World Book Night 2014: Experience of a First-time Giver

World Book Night was last week, and I had twenty copies of Code Name Verity to give away. It was April 23, a perfect spring evening…no, scratch that, it was cold and windy, because it is Massachusetts and Spring is being especially coy this year. But I went ahead with my original plan to hand out the books near a subway stop and shopping center. I was a little nervous, because although I have spent my life talking to people about books, and do so daily at my job, I do not habitually approach strangers on the street and try to foist books upon them, even really excellent, free books.

WBNGiverSticker_wbn2014It turns out, as I suspected, that it’s pretty tricky to convince people that you want to give them a good book for free. Even though I wasn’t sporting any of the red flags that pedestrians typically try to avoid (a clipboard, a windbreaker with a logo on it, a handful of pamphlets about Our Lord and Savior), people were hesitant to slow down or make eye contact. Everyone expects to be asked for things; no one expects to be given something (something they might want) for free.

Also, about half the people walking by were wearing headphones or had their eyes glued to a mobile device (or both); I let these people pass by. My most successful pitch to draw people in was “Would you like a free book for World Book Night?”

Once they’d stopped, I still felt rushed; I had more short transactions than long conversations. No one had heard of World Book Night, except for one woman who had encountered another WBN giver earlier in the day. I explained to those who stopped that it was a night where volunteers gave out free copies of books that authors and publishers had donated to spread the love of reading, and then I told them a little about the book I was giving out. Of the people who stopped, most were happy to take a copy of the book. One woman considered it for her daughter, but thought it might scare her (fair enough), so she didn’t take it. More men than women stopped, and they seemed really pleased to get a book – they’re not exactly the target demographic, and I wonder what they’ll make of Code Name Verity, but I do think anyone can enjoy it.

Although I picked up my box of books the week before World Book Night, I didn’t open the box till that day, and was a little dismayed to see that the special WBN cover had a white border that made the book look self-published; more than one person asked if I was the author. As much as I would love to have written Code Name Verity, I tried to clear up the misconception; it helped that it said “New York Times Bestseller” on the front, but the initial impression wasn’t that of a traditionally published book.

So, what would I do differently next time? I’d follow my librarian blogger friend Anna’s lead: she joined up with two other givers on World Book Night. This has a couple advantages: (1) it gives potential recipients a choice of books, and (2) it allows the givers to lend each other moral support. Anna and her team also set up in a local Starbucks (with the management’s permission, of course), so they could set up signs and people could choose to approach them and engage in conversation or not – much more comfortable for everyone than the hawking-on-the-sidewalk method.

I still think WBN is a fantastic initiative, and I want to thank the authors and publishers that donated their books, and the WBN organization itself for making this happen year after year. Here are all the WBN 2014 titles:

Books_wbn2014

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Gabrielle Zevin at Porter Square Books

elsewhereJust over a year ago, the children’s librarian at the library where I work pressed a book called Elsewhere into my hands and convinced me to read it simply because she had loved it so much herself; even though she’d read it for the first time years ago, she said she still thought about it regularly. (This is usually a good sign.)

I think I read the book in a day, or maybe a weekend. I found it just as sweet, thoughtful, and unique as promised. However, I neglected to hunt down the author’s other books, and when I began hearing about The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry a few months ago, I did not make the connection. I put two and two together just in time to see Gabrielle Zevin speak at Porter Square Books this past Monday.

A bookstore employee introduced Zevin as a graduate of “our local university down the street” (i.e., Harvard). Zevin started her talk by telling the audience how she got into publishing. She sold her first two novels, Elsewhere and Margarettown, in the same year; Elsewhere was an ALA Notable Children’s Book and won a few other awards as well, while Margarettown, despite several good reviews, “was a flop.”

“A flop” can mean two things in publishing: it can mean that the book was terrible and/or got bad reviews, but it can also mean that the book was decent, even good, but didn’t merit significant attention, and was buried beneath the next season’s books. Margarettown is still on the shelves of fourteen of the libraries in the Minuteman Library Network, so while it may be out of print, it’s still available; it may find fans yet.

Zevin spoke about her relationship with books going back to childhood. Ever since her parents used to drop her off at a bookstore while they went grocery shopping, she said, entering a bookstore fills her with “a heady sense of freedom and possibility.” In bookstores, she said, she always felt safe, like nothing bad could ever happen in a bookstore – “and nothing bad ever has happened to me in a bookstore.”

storiedlifeajfikryOn to the matter of inspiration: where do her ideas for books come from? “Most of my books have started with a question.” For A.J. Fikry, there were two questions: What is the importance of bookstores to the world? And what effect do the stories we read have on our lives?

Zevin is obviously a believer in books and stories. She stated, “Children who read grow into adults you want to know.” People who read develop empathy. (I’ve written about the link between fiction and empathy here before, especially in this post inspired by an interview with Lauren Groff.) Bookstores, Zevin believes, are special places; they “represent the good in a community. They are about more than just commerce; they are about the exchange of ideas.” (The same can be said of libraries, which are entirely about ideas and community and not about commerce at all.) Reading and writing may be solitary activities, but they connect us as a community. Though those in the self-publishing business (more about that later) may disdain gatekeepers, Zevin said, “We need people [editors, booksellers, librarians] to tell us what is good and what is bad. The future of literary culture depends on these people. Booksellers are curators.”

The book world is changing. From 2005, when Elsewhere was published, to 2014, there have been huge changes: the ubiquity of the Internet, the expectation that authors will have a social media presence, the rise of e-books. “I think it’s worth being mindful of what we lose as these changes occur,” said Zevin. She doesn’t worry about futures in which children fight to the death or Chicago is divided into factions by personality type (clear allusions to The Hunger Games and Divergent); “I do, however, worry very much about the world without books.”

An Indie Next Pick for April 2014, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry was published as The Collected Works of A.J. Fikry in the U.K. The idea behind this title is that “collected works” can refer to everything a person has read in his or her life, rather than everything s/he has written. This idea instantly reminded me of Audrey Niffenegger’s graphic novel The Night Bookmobile, in which Alexandra discovers a bookmobile filled with every book she’s ever read. (The Night Bookmobile was first serialized in The Guardian, then published in hardcover by Jonathan Cape.) Such a bookmobile would be fascinating; as Zevin said, “Anybody’s reading life is so gloriously random.”

“We read to know we’re not alone. We read because we are alone. We read and we are not alone. We are not alone.” —The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, Gabrielle Zevin

During the Q&A, Zevin spoke again about debuts. Her first two books were published quite close together, and while Elsewhere was successful, Margarettown was less so; its publisher actually folded, and the book is now out of print. Zevin said, “Everybody has a sad story about a first novel…Most of the time everyone fails. Most of the time everyone gets it wrong. How do you get over failure? You keep working…A lot of debuts are not a writer’s best work.” She added, “The work is separate from people’s response to it,” which struck me as a sensible and wise perspective to maintain.

Because Zevin writes for both YA and adult audiences, someone asked her how she shifted between them, and how she decided which audience to write for. Zevin said that the main character’s age and situation determine the audience; she has the idea first, then decides on the audience accordingly. She shared an anecdote from another author’s response to this question; that author said that the difference is hope – YA books must be hopeful – but Zevin thinks “adults like hope too.”

I haven’t yet read The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (though it’s next on my to-read list), but I know the eponymous main character is a bookseller. (Zevin read a funny passage wherein Fikry elucidates to the sales rep, Amelia, all the kinds of books he isn’t interested in.) However, Zevin said, “A.J.’s [literary] tastes aren’t mine.” She’s a keen observer of other people’s reading habits, and noted that spying on people’s reading on the subway is much harder now because of e-readers.

Another audience question concerned research. Zevin said that while she doesn’t write two books at one time, she can research one while writing another, and she did quite a lot of research for her novel The Hole We’re In, about “female soldiers in Iraq.” (She also mentioned, offhandedly, that she dislikes National Novel Writing Month – or at least thinks it “needs to be preceded by National Thinking About Your Novel Month.”)

After about ten years of working with traditional publishers, Zevin has learned a lot about how they work, and she has “respect and appreciation” for all jobs in publishing. Although “the books are still more important than how they get sold,” a tremendous amount of work goes into all aspects of a book: not just the writing of it, but the editing, the design, the jacket copy and cover art, the distribution and marketing and sales. She started off knowing very little of this – she admitted she didn’t even know that sales reps, who bring publishers’ books and catalogs to bookstores, existed – but concluded, “I do think it’s always better to be armed with information.” Many articles about self-publishing (she mentioned the Wall Street Journal particularly) display a “deep misunderstanding about the publishing process.” There is more to making a book that writing it and clicking a button. (See also: “In defense of editors,” “We built this together.”)

I’m really excited to start reading The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, and maybe some of Zevin’s other books too. You can see all of her books on her website, and if you live in the Cambridge area, check out the upcoming events at Porter Square Books.

World Book Night 2014

WBN2014_logo_672x652My fabulous YA librarian friend Anna wrote about World Book Night last December and inspired me to apply. I had heard of World Book Night before (basically, I knew that it was a night where people gave out free books), but Anna explains all the important stuff in her post.

This year is my first year as a giver, and I’m giving out Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. Why did I choose Code Name Verity? Because it is one of the most compelling WWII stories I’ve ever read, which is saying something, given the glut of WWII fiction and the amount of it I’ve consumed. It features a young British pilot, Maddie, and a young Scottish (“I am not English!“) spy, and their friendship is central to the story: “We make a sensational team,” says the Scot.

The Scot tells the first half of the story as a written confession to her Nazi captors in occupied France. She has made a Faustian bargain with a Gestapo officer in order to be able to write her account, which she tells, mostly, in the third person, referring to herself as “Queenie.” It is a powerful narrative, heartbreaking and gruesome in turns, and also, improbably, with moments of humor.

I can’t well tell about the second half without giving much of the story away; suffice to say I think teens and adults can and will enjoy the story equally, and the conversational, journalistic style makes for easy reading. The audiobook, read by Morven Christie and Lucy Gaskell, is also incredibly good (though I won’t be handing those out on World Book Night, just the good old paper copies).

World Book Night is April 23 this year. If you missed signing up to be a giver this year, don’t fret – there’s always next year!

Graduates in Wonderland

graduatesinwonderlandSometimes a book comes along, and as you read the description, you realize it ticks every one of your boxes. Here’s the tagline for Graduates in Wonderland from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program: “Two best friends document their post-college lives through emails in this hilarious, relatable, and powerfully honest memoir.”

Best friends. Check. More books should have friendship at their core.

Post-college. Check. This book occupies that nebulous “new adult” space, and proves NA isn’t just YA with sex scenes.

E-mails. Check. I love a good epistolary novel, and these e-mails are really in-depth letters.

Hilarious, relatable, honest, etc. Check. I take any adjectives in a publisher’s description with a grain of salt, but as it turns out, these ones apply.

I don’t know if Jessica Pan and Rachel Kapelke-Dale wrote these letters with an eye toward publication the whole time, or whether they were edited after the fact (for clarity and grammar if nothing else), but either way, this is a fantastic read that I wanted to recommend to many of my friends before I’d even finished it. Because of the format (e-mail), both authors use a casual, honest, straightforward style. They reveal their fears and insecurities about their nascent careers and love lives, and they encourage each other, offer advice, and build each other up.

Graduates of Brown, the authors are privileged but conscientious. Jessica moves from New York to Beijing to Australia, while Rachel spends more time in New York before going to Paris; both of them end up in London, though the book ends before they settle there. They are both creative, and explore various career paths; they aren’t completely sure what they want to do at first. They’re also struggling with living in unfamiliar places and speaking second languages, and of course they’re both looking for The One. The e-mails strike a perfect balance in subject matter between work and romance.

They are honest: I don’t think the people I see on a daily basis realize how down I really am.”

They are funny: Get a French person to try to read the word hodgepodge out loud. They will say, ‘hogey-pogey,’ and it will be the best moment of your life.”

They are practical: Note to future selves: Never buy anything. You will just have to pack it in a suitcase one day.”

They are observant: Yesterday, I was in a park and I saw a Chinese man out walking his birds. In each hand he held a birdcage as he strolled, showing the birds the park scenery before hanging the cages from a tree while he went to go socialize with his fellow bird-walkers. I’m really going to miss this place.”

They are contemplative: Everywhere people and friendships are changing. I’m starting to wonder how many friends I’ve made here will still be friends for the long haul. How many places can you leave people behind and still expect to keep in touch with all of them?”

They are, sometimes, wise: “I feel like I haven’t lived enough to really focus on my writing. I don’t think I’m ready.” / He sounds great, but we need to listen to the warnings that guys give about themselves.” 

They have a sense of themselves in the world: These beautiful moments are a nice distraction from the stagnation of my career. (Is it stagnation if it hasn’t begun?)”

While I’m not sold on the title or the cover, I really, really liked this book, and would recommend it to anyone who is in college now or who has graduated in the past ten years or so. It fits perfectly between Tara Altebrando and Sara Zarr’s novel Roomies, which takes place in the summer between high school and college, and Rachel Bertsche’s MWF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search for a New Best Frienda memoir of the author’s experience moving from New York to Chicago after getting married.

roomies MWFseeking BFF

404 Day: Action Against Censorship

Join EFF!

Today is 4/04, “a nation-wide day of action to call attention to the long-standing problem of Internet censorship in public libraries and public schools.” Read the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) piece about Internet filtering in libraries and the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). Though CIPA requires some Internet filtering in libraries that accept federal funding, libraries often go further than is required. (Also, no filter is perfect: some “bad” content will always get through, and plenty of legitimate content will be blocked.)

Barbara Fister at Inside Higher Ed is also eloquent, as always, in her piece “404 Day: Protecting Kids From…What?” She mentions Gretchen Casserotti, a public library director in Meridian, Idaho, who live-tweeted a school board meeting in which Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was, ultimately, removed from the school curriculum. (Book Riot collected these tweets in order.)

Kids don’t need to be protected from literature. They need to engage with it, think about it, and discuss it; if adults can help with that, all the better. But as Fister points out, it would be better to protect kids from, say, hunger, than from “dangerous” books.

Problem Novels or Resilience Literature?

speakLast month there was a snippet in EarlyWord that caught my eye; librarian Nancy Pearl interviewed YA author Laurie Halse Anderson. Anderson’s books, which tackle difficult but real topics such as rape (Speak) and eating disorders (Wintergirls), are occasionally targeted by those who wish to censor them. Pearl asked her about the “problem novel” label that is “often applied to books about teens dealing with real-life situations.” Anderson reframed the issue by calling these books “resilience literature” instead, “because the goal of the books is to help strengthen kids facing difficult situations.” I think that’s a beautiful and apt way to put it.

As my co-worker Rebecca wrote during Banned Books Week last year, “Books are safe spaces to experience new things. New thoughts. New ideas. Different points of view….Books teach us how to empathize with each other, how to stand up for the little guy, and how to recognize the bad guys in our lives….We experience strong emotion alongside our favorite characters – joy, catharsis, loss, excitement. Books are a safe way to learn about life, without all the painful bumps and bruises.”

There is a quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: “Your beliefs become your thoughts, your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your values, your values become your destiny.” Your thoughts become your words. Your words become your actions. Words are important, and labels are especially so. Anderson’s renaming “problem novels” to “resilience literature” is not only a more accurate term, it also casts these books, and the discussion surrounding them, into a more positive and constructive light.

Speak: Have you read books that fall into this category? What did you think of them?