading. (If you know of any major revelations near the end, don't tell me!)

Reading Maud's detailed narration of her life, starting at fourteen, is like discovering a new Anne or Emily. Some passages are lifted verbatim or near-verbatim, which wasn't a huge surprise, but the general tone is even more fun to discover. Schoolroom dramas are simultaneously comedies and tragedies to her, or start as one but become the other, just as it is with her characters. It's heartening to see how well the adult LMM captured her teenaged tone.

Then there's the stuff that Anne, Emily, and her other characters never dreamed of, even if they were a little unconventional. I'd been aware that the later volumes, after her marriage, contained some thoughts darker than those expressed in her books, but in this first one, there are things LMM does, considers doing, and desires strongly to do that I doubt she could ever have mentioned in a novel intended for young ladies. The guilt she feels about it, though, is akin to what I'm sure her heroines would have felt in the same situations.

And in between, she thrills over the beauty of nature the same way Anne and Emily do--the same way that, fifteen years ago or so, inspired me to be obsessed with the sky.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Beyond Buenas noches, luna

I was approached recently by an English-speaking customer who was the mom or guardian to a little girl who knew some Spanish. The customer was eager to help the child keep her Spanish up, and asked me if I knew of any "classics that every kid should read" in the Spanish-speaking world. I had to tell her that I wasn't sure. Our store carries translated versions of some English-language picture books, and a Google search brought up some Spanish-language nursery rhymes, i.e. "Arroz con leche" ("rice with milk"). But classic bedtime stories? The question would probably have been easy for someone who grew up in a Spanish-speaking culture, but I had no idea.

What are some equivalents of Goodnight Moon, The Cat in the Hat, and Curious George in Spanish-speaking countries? I imagine it varies by country; though American kids' reading certainly has some intersection with that of British kids, Australian kids, Canadian kids, etc., I'm told that Enid Blyton, for instance, is much bigger elsewhere in the English-speaking world than she is here.

In fact, I'm curious now about what the children's classics are all over the world. Do most cultures have some kind of children's canon? Do oral stories fill this role in some countries? Is that only the case in countries where literacy rates are low and/or books are difficult to afford?

A few stories do reach us, obviously; a Hebrew-speaking customer yesterday asked the name of "the most famous Swedish children's books," and Pippi Longstocking was an easy answer from my American frame of reference. But what about the stories that never get translated or don't become mainstream in this country? What are we missing out on?

If you're familiar with children's classics from another culture, I'd love to hear about it.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

"Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again." -C.S. Lewis

The last post I wrote was for Father's Day. This year, the events of Father's Day turned my family's focus to our grandfather, who passed away peacefully in his sleep.

Dr. Jay Stern (1929-2011) created hilarious fractured fairy tales for his family, as I've mentioned before. More than that, I think he shared my view (or I shared his) that life is a story worth telling. He knew the personality nuances of the characters around him, and learned what he could about those who came before him, filling something like sixteen binders with research on our family history.

He was obsessed with language, and those of you who know me can blame my love of puns on him. Though English was his first language, he knew and loved Hebrew well enough to make puns out of it on his hospital bed.

Literature has certain conventions for grandfathers and older male characters in general. My grandfather was a bit of a Dumbledore - not in the wand-waving, but in the quiet observation and planning, the scholarly ethic, the strong convictions, the winking humor.

He'll be a major character in our family stories for years and decades to come. I hope we can do him justice.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

"Some daddies teach you how to walk."

To landlord dads taking their Clementines' advice on pigeon problems and professor dads taking their Anastasias to class...

To dads who will exchange Knuffle Bunnies immediately when their Trixies don't understand what "2:30 a.m." means...

To Mitchell's car dad...

To Domingo Montoya, who created a six-fingered sword and still found time to be a loving, lifelong-vengeance-quest-worthy dad...

To dads who can always find answers to their Alices' questions, even the ones about "sexual intercourse..."

To Pas who put happy memories into a hard life on the prairie...

To Daddies with roommates and Daddies with no mates...

To dads who know kids come cheaper by the dozen but still treat them like they're worth plenty...

To Papas who'll put down the ax if their Ferns are ready to raise a pig...

To you all...

Happy Father's Day.

(Cribbed freely from here.)

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

In with the new, until it's out

So dystopias are the new vampires, which were the new wizards, unless the new wizards were Greek gods. (Roman and Egyptian gods are the new Greek gods.) Mermaids would be the new angels, except that they probably hope to do better than angels, which were supposed to be the new vampires. Fairies and faeries look like they might be the next mermaids, unless witches fly faster. For the picture book set, penguins were the new pirates, bunnies are back, and trucks never left. If any of the above has a head that can spin, I'm sure it's doing so.

None of these ideas are completely new, and many of the fantastical ones work best when they reimagine established folklore. That recognizability makes it easy to find a book that appeals; if you're old enough to read a vampire book, you most likely know already what a vampire is. Once you've discovered one book you like, trends also provide easy answers to the question, "What should I read next?" Since young readers tend to love familiarity, there's no reason to mess with something that works.

But what about the kids for whom the trend doesn't work? Many kids and teens do love fantasy, and yes, its ubiquity has probably created a number of fans (the degree to which entertainment creates taste, as a certain visible article suggested recently, is a subject for another post). But customers do also ask for realistic fiction. There's plenty for first chapter readers, and for older ones, there's the parallel trend of "books like Wimpy Kid," and there are--gasp--books that have been around for a few years. Beyond that, there are definitely options, just... not so many.

I just hope good realistic fiction--the funny, the serious, the sweet, the scandalous, and everything in between--isn't being passed over just because humans aren't supposed to be the new mermaids.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Kerfuffle! Kerfuffle!

Much has been said about this article, which bemoans the darkness that has taken over the YA genre. The article has some grounding in truth, but it's a bit exaggerated, both in the idea that the trend is new and in the claim that there's nothing out there for teens who would rather read something happier. I get those requests all the time around the YA shelves, along with nephew-who-just-lost-his-mom-and-could-really-use-a-good-laugh requests. I point those customers toward My Most Excellent Year. I point them toward John Green's work, with the caveat that although there's more to it than sadness, Looking for Alaska might be best saved for another day. I point them toward graphica and semi-graphica like Smile and The Accidental Genius of Weasel High.

But there's a lot to be said for escapism to the dark side. Teens know it, and adults seem to know it, too. When I see a solo adult looking a little lost in the YA section, maybe a little embarrassed to be there, I almost know before asking that he or she seeks The Hunger Games. (Twilight's been out long enough that most customers seem to know where to find it, but it too brings more than its share of adult readers our way.)

And of course, dark YA doesn't just exist for escapism. Rape and suicide and other "dark, dark stuff" does happen to teens and to people who are close to teens, and reading a story from a peer's point of view about a difficult topic is a safe way to learn about it, contemplate it, and feel less alone. (What constitutes "dark," anyway? Are sex and sexuality dark?) As the response campaign says so earnestly, YA saves.

In the past year, we've had major, somewhat manufactured controversies about picture books and YA novels. Is middle-grade next?

No one tell the press how Charlotte's Web ends.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

No piazzas were harmed in the writing of this post.

Even in the most fictional of stories, the setting is allowed to be unabashedly real. The Boston Public Garden is unlikely to sue Robert McCloskey for defamation by duckling, and Ludwig Bemelmans needn't worry that the city of Paris will object to his portrayal of its hospital ceilings as cracked. That means readers get to recognize places they know, which adds some automatic interest to stories. Try reading Make Way for Ducklings to a classroom full of young Bostonians some time.

My parents came to visit today, fresh from their long-anticipated vacation in Italy. They saw places they'd heard about and read about, and the two young Olivia Goes to Venice fans in my care will soon be receiving postcards of locations shown in the book, lovingly chosen by my mother, who read everything from Strega Nona to Angels and Demons in preparation for the trip. I expect that there will be cross-referencing of postcards to illustrations.

I've mentioned before that I'm more of a character reader than a setting reader. It was, therefore, fun for me to receive a book featuring very familiar characters.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Indies' times of sharing...

It's not surprising that a study found Cambridge, MA to be the most "well-read" city (in America, I'm assuming, since all the cities on the list are American). Cambridge has Harvard. It has MIT. It has a lot of people who just really love books. But think about who conducted this study and what data it used. Here, "well-read" means "in possession of, or having given gifts of, reading materials purchased on Amazon."

Here's the thing: Cambridge has no shortage of independent bookstores, and it also has plenty of libraries. I don't have the sales or circulation figures for these institutions, but I know they're still there and still vibrant places. That's not to say that all the new technology in the industry isn't taking a bite, and some stores and libraries certainly have felt it. (Even in Cambridge.) But I think we can coexist.

Lots of customers will come to our Brookline store before looking online. Some of them need the book right away, some want to support us, and some just love browsing. If we don't have what they need, we encourage them to order it through us. But if they choose not to, we've just lost a sale, not a customer. It's on that assumption that I'll continue to give book advice even when it's become clear that the book will probably be purchased elsewhere.

Most customers are going to make plenty of book purchases in their lives. As in any industry, it's easy to look at the competition with an "us versus them" mentality, but to customers, every purchase comes with a set of options. There are lots of places to obtain books, and that's because books are worth obtaining.