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.

Tuesday 15 December 2009

My Secret Santa!

My Secret Santa delivered her present last week!
I got a big box which didn't fit into the chimney so Santa left a note saying that my present had to be collected at the post office...and I couldn't even wait to get home to open it. I'm so bad. But what's the point of getting packages if you don't open them as soon as you get your hands on them??
So inside were not one, not two, but THREE books. All from my wishlist. Two of them hardbacks!
The Girl with Glass Feet by Ali Shaw.
Remember my pretty covers post? That one was on top of that list:)

What they always tell us by Martin Wilson.
The fact that I coveted this book is a tangible proof of the influence that the Nerds heart YA Tournament has had on me (and I'm sure on so many others). I had never heard of it before. It's not published this side of the Atlantic (yet?) so it would have remained in the dark as far as I am concerned, if it hadn't been for that wonderful thing Renay put together. PLEASE Renay let's do it agaaaaain.
Read Jodie's review for the 1st round.

and last but not least is....

The Amazing Maurice and his educated rodents by Terry Pratchett!
How fitting that I just wrote a post about how much I loved his two kids books I read and then ZAC!, I get another one.
Santa's magic, I'm telling you :)

Now I wish I could have a time-extending machine, or a timeless hole where I could hide for as long as I like, only to reemerge after I'm finished reading everything I want. Alas, such things don't exist. Hope someone invents them soon.

Secret Santa didn't just send me books. I also got a badge "Spell check yourself before you wreck yourself" (good advice!), a pretty necklace, and a beautiful bookmark by Suzanne Woolcott. I wasn't familiar with this artist but the more I look at her stuff, the more I like it!
Look how cute this bookmark is!:

For all her awesomeness, my Secret Santa has decided to stay secret.
But I'd LOVE to know your name, Secret Santa, so that I can thank you personally. So if you don't mind, let me know. I promise it won't spoil the magic :)

ETA: I completely and shamefully forgot to thank the amazing people who made this Santa Exchange possible. It's my third year taking part in it, and I wouldn't want to miss it for the world! It's just so much fun. This is Holiday Swap central and this is the crew who made it possible: Amanda, Amy, Ana, Chris, Debi, Eva, Jen, Jenn, Jill, Kelly, Lena, Lenore, and Nicole.

Friday 11 December 2009

"The Wee Free Men" and "A Hat Full of Sky" by Terry Pratchett

Picking up The Wee Free Men defied all the rules I had made up about my reading arrangements. But since I was still recovering from a reading slump, I felt - no, I required to be completely free to choose whatever I wanted to read, no matter whether I owned the book or not already.
I'm still in this kind of mood, and since it feels so good and liberating I might even adopt it in the long term. I don't care how many books I have at home!! If I feel like reading something else, I will. This doesn't mean I will buy books like there's no tomorrow, because contrary to logic, this will automatically discourage me from reading the newly bought books. It's as if as soon as they are mine, they are not appealing anymore. Go figure. So here comes the library. Or the "read it now, buy it later" attitude that I've started to adopt in the shop (but this only applies if you're working in a bookshop like me!).

But back to the books...They were awesome! I loved them just as much as I expected I would. And they had a certain soothing effect, which meant that whatever crappy mood I was in, they calmed me and cheered me up a bit. Totally recommended for when you're in need of some comfort reading. Guaranteed to do the business.

The Wee Free Men is a novel set in the Discworld universe, but you don't need to have read any other book in the series to enjoy this one. In fact, this was my first ever Discworld novel!
The main character is Tiffany Aching, a 9 year-old wannabe witch, living in the Chalk country. One day her toddler brother gets stolen by the Fairy Queen and Tiffany needs to go to her world to save him. But she's not alone in her quest. The Nac Mac Feegles, aka the Wee Free Men have made her their new Kelda, and that means that they would follow her to hell if necessary!
Even though the basics for this story aren't new - a fairy queen who steals babies, the hero who faces one test after the other so that she can continue her quest, the wee free men that reminded me of the little people in Truckers - the story felt fresh and original, thanks to its wonderful characters.
Tiffany first of all. She's only 9 but she kicks ass! She's smart, inquisitive, brave. She has Third Thought and First Sight, which according to Miss Tick are essential to be a good witch. She fights monsters with a frying a pan, and gets angry at them for taking what is rightfully hers! You gotta love her for that. She's also a creature of the Chalk, just like Granny Aching. The hills are in her bones. The smell of sheep, jolly sailor tobacco and turpentine is what she grew up with. That, and the cheese, which she makes better than anyone at the farm.
I love Tiffany unconditionally, even though sometimes you wonder how such a small child could be so smart. It makes me feel ashamed of my younger self!
But who I love most, who made me giggle all the time, and who I wanted to meet again at the end of the book, were definitely the wee free men. All of them! I can't pick a favourite. I loooooooooooove them. Seriously. They rock. How can you not love a bunch of little blue men, with a Scottish accent, a disruptive temper, an allergy to every authorities, but with a soft spot for the "wee hag"? I can't get enough of them.

I said the basics for this story are not new, but the way they are developed definitely is. Especially the scenes in Fairyland which were wildly imaginative. And the way the quest is resolved is beautiful and deep. Something I wouldn't have expected in a children's books, although I should have known better, being an advocate for the relevance of children's books in literature.
So it shouldn't be a surprise that I ran to get the second book straight after finishing this one, which is:

A Hat Full of Sky.
"Wise, witty and wonderful", reads the blurb on the back of my copy. And I couldn't choose a better way to describe it myself.
I wanted more wee free men, and I got them. I wanted more of Tiffany's wisdom, and I did. But what I loved about this second story is that it showed the weak side of Tiffany, too. The one that's growing up, and trying to fit in the witches' world. The one that makes mistakes.
Tiffany is sent away from her hills, to learn the art of witchcraft, at Miss Level's house. There's something odd about Miss Level, but I won't say what it is or else I'll spoil the revelation it for you. She doesn't do tricks or hard spells, instead she chooses to help the people in the village who needs to be looked after. A healing potion here, a stitch on an injury there...No spells or potions. Tiffany is skeptical at first and feels she's not learning enough. Then a meeting with fellow apprentice witches makes her feel uncomfortable about herself for the first time, and fuels her annoyance for Mr Level's humble ways of practicing the art.
Meanwhile, an ancient and terrifying creature, a Hiver, starts stalking Tiffany, waiting for its moment to take advantage of her inexperience...

There's so many things I liked about this second book. It's funny and wise, just like The Wee Free Men. But also it added more depth to Tiffany's character, which I liked.
The ending was beautiful and touching, and completely fitting to the philosophy of the book.
I'd recommend it to anyone.
I'm sure I'm going to go back to these books soon, and I won't let too much time pass between them and the third in the series, Wintersmith. It's already on my shelf!

Thursday 3 December 2009

I survived Nano!

and I won!
I never thought it would be so exhausting. Since I'm such a slow writer (I found out), the most I wrote in one day was 4500 words. And that meant hours sitting down at the desk trying to type something legible. My back wanted to kill me for putting it under so much strain. And let's not talk about the quality or the coherency (is that a word?)...
But I made it, and I'm sort of proud of it. I was probably too sure of myself at the beginning, and crumbled a bit toward the middle and the end, but I made it to the finish line JUST one hour before the deadline! OK, I cheated just a tiny bit by adding the whole lyrics for a song (calling it extra features) but it was an important song, very meaningful (not really...)
I guess I should start editing and rewriting pretty soon, but I'm taking a week off to recover. Right now even thinking of going back to The Novel makes me feel queasy.
I was writing in Italian, and as I struggled to think up words in my own language (how many times I had to look an English word up to translate it into Italian, you'd be amazed!) I realised I need to start reading in Italian again asap, so I can expand my vocabulary - again. This is a bit embarrassing considering I'm not even THAT fluent in English. I'm already forgetting my native tongue. In other words, I should go back to school. Me not happy.

Other non-Nano-related news...I turned 30.
Holy Moly.
It's scary even to type it.
But anyway, let's not dwell on that unspeakable round number. The fun bit is that I got to go to London to see my long lost brother (I hadn't seen him in I don't know how long, 3 years maybe?), see The Gossip gig (loved it!) and meet two of my best friends. It was lovely even if very short. It was literally a 24-hour visit. I felt a bit overwhelmed by London and all those people running about...Dublin is so provincial in comparison. Or maybe it was just the short stay that made everything feel very rushed, even the emotions.

On the books front, I haven't got my bookworm mojo back, yet. I'm still working on it. But I finished the new Nick Hornby, Juliet, Naked, which was nice. I enjoyed it, it took me ages to finish it, but I did enjoy it. There was a kind of low-key cynical mood to it, which was pleasant at times, and a bit boring at others. I loved the dialogues though. They were never ever boring. And the metaphors. I wish I could come up with those myself.
Awww will I ever be able to read a book again without thinking "Hmm this turn of phrase is brilliant, why did I never think of that?"
I'm reading Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, now, and I'm doing the same thing. It's good though. It means I'm learning something...right?
I'll stop blabbing now. I just wanted to apologise for not answering to all your comments lately and for neglecting the book blogging community. I promise I'll go back to being a better blogger soon!
In the mean time, thanks for your supporting comments, I really appreciate them:)