Wednesday, May 24, 2006

BEA/ALA, booksellers, librarians

While I have a grip on the ins, outs, and constants of the ALA annual conference, I've been to BEA just twice, the first time ten years ago when it was called something else. So forgive me if I infer too much from limited observation. When I was perusing the offerings at ABC's silent auction of picture book art and assorted ancillaria, I noticed that some of the heavy bidding was for art from illustrators whose place in the bookstore landscape is more prominent than their position in libraryland. Jon Muth was the big-bidee I noticed; others would include Janell Cannon or even Eric Carle. A couple of years ago I was at dinner with Alison Morris of the Wellesley Booksmith, and she was all excited about a new book by someone I had not heard of. (I had to call Alison for the name of the artist: Shaun Tan.) When selecting books for review here at the Horn Book, Martha or I will sometimes say, "that looks like a bookstore book," if not exactly a disparagement then pretty close. (But not as close as "that's the kind of thing you find in a bookstore next to the cash register," an increasingly frequent observation, spoken in horrified Bostonian tones.)

I'm guessing that the greatest divide between bookstores and libraries is found in their picture book and nonfiction purchases, and that pretty much the same fiction is found in both venues. Even from library eyes, the differences are not characterized as us=quality, them=dreck, but I wonder if trying to pin the differences down might be helpful for both parties.

But now I'm off to write a picture book biography of my childhood heroine, Fraulein Maria. I'm going to call it Grandma Trapp and make a million.

22 comments:

Andy Laties said...

I will restrain myself from writing the ten page diatribe against Barnes & Noble's horrific influence on editors and publishers. The fact is however that it is the hopes and fears of the workers inside the mega-corporations that own modern publishing companies that have created this highly market-driven set of publishing practices to which you're referring. So, don't say that you're able to tell the difference between a book destined for libraries and a book destined for bookstores. Say rather that you can recognize when a house has been striving to create a book that Barnes & Noble would in fact buy.

Independent bookstores' children's book departments by and large are driven by considerations quite similar to those that drive library buyers, in part because teachers and librarians are an important part of our clientele. The chains however are catering to a self-service, parent-buyer customer-base.

I cease.

Rachael Vilmar said...

Do you think "bookstore books" are prone to lavish illustrations and mediocre text? How about themes that are all-too-marketable to specific adults (grandmas, daddies, etc.)?

Those are some of the things I think of when I read the phrase "bookstore books," and, judging from some of the dreck I'm called on to review for SLJ, publishers eat that stuff up.

James A. Owen said...

Looking over an ARC of my own book, another writer commented that it seemed like "...the sort of book people would read."

I grinned (grimaced) and wrinkled my forehead - and he explained what he meant was that it seemed like something readers would WANT to read, as opposed to just BUY, because it was marketed well.

All things considered (and in light of your own perspective above), that may have been the most flattering thing ANYONE can say about a book...

Jonathan said...

You may have missed out on Saun Tan because he's Australia rather than for the bookstore vs library reasons. Down here, I think he's quite a library sort of guy.

Jonathan said...

I meant "Shaun" and "Australian"

Andy Laties said...

Shaun Tan has had terrible distribution in the U.S. Starbright -- a distributor -- was distributing his Lothian books for a few years, and now Simply Read, an American small press, has rights, and they're distributed through Publishers Group West. Which is to say that no big American publishing company has bought rights to his books and he's instead being distributed as a sort of small press author through the small press channels. Pretty weird considering what a hot figure he is worldwide.

His various books sell quite differentially, depending on how "heavy" each is. (Kind of the way Sendak ranges from WILD THINGS through to WE'RE ALL IN THE DUMPS WITH JACK AND GUY.) Although Tan's books are all quite "challenging" for the typically staid American consumer, I find that THE LOST THING -- I believe his first -- sells most easily -- to educators and to parents -- since its "stated" plotline is fairly straight-ahead. Friendship, loneliness, individuality, etc. RED TREE similarly is pretty easy to place with most buyers. However the books with Gary Crew, and with John Marsdan -- THE VIEWER, MEMORIAL and THE RABBITS -- are all much heavier philosophically and allegorically and the U.S. teacher/librarian buyers seem nervous about them. It's only the Children's Literature professors and the children's lit cult-fanatics who go ga-ga. The "picture books for grown-ups" crowd. It's the strangest thing that American adults seem to think American kids can't handle hardcore dystopian material in their age 5-10 picture-books! When obviously these same kids are getting exactly this stuff in videogames, TV, comics, etc.

I think that in fact Tan could potentially sell as well as Van Allsburg if some American major league publisher would simply buy rights and publish him and place him into mainstream distribution. However I don't mind that he's still an underground figure right now: it makes me feel like a subversive guy when I pitch him to readers. In keeping with the books' themes. (Don't tell anyone you got this book from me....)

Roger Sutton said...

Except, Andy, the bookstore picture book was a genre that preceded the big stores, back in the 80s when you had your wonderful store on Lincoln Avenue. That's when we saw the rise of Cannon and Brett, for example.

Jonathan is right that there are other factors in the relative obscurity of Shaun Tan in this country, although it would be interesting to know if he is a phenomenon (here) of the independents. I remember seeing The Rabbits and thinking it was too contextually tied to its country of origin to make much sense to children here.

Daphne Lee said...

I would have thought that the Rabbits' themes would speak to anyone who lives in a country with an indigenous population has been marginalised through colonisation. In anycase, isn't there value in books that introduce completely new topics to children?

Roger Sutton said...

Daphne, I think the problem is that in this country rabbits are the good guys. So much recontextualizing and so much historical background needing filling-in will, I think, drown the book.

(Pardon my metaphor. I will always remember the night Jean White of Monash U. kept us all spellbound with a story of her bush childhood, being wakened by her father to come out and help drown and club the invading rabbits to death.)

There is definitely value in books "that introduce completely new topics," but if the book requires too much external setting-up I don't think it will be very effective. The more the book can speak for itself, the better.

Andy Laties said...

Well -- the Ralph Steadman illustrated version of Orwell's ANIMAL FARM has been selling very well for me. Do you recall that the reason Orwell had such a hard time getting ANIMAL FARM published in 1943/4/5 was because the British were allied with Russia, and British censors were worried that the book with its blatant Trotskyite leanings would be offensive to their ally, Stalin?

Now -- no American reader needs this original "setting up" in order to read ANIMAL FARM today. In fact it's quite possible to read the book without ANY knowledge of the Russian Revolution. Similarly one can read Dante's INFERNO without knowing the specific reasons for his various grudges against all those enemies he consigned to various circles in hell. Great books do outlive their original contexts. (As to whether THE RABBITS will "turn out" to be a "great book" -- this you'll have to conduct a poll about, every ten years, for the next thousand...)

Jacks said...

My independant children's bookstore is filled with Shaun Tan fanatics.

Andy Laties said...

Further on the subject of readers being fully briefed on the "background" for the books they read: How many kids need to know that Maurice Sendak's Wild Things characters were inspired in part by the author's unpleasant childhood experiences visiting over-enthusiastially cheek-pinching elderly relatives?

sdl said...

On the contrary, I think that it's adults who are fascinated to hear why Sendak wrote Where the Wild Things Are. Children just understand the feelings the book evokes, or at the very least they love the monsters. But that's quite different from needing background knowledge to understand a book--if it requires an explanation in advance so it makes sense, that's at least worth noting. Maybe it ultimately will still be worth the trouble, but not all stories stand on their own terms. Never having read The Rabbits, I can't say which category it falls into, but I think Roger has a good eye for that sort of thing, in my experience.

Judith said...

Shaun Tan's forthcoming wordless graphic novel has been picked up by a major US publisher, but I don't know if I'm allowed to say who. Suffice to say, Big.

For the record, many readers in Australia weren't entirely convinced that the allegory in The Rabbits worked, and in fact felt it could be read as an anti-immigration text as easily, if not more easily than as a fable about the invasion of Indigenous Australia.

Picking up on an earlier entry, Roger, I have a Tan original hanging in my bedroom. It's an etching he did for a book I worked on: "Crew's 13", a collection of classic horror edited by Gary Crew. Lucky me!

Daphne Lee said...

Roger said: "The problem is that in this country rabbits are the good guys."

Ahh, yes, I see your point, but maybe it will help that Tan's bunnies are not in the least like the velveteen rabbit! Their elogated heads look quite serpentlike and menacing.

What do American children make of Milne's sarcastic, rather enigmatic Rabbit? Or are they mainly exposed to Disney's finicky and whiney old bachelor version?

Andy Laties said...

Richard Adams' WATERSHIP DOWN provides some precedent for Shaun Tan's militaristic rabbits. Wasn't there a brutally tyrannical rabbit society counterpoised to the longed-for, sought-after egalitarian rabbit utopia?

And don't forget that our former President Jimmy Carter was attacked during a fishing expedition in 1977 or so by a vicious biting rabbit! (Perhaps this incident inspired the Killer Rabbits of MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL).

rindawriter said...

Aaaah, aahh, now, now, folks, I'm getting traumatic flashbacks from childhood after reading about the the rabbit issue...intellectually, I do understand perfectly how they can be aggressive and pesky and threatening pesties...and that they are good to eat (my folks used to raise them for that) but emotionally all I can visualize, sob, sob, is my precious, little, soft, furry white, sweet red-eyed pet bunny "Pink Ears" that died half-grown when I was ten years old. Ah, the cold,dank morning when I found him stiff and cold in his little pen...I swore I would mourn and weep for him every day all day long for a week...only made it for half a day...felt guilty forever for that...and then decided his half-rotting rabbit ghost skeleton haunted his little grave out in the bamboo grove...that kept me awake a good many nights...but I did manage to keep the pact for a few months with my girlfriend about never, NEVER eating rabbit curry again...what do you think? Should I try to make few bucks on a pictuebook titled...hmmmm, hmmm...."The Wailing Rabbit?"

Do you think that most people LIKE things that reflect mass mediocrity? I mean somebody is buying all the bookstore books. I better stop scaring myself....

Andy Laties said...

BUNNICULA!

(When we had the Bunnicula costume--shipped us by the publisher on the occasion of a visit by author James Howe--the children hugged and hugged the putatively terrifying (and gigantic/life-sized/actor-occupied) Bunnicula while QUITE ignoring mild and charming Jim Howe, off to the side!

Anonymous said...

As a parent who just finished reorganizing the wall full of children's books purchased for my three children over the last decade and a half, I find this thread and the entry that began it, in odd contrast to this month's editorial on Naomi Wolf's NYT column. If children are to be the final judge of quality as the editorial suggests, doesn't that render the notion of bookstore v. library books moot? As I sorted and classified the mountain of children's books we've acquired over the years, I see that some books loved by my 14 year old are still loved by my 4 year old. Some books that earned medallions on the cover still have intact spines while some purchased at the checkout stand to help survive a flight continue to be opened from time to time. In our collection I found exactly *one* celebrity authored book (When I Was Little - well worn) and *one* "topical" book (Smoky Night - moved to the donation pile). What strikes me as the unifying thread among the favorites is not who wrote them, whether they were "literary" or whether they dealt with the issue of the day, but, simply and obviously, whether or not they entertained. My oldest loved the first C. Paolini book, eagerly started the second, then tossed it aside a third of the way through. Why? Too much like the first. Both my older children will purchase and read the final installment of Harry Potter, but have grown disenchanted because, and I quote, "Nobody has that many people die on him. I mean, the kid lives in England, not Rwanda." Despite the critics who like to dis' Potter, the first four books will get repeat readings and I think deservedly so. The last? Not so much. The problem I see with publishing of late, whether the books land in the library or the bookstore, is too much "producing" and not enough "crafting." It's easy to bemoan the onslaught of video games as the thing that keeps kids from reading, but some of the most popular games are well made, with intriguing story lines and quality graphics. If only more books were crafted with the same care.

Roger Sutton said...

Well, Anon., I don't think I've ever suggested that children are "the final judge of quality." In my last editorial, I was arguing that children should be allowed to read whatever, however, they wanted to. Discussion of quality is a separate issue, and while children's opinions can surely be a part of that discussion, nobody gets to have the last word.

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