War Stories

My grandfather, after he retired from the Army Corps of Engineers, taught military history for a number of years, and by the time I was born he’d amassed a small library’s worth of books and then some. I was twelve when I pulled Bill Mauldin’s Up Front off the shelf. It’s a tidy volume bound in brown cloth, filled with single-panel cartoons depicting infantry life in World War II alongside Mauldin’s prose notes on the subject. It’s a funny, dark, straightforward book that’s frequently described as “grim” in reviews and commentary. I’ve loved it since I first read it through.

There are lots of topics that are off-limits when you’re writing for kids. Books, movies, music, whatever it is, there are things we’re comfortable with kids exploring and things we’re not. Sex, torture, gleeful violence, sexual violence–they’re all out-of-bounds up to the age of sixteen or so. Kids should learn about the world, we say, and about other people, but not too much. Not too fast. We introduce death slowly, and we argue when we do about whether we did the right thing.

Which is why I’m fascinated by our enthusiasm for kids playing at war.

Girls dress up as Katniss Everdeen for Halloween and parents are thrilled that they have such an empowering costume available to them. Since 1977, thousands of children have played Rebels and Empire in their backyards with cheerful abandon. Even that simplest of card games, the one you learn to while away a long wait at the doctor’s office, is called War.

We’re (thank goodness) no longer happy to have boys with BB guns running around the neighborhood shooting at each other with only a metal-bucket helmet for protection. Elementary school playgrounds ban sword fights with sticks. But once we take away the genuine danger of child-size weapons, we’ve decided that other parts of war–the maneuvering, the rhetoric, and yes, the fighting and the dying, if it’s clean enough or heroic enough–are all fair game.

What do we see in war that makes us say, yes, this is child’s play? It certainly isn’t the horrific bombings, casual murder, frequent boredom, civilian deaths, or exhausting uncertainty. It isn’t body parts hanging from shattered tree limbs or children, real children, reenacting the way their best friend died; we don’t give kids All Quiet on the Western Front or Syrian Dust and say, here, blueprints for your next game. But once you’ve taken the hard parts out, what exactly is it that we think is left?

You draw a card, and I draw a card. One of them is numerically superior to the other, and so the losing card is ceded and absorbed into the winner’s forces. We draw, and we come up even, and thus results not just a skirmish, but a battle, wherein we bet the fate of three cards on the power of one. I lose, and you absorb my losses into your deck.

It’s a pleasant game. Polite. Unambiguous. In each round there are winners and losers, and sometimes we are one and sometimes we are the other. Losses may well be won back again. The forces are interchangeable, and we almost never play to the drawn-out end. It’s all very civilized.

We play at war, kids and adults who have never in our lives seen a battlefield except when the cannons are plugged with cement. Assuming we have even an inkling of what we’re doing, it must take a special kind of mental gymnastics to focus on the parts we find interesting or exciting and box up the deaths and dismemberings on the shelf labeled non-threatening ideas for the moment. It’s a very particular kind of deception.

I’m not sure it’s a bad thing, as long as we know that we’re lying to ourselves.

War happens. We can’t pretend that it doesn’t or wish it away. At the same time, though, most of us don’t want to go looking for it, and we sure as hell don’t want to help it along. Our best bet, then, is to borrow from Sun Tzu: know your enemy. That means trying to understand war as best we can, even those of us who by accidents of time and place haven’t at this point in our lives heard our friends die beside us or seen the aftermath of a bombing up close.

What we have to go on is stories, the true and the fictional. We read histories, watch dramatizations, and listen to first-hand accounts, and yes, as kids we play these out with our toy soldiers the same way we play house or play funeral. Stories and games are ways we make sense of incomprehensible things like adulthood, like death, like thousands and sometimes millions of people killing each other as fast as energy and ingenuity will let them, like physics and astronomy and entropy.

It’s worth doing. We just have to remember that it’s an inexact attempt at best.

Lucky for us.

Up Front, in case this wasn’t clear, isn’t a book for kids. At all. But there are other books that are, some of them excellent. Nathan Hale’s Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood is a nonfiction graphic novel about World War I. Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki is a picture book about Japanese-American families interned in Idaho during World War II. I’ve previously mentioned Number the Stars.

My grandfather, who spent twenty years in the Army, who never once spoke about his combat experiences in Vietnam when he knew I could hear him, kept his copy of Up Front when he and my grandmother moved to their retirement community and left most of their library with my parents. My grandmother gave it to me when he died.

Folded inside the book is a Life magazine article Mauldin wrote about the 1945 American Legion convention. I don’t know for sure that my grandfather was the person who clipped it; the book has a $1.00 price scribbled inside the cover in pencil, suggesting that it was purchased used, but the arrangement of staples on the article inside looks to me like Grandpa’s doing. He would have been eighteen at the time.

In any case, the article begins on page 38. Page 37, on the flip side, is a full-page black-and-white photograph: “U.S. BOMBERS THAT SCOURGED GERMANY ARE LINED UP FOR SCRAP PILE AT WALNUT RIDGE, ARK.” That war, at least, was over.

Who Would You Want To Be?

Wolfie the Bunny coverIf you haven’t read Wolfie the Bunny, you’re in for a treat. It’s a bright yellow picture book about a family of rabbits that takes in a baby wolf they find in a basket on their front porch. The parents are immediately infatuated with baby Wolfie; the daughter, Dot, is much more suspicious. It’s a sweet book that includes, among other things, repeated threats of homicide.

It’s one of my favorite books to read aloud to a group. Older kids love it as much as younger ones. There’s humor, action, and a bold illustration style that plays well to a room.

And when the projector won’t start and you need to stall, it’s a tremendously fun book with which to ask a group of second graders: Which character would you want to be?

It’s always an interesting question to consider, in books for both kids and adults, because it can be a tricky one. Do you decide based on the character’s history? Their skills and interests? The people they surround themselves with? The place they live? And what about disqualifying factors? Maybe you really love a character and they’re good at something you’ve always wanted to try, but you can’t stomach the way they treat someone else. Or you share a character’s passion for music and get very excited about the way she talks about it, but you have to balance that with the fact that she spends much of the novel in the hospital, and you’re deathly afraid of needles. It’s a strange thing to think about, borrowing an entire existence in one go.

So I asked these kids about Wolfie the Bunny. The conversation went like this.

CAP: Which character would you want to be? Go ahead, shout it out. (They did. Some of them yelled “Wolfie!” and some of them yelled “Dot!”) Okay, show of hands, who would want to be Dot?

(All of the girls raised their hands.)

CAP: And who would want to be Wolfie?

(All of the boys raised their hands. I wasn’t totally surprised, but I was a little disappointed, so I nodded like that answered the question and switched topics entirely.)

CAP: Okay, shout it out, who do you think is the bravest character in the book?

KIDS (gleefully): Dot!!

CAP: What makes her brave?

(They raised their hands and gave me a bunch of really good answers here—she stood up to a bear even though he could eat her, she told her parents what she thought even though they didn’t agree, etc.)

CAP: Okay, wait, I’ve forgotten, who did you say you wanted to be? Shout it out.

And here this hilarious thing happened, where all of the girls—and some of the boys—shouted “Dot!” with great enthusiasm, and several of the boys shouted “Wolfie!” with equal enthusiasm, and about a dozen of the remaining boys sat there with their mouths half-open, unable to decide. You could watch the gears turning behind their eyes. Some of them mumbled “Wolfie” a beat behind everyone else, and some of them said “Dot,” and some of them didn’t say anything at all.

I asked a different question, and we moved right along, and eventually the projector was fixed and the presentation went on as scheduled.

Who would you want to be? It’s a game, an idle one with no winners or losers. Try these lives on for size and see if one of them fits. No winners and no losers, but that doesn’t mean you won’t find yourself unexpectedly discomfited when the person whose life intrigues you most doesn’t look, talk, think, or act like you. You like people across a range of genders and they only like girls, and you have to wrap your head around how that matters to you. They have all of the skills you covet, but they also have a terrible singing voice, and singing is the primary thing in your life after food and water. They have blond hair and you like your brown hair; is that a sticking point for you? Do you find yourself trying to squish and twist the text to accommodate the parts of yourself you can’t give up, or are you willing to stretch yourself instead?

Plenty of people have already talked about how good it is for us to get outside of ourselves like that sometimes, and how important it is to tell a broad swath of stories because of that. We repeat aphorisms on the subject from Atticus Finch, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Abraham Lincoln. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story” is my favorite examination of the subject; she’s compassionate and needle-sharp at once.

What’s interesting to me about the who-would-you-want-to-be game that’s a little different from the diversity, inclusivity, etc. discussion is the limited circumstances the game places in front of you. Who would you want to be in this story? You can be a sweet wolf or a brave bunny (or, I guess, a homicidal bear), but in Wolfie the Bunny you can’t decide to be a sweet bunny or a brave wolf, because we don’t meet anyone like that on the page. Sure, Dot has her moments of empathy, and Wolfie has his moments of determination, and we can go searching those out. We hope that characters show nuance even in picture books. Still, no matter how nuanced, each character is given a specific set of circumstances and actions, and nothing else; and we have to decide exactly how far we can see ourselves going along with them.

In a limited field of options, we may sometimes get lucky and find our dream selves exactly center on the page, but much more often, what we’re going to have to decide is, which of these lives fits well enough?

That question demands not only empathy but an active choice to reconcile ourselves to imperfection. Our answer requires us to ask, will I stand by this character’s decisions even if I don’t agree with them all the time? Even if I don’t love them, even if they’re someone I wouldn’t get along with in real life? Even if I wouldn’t really want to be this person if I could help it? In this specific context, we ask ourselves, can I understand them, and perhaps admire them, enough?

You’re a boy, and you identify with Wolfie in that regard; and you want to be brave, so you identify with Dot. Now choose between the two. It’s artificial. It’s mind-bending. It’s often uncomfortable. And then you reach the end of the book, and you’re back in your very own skin, in your very own life, and the choices in front of you still aren’t perfect. They never are. We tell our kids that you can grow up to be whatever you want to be with hard work, talent, determination, pick your poison, but we can recognize in our own lives that that’s simply not true. I will never have the lungs to run a marathon no matter how hard I train; I am not wired to teach in a public school classroom; I will never work in Mission Control on a NASA mission to the moon because we don’t do that these days, and so I made different choices in high school and then in college, and now I’m here instead of somewhere else. I’m as happy as anyone can be right now and wouldn’t trade my life for all the moon landings in the solar system, though that, too, is partly a matter of chance, and anything can change.

The choices in front of us aren’t perfect, and they’re limited in scope no matter who you are; but that’s neither a good nor a bad thing. It just is. (The fact that some people face more limits than others because of the way society is structured is, as always, a point worth taking note of, and it can absolutely be a bad thing.) Our lives are messier and more complicated than any book we’ll ever read—Wolfie the Bunny or War and Peace—and stories are both how we make sense of the chaos and how we practice the decisions we may need to make.

Who would you be in this story? It’s a game.

It doesn’t mean anything unless you want it to.

Happy Independent Bookstore Day!

To celebrate, here are three things I love about working as a bookseller at an independent store:

  1. There’s always something new to learn. Each of us on staff has a few specialties, and then sometimes we just have to fill in a gap to get something done. This week I listened to one of my coworkers explain how mosques and cathedrals were built in Spain and also started learning to code. I love my job.
  2. I’m frequently proven wrong in a very good way. I wrote earlier this week about how there’s a bit of a stigma attached to grown-ups reading young adult fiction, and then yesterday I had a lovely adult customer who lit up like a Christmas tree when I asked if I could give her a YA recommendation as well as adult fiction ones. Bone Gap has a new home, and, okay, one interaction doesn’t negate the previous ones, but it’s a nice reminder to keep expanding my perspective as new information comes in.
  3. Kids. Always the kids. We met a three-year-old girl this week who was very quiet but super happy about the book about space she came in for with her mom. Jupiter is her favorite planet because of the big red spot that’s actually a storm; she asked me lots of questions about gravity; and when one of the other booksellers asked if she was going to go into space herself one day, she nodded vigorously. And then the next evening there was a kindergartener who chatted with me enthusiastically about black bears while I rang up his family’s books and then spontaneously reached over the counter for a high-five before he left with his mom. It’s been a good week.

So, whether you’ll be visiting a bookstore or not, have a lovely Independent Bookstore Day! If you do drop in to see us, we’ll be happy to say hey. And never forget: Jupiter’s Great Red Spot rotates counterclockwise, and black bears fish for salmon too even though we associate that with grizzlies.

Man, I love my job.

Spoiler Alert: I Like Young Adult Fiction

So I’m not really sure how it happened, but we seem to have decided as a society that young adult books aren’t real books.

That’s the conclusion I have to draw from two separate conversations I’ve overheard this week, one at the bookstore and one at one of my other jobs, which included variations on “I mean, it’s YA, but it’s not really YA, because it’s good.” One was at meeting of a book club, in reference to The Giver; I don’t know what the other comment was about.

I wasn’t technically part of either conversation–hazards of the service industry–so I didn’t get to do what I wanted to do, which was to ask (politely) for the speakers to clarify what they meant by a book not really being YA if it was good. Can kids’ books be good under that definition? What qualifies as YA? And why on earth are we so squeamish, as adults, about admitting that we sometimes read books for which teenagers are the target audience?

Quite aside from our rather bizarre hypocrisy of collectively expecting adults in the entertainment industry (and elsewhere) to look like teenagers when we apparently otherwise hold said teenagers in some contempt, I’m curious about what it is we object to about YA. I mean, I’m assuming that a lot of you who have read this far don’t object to it at all, but we’re a self-selecting sample. A larger (though similarly self-selecting) sample of librarians, booksellers, and authors I’ve worked or spoken with have related frequent anecdotes about being taken less seriously when they discuss YA than when they talk about either children’s or adult books. I can certainly say that I’ve had very few adult customers show any compunctions about purchasing children’s books to read themselves, but even some of my regular customers remain embarrassed when they buy Shadowshaper or Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda for themselves.

Don’t get me wrong; when Twilight gets as much attention as it has, and when it then spawns not only a movie franchise but the surreal cultural phenomenon that is 50 Shades of Gray, I can understand that you might not have gotten the best first impression of young adult fiction. Maybe you’re also skeptical of the hoopla surrounding The Hunger Games and Harry Potter–I’d consider the last three books in that series to be YA–or have heard way too many people talking about love triangles and Manic Pixie Dream Girls in relation to stories for teenagers and are feeling a little burned out.

It’s curious to me, though, that the people I’ve overheard aren’t rejecting vampire books (the book club that appreciated The Giver is quite enthusiastic about non-Twilight vampires) or dystopias (witness the current popularity of The Handmaid’s Tale, Brave New World, and 1984), or even genre fiction in general. They’re rejecting all literature written for young adults. Genre fiction, realistic fiction, humor, if it’s written with teenagers in mind, it’s out.

Notably, the three dystopian classics I just listed are all frequently read or taught in high school. We consider them eminently suitable for young adult audiences. But where I have no problems selling 1984 to a forty-five-year-old father of two, I find that the suggestion that they check out Little Brother by Cory Doctorow is met with blank stares, even though I would consider the two books to be comparably subtle (so, not especially, but there’s definitely a time and a place where that works well), and even though Little Brother is in fact free to read online if anyone’s interested.

Is it about the age of the main characters? But I’m not alone in loving To Kill a Mockingbird and City of Thieves, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime is popular in multiple adaptations. And The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds is a solid example of a young adult novel in which the protagonist essentially functions as an adult, with jobs, grief, relationships, and looking after family the primary concerns.

Is it the lack of graphic sex and violence? I’d like to direct you here to the massive cultural obsession with Jane Austen, who relates very little sex or violence indeed, and the fact that I Am the Messenger and The Female of the Species are considered YA even with scenes of violence and sexual content that are as explicit as most literary fiction and sometimes more so.

I don’t have an answer here. I don’t know why some of us who work extensively with young adult fiction have run into skepticism, or why I keep hearing these kinds of comments, some of which customers say to my face as if I’ll undoubtedly agree. I don’t know why I’ve seen people who are clearly engrossed in March put it down when they find out it’s won YA honors. (We shelve it with adult books now and it does well.)

But I want to add on something that may or may not be a counterpoint to everything I’ve said so far: The Book Thief, which was originally published as an adult novel with a young narrator, is now frequently shelved in YA. I almost never have to hand-sell it; both adults and teenagers pick it up off the shelf without a word from me. Adults will sometimes ask where they can find it. The same is true of The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros: it’s shelved in both YA and adult, because that’s where people look for it, and adults are quite happy to pick it up from the YA shelves.

There’s nothing that makes The Book Thief and The House on Mango Street more or less literary than, say, The Hate U Give. All are beautifully-written stories of vital, deeply human characters with much to say about wider society. The difference is in how we talk about them. We talk about The Book Thief and The House on Mango Street as books worth reading on their own merits. We celebrate the act of reading them rather than shaming each other or ourselves for it.

We can do that with more books, if we choose to. I’m starting to see it already with The Hate U Give, for which probably half my customers have been adults buying for themselves.

The Hunger Games still doesn’t have to be your cup of tea. It really isn’t mine. But we get to decide whether we dislike something for what it is, or whether we dislike it because we hold people who like it in contempt. You might notice that I’m heavily biased towards the former.

We decide what we take seriously. We decide what we let ourselves explore and what we let ourselves delight in.

Lucky us.

How To Judge a Book By Its Cover, Part 2

Okay, in Part 1, we talked about a cover that works really, really well: the hardback jacket of The Hate U Give. That cover is a great way to meet the book and takes on additional depth as you read. It’s also really beautiful.

What about a cover that’s kind of terrible?

Take Ella Enchanted. This is a book I love that has several different paperback covers, so it’s a little miniature case study in itself. The paperback I have, copyright 1997, does its job. It suggests, at least to me, a story with a fairy-tale element that is focused on its protagonist rather than on the quirks of its setting. Like The Hate U Give, it centers its main character on the cover; the girl on Ella Enchanted is painted in a more portrait-like style suggesting an indeterminate historical time period, but she’s still not quite photorealistic. Check, check, and check; I’d consider this a useful depiction of the book, even if the Ella on the cover turns out not to have many features in common with Ella the protagonist.

Ella Enchanted cover 1

Now do your impression of this book a deep disservice by doing a search for the two more recent paperback covers, the ones that mostly come up when you just look for the title.

There are flourishes. There are sparkles. One has the uncanny, faintly cartoonish style that’s inexplicably very popular with children’s fantasy publishers at the moment; the other has lurid magenta faux-embossing and a photograph of a girl who definitely doesn’t look old enough to be the protagonist.

Contrast the 1997 paperback with the others, and tell me: which do you think is going to be most appealing for a kid looking for a straightforward, adventurous, somewhat awkward main character whose primary concern isn’t romance but breaking herself free of a curse that’s sometimes inconvenient and sometimes dangerous? Which do you think looks most apt for the seventh-grade reader who I’d say is the target audience?

Ella Enchanted is a book I love, and frequently it’s a book that my customers love once I can convince them that the sparkles aren’t the whole story, but I can’t tell you how many kids have told me after reading it, “You were right, it’s not like I was expecting from the cover! It was so good!” That’s a bit rough, because it means that those same kids likely wouldn’t have given the book a second thought at the library. It’s not just the sparkles, either. The girls on the new covers look significantly younger than the older teenager Ella is for most of the book. There’s no violence or sexual content to make the book straight-up inadvisable for younger kids, but I still think that the nuanced humor and specific dilemmas Ella faces make it a much more engaging book for a thirteen-year-old than a nine-year-old.

And yeah, we can tell people not to judge a book by its cover, or by the premise, or by the first five pages. When we’re filling our bags at the library, it’s true that we’ll miss out on things if we reject a book outright just because of the way it looks. But there are a lot of books in the world, and a lot of people like me talking about them, and thus there’s a lot of information swirling around. We can tell ourselves we should do all of our research and make each book decision with the utmost care, lest we fail to optimize our reading experiences; or we can tell ourselves it’s okay to go with our guts as long as we keep an open mind about sometimes being wrong.

The sky hasn’t fallen because the newer paperbacks of Ella Enchanted (or Circus Mirandus, which has a striking red-and-white-striped cover in hardback and an overcrowded digital collage in paperback, or The Goose Girl and its sequels, which in their first paperback versions kept Alison Jay’s gorgeous cover illustrations but were later redone with photos) misrepresent the stories. The books haven’t been consigned to oblivion; some people might even have read them who wouldn’t have otherwise, though I do wonder what those people thought when they cracked the covers and found what kind of stories actually lived inside.

Still, for all that bad cover design doesn’t have to be the end of the world, it certainly doesn’t do a book any favors. No matter how many platitudes we may come up with to the contrary, judging a book by its cover is frequently a perfectly useful exercise (see Part 1). Covers, like anything else about books, have developed their own conventions and their own spin on our collective visual language. We can declare that null and void if we want to make our trips to the bookstore and the library a lot more complicated, or we can agree that we’ve made these things into much more than pretty pictures.

So go ahead–judge those covers. Pull a book off the shelf just because you like its spine. Decide that today you’re going to read something yellow. You can always put it down if things don’t work out, and you might find something you’d never think to read otherwise.

But maybe consider Ella Enchanted too, even if all you’ve got is one of the more disappointing paperbacks. It’s funny and sharp and clever without losing sight of how messy, delightful, and frequently alarming it is to be an individual human in a very large world. And hey, if all else fails, you can always wrap the covers in paper and draw your own.

How To Judge a Book By Its Cover, Part 1

This will be a two-parter, because there’s a lot to talk about.

One of the best parts of spring at the bookstore is the arrival of a whole crop of new books. (This happens in summer, fall, and winter, too, but hey, it’s not summer/fall/winter right now.) We order titles from publishers a couple of months in advance, and then they arrive in staggered shipments over the course of the season, showing up a couple of times a week in various boxes that have to be unpacked and inventoried. Putting books into our inventory system isn’t the best part of my day, but unpacking boxes can be like Christmas every week when you’ve got a lot of new titles to get excited about. Picture books! Cool history! The Hate U Give! Paperback copies of a book that’s been out in hardcover forever!

With kids’ books I’m frequently there when my boss orders them, so most things aren’t a complete surprise, but there’s still a big difference between seeing a tiny, much-compressed photo of the cover on a computer screen and getting to hold the book in your hand. Picture books are especially potent. When Hoot Owl, Master of Disguise came out, my boss laughed so hard that everything in the children’s department came to a screeching halt while she read it aloud to all of us. We sold three on the spot.

Which brings me to today’s point: cover design is a huge part of how we pick books, and that’s not a problem.

But, you interject, we shouldn’t judge a book by its trappings! Thus there is no such thing as bad cover design! And yes, hyperbolic representation of a hypothetical reader, you’re wholly correct, in a broad ethical sense. We are all more complicated than our appearances make us out to be, etc., etc. But regardless of whether we should judge a book by its cover, we nearly always do. Take a look at the nearest shelf of books and you’ll see that some spines stand out to you as particularly appealing. Lay out a dozen books on a table, face-up–they come face-up in the boxes, for the most part–and you’ll find that you’re drawn to some covers more than others. Though it’s true that which books you’re drawn to may shift depending on the day of the week, it takes a conscious effort to look past your first impression that this book is more interesting to me than that one.

And that can frequently be a good thing! Covers are basically a quick shorthand to let us know what kind of story we’re getting ourselves into. There are far more books in the world than there is time to read them all, and covers can tell us at a glance if the book we’re holding is one we’re likely going to want to finish. There are genre conventions–you can probably pull a generic romance-novel cover to mind pretty easily–and I’m suddenly wondering about the shared roots of “genre” and “generic”–anyway, there are genre conventions, and there are other rules of thumb that can give you clues to what’s inside the book.

Hate U Give cover 1

The jacket design for The Hate U Give is, to me, both beautiful and brilliant. From a quick genre-check perspective, it has no spaceships, loopy fonts, soft-focus photographs of an attractive couple gazing longingly at each other, or still-life paintings of fruit and bread on a table. The spine and front cover are both eye-catching, with simple, highly readable fonts that are unlikely to be confused with others on the shelf. The graphically bold yet understated figure on the front and the quieter figure on the back are immediately identifiable as individual people in the context of the book, but the choice to use artwork rather than a photograph allows them to stand as American archetypes as well; there’s a kind of tension there that’s explicitly and tacitly discussed throughout the book. Then, too, you have to make the effort to draw Starr’s face in your mind instead of conveniently filling in a stock model. This jacket design represents the very best of the form: a cover that’s a work of art in its own right as well as a window into the story. Before you’ve read the book, it draws you in; after, it takes on deeper personality as you connect the very specifically individual people you’ve just read about to the way we discuss them as archetypes. It complements the book rather than simply describing it.

The artist who created those striking images is Debra Cartwright, and she’s incredible. I definitely encourage you to go look her up.

Man. I could talk about this book all day. But let’s all go look at Debra Cartwright’s work instead, and we’ll come back to covers on Saturday for Part 2.

“You know…”

Yesterday evening at the bookstore was lovely. I got to hand-sell to several kids, parents, and aunts, and no one asked me for books about leprechauns (“but, you know, good books”), which was last week’s special oddity.

I did have one parent ask me a question–well, double question–that I get asked a lot, so I wanted to clear it up here for anyone who’s curious. The question is, “You know all these books, right? How is that? Do you get to sit and read at the store all day?”

And the two-part answer is: I don’t, and no.

Okay, to be fair on the first part, I do know a decent number of books. I read a lot, I talk to a lot of people who work with books, I read reviews when I don’t have other information, and I spend a good part of my days restocking and shelving our inventory, which requires me to learn why any given book goes in any given section. Still, I don’t actually know all the books we have in the store. I don’t even know all the books we have in the children’s section. It’s just that the ones I pluck from the shelf to give to you are all books I’ve read, and I do it casually enough that it looks like I could pull the adjacent title and know just as much about that one.

It’s a sampling bias. You won’t see the gaps in what I know until you ask me for something like a story with a moral or a good book about leprechauns.

So no, alas, I don’t know all the books. But it’s the second part that people get really excited about, and the first question was really only a way of leading up to it.

“Do you get to read at the store all day?”

People ask me that with the shining eyes that novels like to ascribe to little tykes who have just met Santa Claus. Grown-ups, kids, everyone loves the idea that there might, just might, be a job in the world that’s as cozy and pretty and pleasant as movies make it out to be. Working in a bookstore must be so charming and perfect–you read all day, and then customers come in and you help them cheerfully and adroitly, and then you go back to reading. It’s every book lover’s dream come true!

Which, hey, it appeals to me too. It’s just not how it works. We shelve books, we ring up purchases, and we write the recommendations that people pick up from the counter or see on the shelves. We spend a fair bit of time troubleshooting the ordering process–books that came in damaged, say, or obscure books that customers want that may or may not be carried by our suppliers–and putting together author events. I should note that I work at a small independent store; larger stores and chain stores often have different people handling graphic design, ordering, and events. Still, booksellers at big stores will be so busy with customers that they won’t have time for reading either.

But all that said–I love my job. I love getting to talk with people like you about books we care about. I love looking after the store. I love trying to make everyone feel welcome. I even love questions about leprechaun books, or I like them, anyway.

And once in a blue moon, when the newsletter is done and the latest order is on the shelves, when we need a break from staring at the same inventory reports for hours on end…you may catch me or one of my coworkers reading behind the counter.

What can I say? We’re surrounded by books all day, including things like, hypothetically, to name a completely random example that I definitely didn’t crack open during a shift, March: Book 3.

And a job doesn’t have to be perfect to be pretty darn good.

Story Time

We do story time on Saturday at the bookstore. A dozen-plus families pile into the space, and someone sings, plays instruments, and reads books.

That person is not me. After I sang “Row Row Row Your Boat” to two kids I babysat for some years ago, the three-year-old patted me gently on the knee and said, “Please don’t sing.” Mine is a specific kind of musical talent, which is to say, the missing kind. But someone comes in and does story time for us, and we get a lot of kids listening these days.

Story time is hectic, and there’s always plenty to watch out for—toddlers pulling on books as they cruise around the room; babies crawling underfoot; that one two-year-old who always tries to ramble right on out the front door—but it still makes Saturday my favorite day of the week. The little kids are fun. The parents, many of whom are regulars, are generally lovely. And best of all, older siblings frequently tag along with the tiny ones, and I get to do my favorite part of my job: talking about books with kids, not just for them.

It’s one thing to write about, and talk with other booksellers and parents and librarians about, which Jason Reynolds novel is our favorite or why the comic-book-panel setup works in Julia’s House for Lost Creatures. It’s another thing entirely to actually get to share the books we’re talking about with the kids they’re written for.

So much of what happens in stories is what plays out inside our own heads. That means that any discussion I have with other grown-ups about what a ten-year-old might think of Number the Stars is ultimately academic; what matters is the reaction that ten-year-old has to actually reading the book. It’s a privilege and a pleasure when kids are willing to open up about their experiences.

So here’s to the kids who told me this weekend about the puns they loved in A Series of Unfortunate Events and how excited they were that Crooked Kingdom was just as good as Six of Crows. Thanks for making my job well and truly worth the occasional customer who thinks I should be able to get him a paperback copy of a book that’s only been published in hardcover. You never fail to surprise me with the things you notice and discover.

And here’s to story time. Thirty people in a room listening to one book makes for a morning where it doesn’t matter if you’ve read Shh! We Have a Plan so often that you know it by heart; for a few minutes it’s a different story than you’ve ever read before, because someone there is hearing it for the very first time.