Musings on books and the book business by an opinionated, somewhat cynical, yet optimistic bookseller.
Tuesday, September 19, 2006
Buying for the Kids
I never thought I'd rave on and on about a book called Tickle the Duck, but from the moment I read the sample copy in my office, I just could not get enough of the silly duck with the big belly and impish grin. It's a work of pure genius. The combination of an outrageously funny, infantile, illustrated duck and a simple plot (if a duck begging the reader not to tickled him can be considered a plot) creates endless hilarity for anyone over the age of one.
Out of desperation, I took over our store's children's buying two years ago. We'd gone through three buyers in a couple of years, and there was no one passionate about kids' books in the store willing to take on the job. I figured that at least I knew how to buy, even if all I knew about children's literature was Dr. Seuss and The Island of the Blue Dolphins. For years, I recommended Scott O'Dell's classic to anyone buying a book for a child between the ages of three and fourteen. "Oh, you've got a middle school grandson into snow boarding? Well, he will really love this book about a girl stranded on an island."
Now I finally have two assistants who should be able to do most of the children's buying, but I am having a bit of separation anxiety. Earlier this week, I was buying Penguin's winter children's list and training one of the new buyers. We attacked the box of samples like two kids opening Christmas gifts. As we leafed through the piles of books, the riot of colors, drawing styles and silly stories almost overwhelmed us. We argued, we laughed, and we marvelled at the creativity.
Berkely Breathed's Mars Needs Moms, a zany and almost dark story from the creator of Bloom County, was the obvious hit. I was also surprised and wowed with Cal Ripken's The Longest Season, a moving tale about the low point of his amazing baseball career, beautifully painted by Ron Mazellan. The sleeper on the list was Helen Ward's melancholy Little Moon Dog, magnificently illustrated in muted tones by Wayne Anderson. Who wouldn't love the two Skippyjon Jones board books about the crazy Siamese cat that thinks he's a Chihuahua? By the way, who invented board books? They should get a medal, or at least a gold sticker.
By the time we sat down to buy the books, my assistant and I had read all the books on Penguin's winter list. We didn't have to wildly guess about which ones were good and which ones were all publisher hype. How long would it take to read even one percent of a major publisher's adult list? Sure, I got a little sick of the nauseatingly sentimental string of books about mommy animals with cute babies, and I wondered why half the books were being published. Okay, more than half. My assistant was flabbergasted by Penguin's outsized publishing hopes for the winter. "Why don't they publish a dozen good books and really get behind them?" she asked. Ah, the answer to that question could save a million trees.
Even looking at this single list, I was struck once again by how many talented artists are illustrating children's books. It's not easy being an artist in America, but here's a field that values excellent work and even encourages unique artistic styles. My favorite illustrator, David Catrow, had a paperback, Our Tree Named Steve, on the list. Who else in our culture would pay Catrow over and over again for his thin-necked, big-headed, wide-eyed illustrations of people and dogs?
Speaking of illustrators, I attended a breakfast featuring Jon J. Muth (Zen Shorts) and Jim LaMarche (Rainbabies) this past weekend at the Mountain & Plains tradeshow in Denver. Muth spent most of his speaking time in front of an easel. He painted with a huge chinese brush (about the size of his arm) and watercolors. With just a few strokes he made paintings of a panda, a gorilla and a stalking cat. The cat was so magnificent that LaMarche praised him loud enough for the whole room to hear. Muth's outstretched cat was so simple and yet so fluid, it reminded me of Picasso's one-line drawings of bulls.
Sometimes I wonder if we would recognize a Picasso among us. Would we value the magnificent draftsmanship? Would we marvel at the brilliant colors and the oddly shaped figures? Or would Picasso be one illustrator among 50 on a children's book list, waiting for the patient, appreciative bookseller to recommend his title? I'd like to think that Picasso would get plucked out of the massive stack of samples, even if he was illustrating a silly duck.
Top 10 The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. 2000. White Teeth by Zadie Smith. 2000. Atonement by Ian McEwan. 2002. Any Human Heart by William Boyd. 2003. The Known World by Edward P. Jones. 2003. Snow by Orhan Pamuk. 2004. On Beauty by Zadie Smith. 2005. Black Swan Green by David Mitchell. 2006. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. 2007. Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris. 2007.
Other Favorites The Inventory by Gila Lustiger. 2000. The Human Stain by Philip Roth. 2000. Erasure by Percival Everett. 2001. Peace Like a River by Leif Enger. 2001. Spies by Michael Frayn. 2002. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. 2002. Nowhere Man by Aleksandar Hemon. 2002. Roscoe by William Kennedy. 2002. American Woman by Susan Choi. 2003 The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem. 2003. Sabbath Creek by Judson Mitcham. 2004. The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. 2004. The In Between World of Vikram Lall by M.G. Vassanji. 2004. The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud. 2006. Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. 2006. After This by Alice McDermott. 2006. Echo Maker by Richard Powers. 2006. On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan. 2007. Peace by Richard Bausch. 2008. Netherland by Joseph O'Neill. 2008. Border Songs by Jim Lynch. 2009. Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem. 2009. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. 2009. Brooklyn by Colm Toibin. 2009. All Other Nights by Dara Horn. 2009.
My Favorite New Books
My Abandonment by Peter Rock. A girl and her father live off the land in Portland's Forest Park in this novel that is based on a true story. Told through the eyes of the young girl, it's a poetic work revealing our connection to the natural world. True Confections by Katharine Weber. Zip's Candy is the setting for this outstanding satire. Alice, who turns out to be an unreliable narrator, details the company's history and her own place in its scandalous past. New World Monkeys by Nancy Mauro. The death of a boar, a pervert trying to perfect his craft, and the unearthing of the bones of a murder victim are just a few of the plot elements in this comic debut.
Brooklyn by Colm Toibin. Shortly after World War II, a young Irish girl is forced by her family to emigrate to Brooklyn. Cut off from all that she knows she finds love at Dodgers games and Coney Island in this subtle but suspenseful novel.
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. Phillippe Petit's remarkable 1974 tight-rope walk between the World Trade Center towers is the jumping off point (pun intended) of this novel of love, loss and beautiful convergences in a gritty New York City.
Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem. Nothing is as it seems in this brilliant bizarre novel set in an almost recognizable New York City. The revelations at the end left me reeling although I knew that surprises were lurking. Another novel with shades of Saul Bellow. Border Songs by Jim Lynch. Hilarious novel about a strange border agent on the Canadian border. Lynch effortlessly tells the story from several points of view including the criminal, the cops and everyone in between.
The Signal by Ron Carlson. An adventure and a love story set in the pristine mountains of Wyoming. A sense of both hope and foreboding hangs over the sparse narrative.
Wanting by Richard Flanagan. This historical novel featuring both Charles Dickens and the explorer John Franklin is really a meditation on desire and what was thought to separate the civilized from the barbarians.
Woodsburner by John Pipkin. Henry David Thoreau burned down the Concord Woods before he wrote Walden. This novel explores that incident from several different perspectives, including a bookseller who is forced to sell porn to stay in business.
Netherland by Joseph O'Neill. A British Bellow with a West Indian cricket fiend cast as a Chicago University Professor. Humboldt plays cricket. Chicagoby Alaa Al Aswany. Egyptian students and their professors try to navigate America in this magnificent novel set in the heart of contemporary Chicago.
Gossip of the Starlings by Nina de Gramont. A haunting novel about the seductive power of friendship.
Wifeshoppingby Steven Wingate. Thirteen great short stories of men sabotaging their relationships.