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Happy New Year!
I have a present for you.
You deserve it, especially if you work in retail or publishing.
Allow me to introduce Reading Trails, a fantastic new site for bibliophiles that allows users to build groups or ‘trails’ of books linked together by any esoteric theme you can come up with. (A few of my favorites: Books I obnoxiously insist on pushing on my friends’ children, books to write home about, and the ever-popular They Made Me Read it and I Still Resent Them.)
It’s a remarkably simple idea. Find a trail that you like, browse through it, and look for books that intersect with another trail, and then keep exploring. See a trail that sparks an idea? Make a trail of your own in response. Share it with friends direct from the site, or add a widget to your blog and show it off.
Like the Visual Thesaurus, and another of my all-time favorite musical sites Pandora, the whole thing is very intuitive, and as the site grows I expect it will become richer and richer with collective creativity. I can imagine all sorts of great uses, like book club suggestions, a repository for essential lists, and just plain fun.
At the moment, many lists have only a handful of books in them, but I know that you—the pixie stix readeratti—can kick some major butt when it comes to making great lists with substantial meat.
The site was launched in November 2008, but with the industry maelstrom many of us have been in, it seems to have flown under the radar so far. Not for much longer I hope.
It’s a great way to kick off a fantastic year of new reading.
Postscript: I know this is going to come up from booksellers, so let me say that I have already been in touch with the site managers about adding a link to IndieBound along with the purchasing links to Amazon and Abebooks. On the plus side, this site also links to libraries, which is awesome, I think.
In the rat race that is publishing, everyone is trying to make their books stand out on the shelf. Some retail studies suggest a product has three seconds or less to catch the eye of a shopper. So the package of a book is important, and there is some truth to the cliche about how to judge a book. However, in the rush for recognition, it’s possible to make a major miscalculation.
Like this one, for instance, which sparked the cussing ire of Paul Constant of the Stranger today.
The book in question is Sam Savage’s Firmin, first published in 2006 to good critical review by Coffee House Press, a non-profit house in Minneapolis, which is presumably why it has found new life. Here is the just published edition from Random House.
That cutesy chomp is actually a die-cut, which I’m sure cost a pretty penny in production. The problem? It falls right where many readers would like to hold the book.
The original edition was less slick, but eminently more readable.
The book was also published in the UK this year by Weidenfield & Nicolson, and they seemed to have had a close brush with overly ambitious design as well.
Here’s the UK galley:
And here’s the final book where they wisely pulled back.
It’s still a great story, but it’s always best not to piss off your readers. Also, just from a authenticity point of view, mice always chew from the corners.
Have a story about bad book design that got in the way of YOUR reading experience? Do share.
Savvy by Ingrid Law
Penguin; May 2008; 352 pp; $16.95 HC
Core Audience: Readers 12+ and folks who love predicting award winners
Strengths: Completely original from cover to cover and then some
Twelve-year-old Mibs Beaumont has been counting down the days till her thirteenth birthday—the day her “savvy” will make itself known. Will she be able to create hurricanes like her brother? Or capture wonderful sounds in canning jars like her grandmother? Then Mibs’ father has a terrible accident just before her birthday, and Mibs feels sure that her savvy will be to help her dad. When she stows away on a traveling salesman’s pink bus to try to get to her father’s distant hospital, she finds herself on a madcap odyssey in the heartland of America—one that is as full of unexpected adventure and friendship as Mibs herself. Like some of my other favorite offbeat books of recent years, this story is absolutely original, with detail and a richness in the writing that paves its own way. This novel is also remarkable in the fact that it combines matter-of-fact bible belt imagery and fantastical super-powers in the same story in a way that manages to be neither off-puttingly dogmatic or overly fantastical, but rather sort of dreamy and lyrical. A book as unexpected as its main character and anyone who reads it seems to love it, no matter where they are coming from.
For those of us non-adopters who prefer our books the old fashioned way, the Italian design company Nobody&Co has made it so that we don’t even need to leave our comfy seat for our next read. This bibliochair chair holds nearly 16 1/2 linear feet of books, and comes in six different finishes and cushion covers so it’s basically a sit-alone library. My only concern? Where do you put your arms to rest?
Oh well, fashion hurts. Your reading corner never looked so mod.
Okay, I feel that I have been giving short shrift lately to picture books, which as a designer are one of my first loves. I am having book guilt. So, I have decided that this is Pixie Stix Picture Book Week, and I will post a new review of one of my spring favorites each day. Enjoy!
Polo: The Runaway Book by Regis Faller
Roaring Brook; January 2007; 80 pp; $16.95 HC
Core Audience: All ages; Lovers of great design; Aficionados of wordless picture books
Strengths: Lyrical story full of wonderful visual detail and charming plot twists
Those of you who have been faithful readers know how much I loved Faller’s previous book The Adventures of Polo. Published first in France, these books about a little dog with a great imagination and a bottomless backpack are among my favorite offerings of the last year.
There is so much to love about Polo, it’s hard to know where to begin. Let’s start with the design. Faller’s illustrations are crisp, engaging, and totally irresistible. He plays liberally with graphic formats, using frames, full-bleed, and white space in unexpected juxtapositions throughout the book. An unspooling ball of red yarn breaks the right hand margin, and on successive pages becomes a Family-Circle style loop-de-loop, the ground, a hill to slide down, and then the outline of two trees and a dog-eating castle. Line as path, line as ground, line as object. The book is full of these kinds of graphic transformations.
Before we even get to the title page, we have a whole wordless vignette with Rabbit buying and sending a book to Polo on his little island. Drawn only in black, white, and yellow on a tomato red background, this little prequel grabs the attention from the get go, and sucks the reader right into Polo’s world.
And what a world it is. Magical. Lyrical. Full of the most amazing things. I LOVE books that unfold in a way that takes me on an unexpected journey, and Faller has one of the most unfettered imaginations going. When Polo’s new book is stolen by a little yellow creature–(a star? an alien? a florescent dust bunny with arms?)–Polo immediately sets off from his island in hot pursuit. What follows is a delicious adventure where the chase is only half of the fun. Each development is less predictable than the last as Polo meets a cast of characters including a humongous penguin, a little pig princess, elephant belly dancers, cloud wrestlers and a genie complete with wishes. And them there are the conveyances… A rope to nowhere, a hot air balloon, a raft, a mechanical flying bird, a magic liquid mirror, a dandelion puff, and numerous ladders, holes, caves, nooks, and crannies. Really, I can’t do the book justice in words when it comes to how imaginative it is. You just have to check it out.
Although Polo’s books are officially labeled with a 4-8 age range, to dismiss them simply as picture books for the youngest readers does them a great disservice. At 80 pages, the visual complexity, unexpected plot twists, wordless storytelling, and multiple frames are quite sophisticated, and the lyricism of the story will capture the imagination of everyone who picks them up—even adults.
At this point I am going to give you my rating, and if you are just interested in the review, read no further. This book is FABULOUS, and if you like great design and visual storytelling, stop reading and go order it now.
However, if you are interested in a little more analysis on the publishing industry, read-on….
[Begin digression into TRENDWATCH industry-speak]
For my part, although the Polo books are certainly picture books in production format, I place them in the rapidly growing category of graphic novels for children, and I think they fall on one end of a spectrum that includes things like Emmanuel Guibert & Joann Sfar’s Sardine in Outer Space series and Jeff Smith’s Bone series, which is having an incredible resurgence among elementary readers. In fact, take a good look at the publishing news right now and it’s hard to miss the buzz in this area: in 2006 graphic novels hit $330 million in sales in North America, (surpassing the comic book format), with booksellers clamoring for more titles published for kids because of the demand they’re seeing at book fairs and in stores.
Why do I bring this up? Certainly wordless picture books are not new in and of themselves. (Think Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman, Itstvan Banyai’s Zoom, or Patricia Lehman’s The Red Book and forthcoming Rainstorm.)
However, given the growth in the graphic novel category, and young readers’ increasingly sophisticated and technological world which predisposes them to a high level of visual comprehension, I think this is an exciting time to explore innovative formats and hybrids of traditional publishing forms. Polo is an excellent example of blending genres to great effect, and I expect we will see more and more of this in the kids’ market.
In fact, Roaring Brook’s children’s graphic novel imprint 01:FirstSecond, under the direction of the brilliant Mark Siegel, is on the cutting edge of producing great new graphic work for a whole range of young readers, from elementary school to the most sophisticated teens, and they are actively reaching out to educate the traditional children’s book market. Many other publishers have been launching their own graphic novel imprints for kids as well. (Do a search at Publisher’s Weekly Online for the term “Graphic Novels”, and you’ll get 58 story hits just since the first of this year.) And let’s not forget Manga, which has never been stronger in the US. In a few years we’ll be able to look back on this period as a new golden age of graphic novels, with a whole expansion of the market for kids.
So now what?
I would ask you where you fall? Do you get this genre? If you are a bookseller or a librarian, where do you shelve graphic novels for kids? Do you think it’s a real trend? Do you care?
I think it is a trend, but I also think that there is a pretty clear line between people who get this genre, and people who don’t. I’m not sure if it has to do with age or perception or relationship to technology or what.
However we can always return to the basics. A book like Polo, which straddles these worlds, is at the end of the day, a wonderful book … and comfortingly familiar for all its brilliant ambition.
Yay, Polo. Je t’aime.
For a compelling diversion, visit Polo’s magical world online at Chez Polo. It’s worth it just for the soundtrack.
How It Happened in Peach Hill by Marthe Jocelyn
Random House/Wendy Lamb Books; March 2007; 160 pp; $15.99 HC
Core Audience: Middle grade readers 9-12; people who are intrigued by the subject of fake spiritualism; Scam artists
Strengths: Solid writing that sucks you in immediately, original scenario with bite
This was a sleeper on my galley pile, and I’m so glad I picked it up because it was one of the more enjoyable reads I’ve had in a long time.
Fifteen year-old Annie has a problem. She and her mother have just moved to town, and Annie would like to settle down for awhile, instead of moving around all the time. Peach Hill is a nice quiet ordinary town, and Annie can see that it has a lot to offer. She’d like to make some friends, go to school, and maybe kiss the boy with shiny black hair. In other words, just be normal. But as it is, this can’t happen because everybody in town thinks she’s a drooling dim witted idiot.
Because that’s the scam.
Annie’s life isn’t like the other kids’ lives, and her mother isn’t like other mothers. She’s a spiritualist—Madame Caterina—and she’s come to Peach Hill to read palms, foretell the future, speak with the dead, and take the town for all it’s worth. And Annie is her secret weapon. She can hang around the market and the town square, slack-jawed and lazy-eyed, and go unnoticed except for a few sympathetic glances. Little do the people know that she’s collecting secret intelligence on all of the townsfolk that her mother can then use to defraud them.
But one day Annie decides she’s had enough, and she stages her own miraculous healing, thereby outflanking her canny mother, and setting the scene for some of the more remarkable events Peach Hill has seen for a long time. Smart and strong, Annie has been well schooled in the power of lies, and she turns the table to her advantage.
I loved this coming of age story both because of the spunkiness of Annie’s character, and because of the great supporting cast that makes up this small town. The prohibition-era backdrop is filled with wonderful cameos like the scary revival preacher who makes moonshine in his shed, the two town policemen, one small and one large, the truancy officer who would give the shoes off her feet to keep a kid in school, and the mysterious Mr. Poole who lives in a big house on the hill and has some secrets of his own. This would make a great mother/daughter book club choice or a family read-aloud.
Best of all is the freshness of Annie’s voice, which perfectly captures the tension she feels between the cynicism of the life she’s been brought up in, and her longing for a better, more honest life for herself. She knows she could be as good a grifter as her mother; in fact the town desperately wants her to be the miracle he mother claims her to be. But once Annie starts to think about what SHE might like, things take on a whole new perspective.
This is a great novel that I’d recommend to anyone who loves strong characters, a little mystery, unexpected plot twists, and a touch of fraud thrown in for good measure.
Palm reading anyone?
Order this book from your local independent bookstore
Barkbelly, by Cat Weatherill
Knopf; June 2006; 320 pp; $15.95 HC
Core Audience: Readers 8+; GREAT family read-aloud
Strengths: Unusual premise; precise and imaginative use of language; unpredictable story arc
Every once in awhile a book comes in that begs to be read simply because as a reader you have no idea where it’s headed. It looks and sounds interesting, and it just keeps on going. This is one of those books.
It starts with a shiny wooden egg that drops from the sky, and lands in a field where it is destined to taken home by a kindly farmer after it knocks him on the head. Of course, the egg is not what it seems, and neither is the story.
Cat Weatherill is a performance storyteller in the UK, and the richness and folksiness of her written language bespeaks her profession. This is the tale of Barkbelly, a wooden boy who springs from the aforementioned egg, and then spends the rest of the novel on an adventure of self-discovery. Strong, and seemingly indestructible, Barkbelly approaches life with enthusiastic curiosity and candor. Although on the surface it seems like there might be some obvious overtones of that other famous wooden boy with the long nose, this story is more imaginative and less preachy, and it sets out for new ground immediately.
Equal parts fairytale, archetype, and adventure, Barkbelly is full of wonderful character names like Anvil Allsop, Candy Pie, Mop Mallory, Farmer Muckledown, and Sir Blunderbuss Tything, as well as marvelous place names like Ashenpeake, Pumbleditch, and Pebbleport. And then there are all of the other whimsical elements that keep unfolding like the giant Golden-Spiked Far Forest [Hedge]hogs with magical powers, the sparkly cast of Carmenaro’s Circus, the giant pots of boiling jam, and the attack by the Pirate Captain Lord Fox. During the course of the story Barkbelly discovers that there are more wooden people like him in the big wide world, but his starry-eyed expectations of finding family do not match the reality he encounters. Each of Barkbelly’s adventures is full of juicy, tongue-pleasing language that just begs to read aloud, and plot twists that fire the imagination.
At its heart, Barkbelly’s tale is really a fable about a boy who runs away from a past mistake, and discovers after much trial and error that the solution to his problem— and his true self—lie back where he started. The journey is necessary to find it out for both the character and the reader, and in the end we all celebrate the humble blessings that are right under our noses.