Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Frustrations of a bookseller - a post about kids books and clueless customers

On my first week working in a bookstore an old lady came to me and said "I heard about that book on the radio you have it?". I asked "what book?", and she just said "well, that book...I don't remember the don't have it, no?".
I was lost for words, but it taught me something, which could be Rule n. 1 of bookselling: "Never be surprised by the level of vagueness or inaccuracy that a customer can achieve when desperately trying to remember the title of THAT book!". It's always on the tip of their tongue. They always wrote it down on a piece of paper and left it at home. Sometimes they're polite enough to apologise for not even being able to provide the subject of the book, let alone a title or author. Sometimes instead they throw fits if proved wrong. Example:

Angry customer:"No, I'm absolutely certain that this is the title, it can't be the one you just said".
Me: "But your title doesn't come up anywhere. It just doesn't exist. Could it be...".
Angry Customer:"Achh, I'll just go somewhere else!". And storms off.

This is not daily routine but it happens often enough to make you realise that customers are a dodgy breed.

But what frustrates me the most these days, what pushed me to write this ranting post in the first place, is the way adults see children's books. Or actually, how they don't see them. I understand that not all of us are kids books experts and therefore need an advice on what to buy. Fair enough. But it's how they ask for it which drives me mad. Their favourite question is "where do you keep books for _ year-olds?" (fill in the blanks with any age up to 16/17).
Now. Why do we bother to have
-a new books section.
- a chart.
-a non fiction section by subject.
- a character section.
- a picture books section.
- a fiction organised by reading level.
...when all they want is books by AGE? I'm usually very nice and ask "what kind of book were you thinking of?" or "do you know the child?" so that I can narrow the request down. But when they go "Could you not just point me in the direction, please?" I don't know what to do. I want to help them, I really do. Because I think of the children who will get a random book based on their age or on the idea that an adult have of children of that age, and feel sorry for them.
Would you go in a bookshop and ask "where are the books for 43 year olds?". No, I didn't think so. Then, why do you think that for children is different? Just give me more information! Are they fluent readers? What genre do they normally like? What are their interests?
I feel like a nosy intruder asking all those questions, and indeed sometimes they look annoyed cause I'm delaying their shopping time or being too particular!
I understand that for whatever reason it can happen that the person doesn't know the kids very well, and has no idea of what to get for them. Fine. But still I don't get why they think kids books should be categorised by age.
Age doesn't define them!
The only fine line I can accept is when it comes to "adult" content, which normally means that a book contains sex/drugs/drinking/swearing or all of the above. For that we have a clearly marked "Young Adult section", which is for teenagers.
For all the other books it really comes down to personal judgment.
Not all 6 year olds can read at the same level. We're not robots which can be programmed. I would have thought it to be a concept easy to grasp, as we've all been there, right? But perhaps, I'm beginning to think, I have an exceptional good memory of my childhood. I remember my first book, I remember what I used to read at 4,5,6,7,8,9,10 etc...I use this parameter when recommending books to avid readers. Now I wonder, why can't people do that? Just think of what kind of level of difficulty you were reading at a certain age, and then take it from there? It's sad to think that people don't remember these things. But it would explain a lot. Certainly it would explain the lost looks they have when they step in the kids section.
Then there's the matter of picture books or books for babies and toddlers. They are completely helpless when coming to choosing those. I am no expert either but I know enough to know that:
- They can't read. So, no, activity books with word searches and puzzles are NOT suitable.
- Small parts can be ingested by babies, yes, but babies should never be left alone. You'll have to be there with the baby to play with her/him. This part usually discourage grannies and aunts, I don't know why. They just want books to keep the children quiet, probably.
- Toddlers tend to tear up pretty much everything they have in sight, so probably a board book is the best option. But passed that stage, normally, they can follow a story and enjoy a good bedtime read. Any picture book. It doesn't matter if it's not perfectly suitable for them. Nothing ever is. No matter what the back of the cover say.
I stand by my position that every child is unique. I haven't studied child development, or child psychology or anything like that, really. It's just my perception.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that adults should try to think of children as individuals. With their own taste and preferences. Regardless of their age.
Age guidance at the back of books just encourages this laziness of thinking. They let the "age groups" decide for them, while they could take their time looking at the book, maybe read a page of two to understand the tone of it, and then decide.
Oh I've so much to rant about when it comes to these issues. I should just stop here or it will never end.
And don't get me started on the whole gender thing. The "tractors are for boys and flowers are for girls" crap. That's definitely a subject for the next ranting post.

For now, just take this lolcat's word.


Amanda said...

Wow that sounds really really frustrating.

kids books said...

This is just another case of putting people (kids) in boxes. I agree not all are the same and that applies to reading. Parents should be aware of their kids abilities and should not just assume that their kids are reading at the "boxed" reading age.

Jodie said...

I hate that some books in England come with age stickers now (not sure if that extended over to Ireland in the end). I bought Septimus Heap online and when the age sticker on it said suitable for 8 - 12 I thought it was going to be quite simplistically written, but the vocab was actullay more advanced than in many young adult books.

I want to hear that tractors are for boys rant :)

Alessandra said...

Lovely lolcat pictures! And yes... better stay away from New Moon. My own cat looks quite similar to the one in the picture, only that a) he's plumper, and b) his ears are sharper.

As for clueles customers... well, my brother claims that he heard his conversation going on at the library:

Teenage girl: "I was looking for a book".
Librarian: "What book?"
Teenage girl: "A book to read".

Next time I go to the library, I'll make sure to request a book to drive, to eat, or maybe to sleep on. Lol.

mariel said...

My personal favourites were:

Customer: "There was a book on the telly yesterday that had a blue cover, do you have it?"
Me: "A blue cover? Do you perhaps know anything else? The author's name or title?"
Customer: "No, but it had a blue cover."
Me: "Ok, could you tell me what it is about? If it was on the tv, we have probably heard about it."
Customer: "I dont know, it has a blue cover."
Me: ", what tv show was it?"
Customer: "I can't remember. Do you have it?"

Ironically, I actually figured out what he was talking about! But it took a good half an hour!

Don't get me started on kids books. I assume you signed up to the anti-age banding petition. Its so frustrating when people lump children into certain age categories, that eventually make them feel stupid or below average if they are still reading books for the category below.

Darla D said...

Oh, I know exactly what you mean! It can be soooo frustrating. I love it when the child is actually there, so I can talk to him or her and get an opinion from the source. What also frustrates me is when the parents are pushing their children toward books for older kids simply because their child is reading on a 9th or 10th grade reading level, and is far too brilliant for these books for younger children. If the parent seems at all receptive - and many are - I try to explain that there are certain books that are perfect for kids at a certain developmental stage, regardless of reading level. They don't want to miss out on the magic of Charlotte's Web, or whatever, because they're wading through Lord of the Flies. Seriously, one parent wanted to get that one for her 8-year-old. I asked her if she'd ever read it, and of course she hadn't. She left with something else.

On the bright side, when I worked in a book store I never had an irate customer tell me, "I pay your salary!" when I didn't the book he wanted. That occasionally happens at the library. :-)

valentina said...

Amanda,it is! unfortunately I can't explain my views with every customer each time, so I vent here!

@Kidsbooks,usually parents do know, after you ask them. But most of them are either too much in a hurry or not bothered to take time to choose, so they want the fast option. And a lot of the times, the customer is not the parent and doesn't know the kid very well, so they assume age is a good enough criteria to narrow down the options.
What I find surprising though is that people seems to find it really hard to go back to their own school days and remember how it was back then for them. Is it so hard to do it? It's not a rethoric question, I'm actually really wondering now.

Jodie, it is. Most of the books we get are published in the UK, so we get the same books more or less. Some authors have asked not to have the age band, but some others have agreed and some others didn't have a choice at all. I hate it! Especially when it gives a limit, like the one you said: 8-12. So anyone older than 13 might think that's too young for them and skip it completely.Or a 12 year old who has problems with its vocabulary might feel like they are not good enough for their age group. (and seriously, which 12 year old wants to be in the same age-group as a 8 year old? there's a HUGE gap!)

the gender rant is being brooding for a long time now, I think it might find its way out at some point!!

Alessandra, LOL! we get those people too:P

mariel,that's so typical! I can't believe how many times it happens. Now it's not even funny anymore. Well, except when you share it with others:P
It's both comforting AND disheartening to hear that customer cluelessness is such a common disease.

totally with you about the age band issue!

Darla, that is so true. Some parents don't get that reading is not a competition or a test to see if they have a smarter child than the others. It should be about pleasure. No need to rush when they have a lifetime to get to the most complex (and appropriate) books.

I'm happy for that 8 year old that you where there to tell the parent not to get Lord of the Flies!