Canteen #4

ROB: You look thoughtful.

CAP: Oh. Yeah. Someone I care about died. He was old, but. You know. I keep looking up and expecting to see a tiny man with a rapier and a sketchbook standing in the doorway.

ROB: Yeah.

LENA: I’m sorry.

LEMONY SNICKET (out of nowhere, speaking to no one in particular): It is a curious thing, the death of a loved one. We all know that our time in this world is limited, and that eventually all of us will end up underneath some sheet, never to wake up. And yet it is always a surprise when it happens to someone we know. It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark, and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls down, through the air, and there is a sickly moment of dark surprise as you try and readjust the way you thought of things.

ROB: …


CAP: Thank you.

A Sixth Good Book

Earlier, in “Five Good Books,” I wrote about a few books for kids and adults talking about refugees, immigration, and asylum. Today I’ve got a sixth to add, in the adult-and-teen category: Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions.

Less than 150 pages long, this book is lean enough to fit in the pocket of my rain jacket and powerful enough to halt a rhinoceros mid-charge. The author was born in Mexico and now lives in New York, where she interprets for juvenile asylum-seekers and migrants; her essay includes a brief, frank discussion of the legal distinction between those two categories and who benefits from it (heads up: it’s certainly not the kids). These young people, ranging in age from small children to older teenagers, made the exceptionally dangerous journey from Central America through Mexico to the U.S. border, where almost all of them immediately took the terrifying step of turning themselves over to American immigration authorities. Detention and a hearing are often their only way to demonstrate that they have legitimate reasons to be afraid for their lives in the countries they came from, and thus legitimate reasons to be in the United States.

It’s not enough that they’re kids, and that they would never have made the frequently fatal trip without a very good reason, and that many of them are sponsored by relatives here.* No, they still have to put together a case for why they shouldn’t be forcibly returned to the places they fled from. And, thanks to the decision to fast-track juvenile immigration cases, they only have 21 days to do it.

That’s where Luiselli and her colleagues come in. The massive overload of juvenile immigration cases has been seriously exacerbated by the fast-track policy, and someone has to get these kids’ stories on paper so that they can be assigned the appropriate lawyers who handle the appropriate kinds of cases. (These cases, by the way, are civil, not criminal. That’s one of the reasons that the term “illegal immigrant” isn’t very useful; it’s generally much more accurate to describe someone as “undocumented,” which just means they haven’t been granted papers that prove their right to stay in the country. Many people, like some of the kids Luiselli interviews, arrive in the U.S. without documents but have perfectly legitimate claims to asylum or cases to make for long-term residency.)

Luiselli writes with straightforward candor about her experiences interpreting for these kids: the alarming bureaucracy they’re navigating, the hell they went through to get here, what they find and don’t find in their new communities. She also weaves in strands about her own family’s wait for their green cards and about a group of students she teaches in a Spanish Conversation class. Through it all runs the thread of her five-year-old daughter’s repeated requests when Luiselli talks about her work: “Tell me how it ends.”

Look, I don’t know how much of this book will be new to you. You might already be familiar with the reasons that people migrate from Central America, including gang warfare and state violence, and with the detention centers called hieleras, iceboxes/ICEboxes, where kids are warehoused without adequate food or clothing. You might already know the ins and outs of where public school fits into the immigration equation–no public school, if you’re wondering, can legally turn a student away simply because they lack a particular immigration document, though many do–and what it means for a relative to sponsor a child.

If you don’t already know this system inside and out, though–and for all that I’ve read about it, I definitely don’t know it that well–or if you’re looking for a lucid, concise, and evenhanded walk through this complex arrangement of organizations and regulations that is an intrinsic part of our country, I highly, highly recommend Tell Me How It Ends. There’s no grandstanding or political opining here. There are questions, and there are answers, and there’s the frank understanding that the answers that we want aren’t often the answers we’re going to get.

My coworkers and I are evenly divided on whether this book is a depressing one. Many of them found it depressing; I’m one of the ones who found it hopeful. “Tell me how it ends” is a child’s request to their mother, an impossible one to fulfill, but it’s also a request we all have for each other: please, please, tell me we have a way forward here. Luiselli doesn’t have an answer for that, but she does provide options and resources, and the essay is of course a resource of its own. Clear, well-considered accounts like this one are vital to building better systems for the future. Only by saying what is can we say what we need to do next, even if we never do get to see all the way to the ending.


*For more on the subject of the migrant journey through Mexico, see The Beast by Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez. That one’s definitely for adults and older teens specifically, while Tell Me How It Ends is something that, though written for an adult audience, I can recommend for thirteen and up.

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.

Canteen #3

LENA: That can’t possibly be true.

ROB: It is! Honestly!

CAP: So what did you say to him?

ROB: “Excuse me, I believe that’s going to be my hat in a minute.”

LENA (as she and Cap both dissolve laughing): And he just gave it to you?

ROB: Wouldn’t you?…Oh no, what’s going on?

(They look. A small crowd is beginning to gather in the doorway.)

LENA: Uh-oh.

CAP (to Rob): Are you wanted for anything?

ROB (faintly miffed): Not here.

LENA: There’s nothing planned for today, right?

CAP: Not that I know of.

ROB: Maybe we should go.

CAP: There’s another crowd at the back door.

LENA: I don’t see any weapons.

CAP: And the manager hasn’t gotten out her sword…Wait a minute, are those kids?


ROB: Oh, we are definitely leaving.

LENA: You like children!

ROB: These aren’t children, they’re monsters.

CAP: I don’t see the problem.

ROB: You will in a minute. See the one in the big coat?

CAP: Yes?

ROB: Look familiar to you?

(Pause as they stare.)

LENA: …Oh.

CAP: Hm. Yeah. Gotcha.

LENA: I thought he wore a top hat, though.

ROB: Sometimes. It showed up in the illustrations and I guess most versions have kept it, but it’s not really his thing.

CAP: I would have thought you guys would get along nicely.

ROB: Dodger and I run in slightly different circles.

LENA: Well, they can’t thieve here. The manager wouldn’t stand for it, and she still doesn’t look too unhappy. It must be fine.

ROB: They don’t have to thieve to be monsters.

CAP: Okay, your cryptic comments are very interesting and all, but do you want to explain why you’re feuding with a twelve-year-old kid?

ROB: It’s not a feud.

CAP: Still asking.

ROB: Um…

LENA: We can start guessing if you’d rather.

ROB: Please don’t.

LENA: He once ate a honey cake you’d baked for your grandmother.

ROB: …No.

CAP: He painted your house blue, and you prefer green.

ROB: What? No.

LENA: You were both planning to steal the crown jewels and he got there first.

ROB: We don’t steal stuff like that!

CAP: He stole your wife’s wedding band and sold it before you could retrieve it.

ROB (with dignity): I am not married.

LENA: Is it something stupid? It’s going to be something stupid.

ROB: Can we drop this, please?

CAP: Did he pick your pocket? Is that all?

ROB: No.

LENA: Wait. I know that tone. Did you accuse him of picking your pocket?


ROB: Anybody want more coffee? Cap?

CAP: Have you ever seen me drink coffee?

ROB: You said you missed being able to drink it. I thought you might be ready to reintroduce it.

CAP (grinning): My, what impeccable timing you have, it’s like you’ve read my mind.

LENA: I can’t believe you’d go around accusing people at random.

ROB: It was hardly at random!

LENA: Poor kid. I bet you had your wallet with you all along.

ROB: It was my keys, and no, it turned out that a dragon had taken them for a chew toy.

CAP: A dragon?

ROB: Why do you think they have that sign now?


CAP: I thought that was because of the scorch marks.

ROB: Same incident. The dragon got mad when I tried to take the keys back. And then that kid starts roaring his head off about his injured dignity and how he’s going to get Parliament in on this, and everyone…Oh no.

CAP: What?

ROB: Hide me.

CAP: What??

ROB: He’s coming this way!

LENA: Rob. He has a cup of coffee and a newspaper. He’s getting a table. He’s not plotting your demise.

ROB: You don’t know that.

(Dodger passes by, his eyes on his newspaper.)

DODGER: Morning, Rob.

ROB: Morning, Jack.

(He continues on his way. Rob collapses back in his seat.)

LENA: You are ridiculous.

CAP (suddenly): What’s that on the floor?

LENA: Did he drop something?

CAP: Is that dragon dung? Because it looks like the kind that gives off that poisonous—


LENA: Excuse me, everyone, we need to evacuate, please move calmly to the exits—

(ONE WEEK LATER, a new sign:

Patrons are responsible for all damages caused by imitation bodily excretions”)

Pretty Pictures

I’m on the road today and short on computer access, but I still want to share something I learned at work last week:

The British Library has a Flickr account with tens of thousands of pictures scanned from old books and papers in their collection. There’s an album devoted to children’s book illustrations, and another one full of old cover designs, and plenty more besides. IT’S SO COOL. If you’re an illustration or design nerd like me, the whole thing is a joy. Happy scrolling!

“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.