Shelf Lives: From Bookseller to Bestseller

The Books of Wonder mafia: George O'Connor, Julie Fogliano, Neal Porter (editor), Philip and Erin Stead, Nick Bruel with daughter Izzy, and store manager Jennifer Lavonier. Photo: Carina Vocisano. The Books of Wonder mafia: George O'Connor, Julie Fogliano, Neal Porter (editor), Philip and Erin Stead, Nick Bruel with daughter Izzy, and store manager Jennifer Lavonier. Photo: Carina Vocisano.

When Brian Selznick first applied to work at Eeyore’s Books for Children on New York’s Upper West Side, he was given a children’s literature test by store manager Steve Geck. “I knew Where the Wild Things Are, the Remy Charlip book Fortunately, and some Dr. Seuss,” recalls Selznick. “One of the questions was, ‘What book would you recommend for a ten-year-old?’ and I think I wrote down a Dr. Seuss title. Steve basically told me to go away.”

Selznick got himself to a library, immersed himself in children’s books, and re-applied for the job — this time successfully. “I still didn’t know a huge amount, but Steve would send me home with a bag of books every night.”

Starting out as an author or illustrator can be difficult, but many aspiring children’s book creators have been able to delve deep into the world of kids’ books while working at stores such as Eeyore’s (which closed in 1993). Learning the trade of bookselling has taught them about both the economics and, indirectly, the craft of children’s books — and often gave them a community of like-minded souls. Thankful for both the bags of books he read and the people he met, Selznick — illustrator of the Caldecott-winning Invention of Hugo Cabret, Wonderstruck, the Doll People series, and, most recently, The Marvels, among many others — says, “It’s very easy to draw a line from Eeyore’s to everything I’ve done since.”

While talking to a selection of booksellers-turned-book-creators, I found that the lessons they learned from their time working at bookstores range widely, from the highly conceptual to the very practical. But everyone agrees that a central benefit stems from having ready access to many great children’s books.

Nick Bruel, creator of the Bad Kitty series of picture books and chapter books, was starting out as a cartoonist when he took a job at Manhattan’s Books of Wonder and became immersed in “this rich history of illustration. Your job is to get as many books as possible into the hands of children. To do that, you have to read a lot of children’s books. You have to figure out what works and why.” Bruel says he submitted material to publishers for four or five years “before I created something that was viable as a children’s book.”

Two-time Newbery Medal winner Kate DiCamillo (The Tale of Despereaux, Flora and Ulysses) worked at a Minneapolis book warehouse, the Bookmen, early in her career. As a “picker,” she had to pull books off the shelves and transport them from one floor to another for shipment. “I read a lot on the job. Is that terrible to say? I did. I read one miraculous book after another.” At Half-Price Books, the new-and-used-bookstore where she subsequently worked, she remembers
...mothers coming into the store clutching copies of Louis Sachar’s Holes and saying, “My son read this. He loved it. My son needs another book just like this one. Help me.” I remember standing there and saying, “Well, there isn’t another book just like this one. But let’s see, how about The Westing Game?” I loved it. All of it. All those people who read books and talked about books. Working [at those two places] gave me permission, hope, inspiration, an education.

It is hard to keep up with all the books published every year, even if that is your job. But Leo Landry (Eat Your Peas, Ivy Louise!), who worked at The Children’s Book Shop in Brookline, Massachusetts, for twenty years and now works at An Unlikely Story Bookstore and Café in Plainville (opened in 2015 by Diary of a Wimpy Kid creator Jeff Kinney and his wife, Julie), says: “Reading that many picture books helped me figure out their pacing, as an author and illustrator. It also really helped me find my own style as an artist. I learned what I liked.”

* * *

Interacting with children in bookstores has also influenced the work of children’s book creators. Franny Billingsley’s first novel developed from overhearing girls talking about books they loved.
These were upper elementary and middle-school kids, and they loved books about friendship. I don’t know how clearly I thought about it then, but Well Wished is about a complicated friendship, with a fantastical element. It’s the friendship that makes one protagonist do a really dangerous thing, which provides the catalyst for the main part of the plot.

Billingsley also conducted “about a million story-hours” during her twelve years at Chicago’s 57th Street Books. Although she considers herself a novelist at heart, she says that “because I read picture books aloud so often, I got them into my blood and my bones. I would see what made the kids laugh and what made them yawn, and I wrote a picture book [Big Bad Bunny], which was published after I left the store.”

Novelist Jenny Han (The Summer I Turned Pretty), too, saw the value of firsthand experience with her future audience. She was a graduate student in writing at The New School in New York when she started working at Books of Wonder. “It was a way to find out what was popular with kids, not just adults,” she says.

Terra Elan McVoy has worked at Little Shop of Stories in Decatur, Georgia, for ten years. The author of seven YA and middle-grade novels, including The Summer of Firsts and Lasts and Being Friends with Boys, McVoy says that running book clubs for girls has made her more aware of her audience. “As I am writing, I know that my middle-school girls may be reading my books. I don’t want to put anything in there that I wouldn’t be willing to talk about with them.”

Marika McCoola (Baba Yaga’s Assistant), who works at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has also found the feedback from young customers useful: “Watching elementary-school girls get excited about graphic novels made me excited that there was a place for my graphic novels.” McCoola’s Porter Square Books colleague Mackenzi Lee (This Monstrous Thing) says that her bookselling experience has given her an appreciation of the way good YA books develop exposition, story, and characters very quickly. “If readers are not hooked in the first few pages, they will put the book down.”

* * *

George O'Connor and Nick Bruel at Books of Wonder. George O'Connor and Nick Bruel at Books of Wonder. Photo: Miriam Parnes.

Authors and illustrators who have worked in bookstores (and libraries, no doubt) are well aware of the gatekeepers who connect their books to young customers. Says Caldecott-winning illustrator Erin Stead (A Sick Day for Amos McGee), “You do realize that you have to get the books past the adults some of the time. But I don’t make books for adults. I mean, I don’t want an adult to read a book of mine and want to kill me, but they are not my main concern. I just want to make a good book.”

Stead worked at Books of Wonder at the same time as Nick Bruel and became part of a group that editor Neal Porter later called the “Books of Wonder mafia.” Surrounded by classics and out-of-print books, Stead found that many of “the illustrations are amazing but that the storytelling could be dated. A lot of the stories are basically about conforming. Books now show that kids can be different — they should be proud of it, that it makes us better.”

Other classics, though, provided invaluable lessons to up-and-coming creators. Books of Wonder mafia members Julie Fogliano (And Then It’s Spring, illustrated by Erin Stead) and Jason Chin (Redwoods; Gravity) both mention Ruth Krauss as inspiration. Krauss’s books made Fogliano “realize you don’t need characters and stories with a beginning, middle, and end.” And although Krauss’s I’ll Be You and You Be Me, illustrated by Maurice Sendak, is not one of Chin’s own personal favorites, he saw how it “speaks directly to kids. It’s a very tender book but not sentimental.”

Plus, these aspiring creators were surrounded by a constant stream of new, sometimes innovative books being published that offered them creative inspiration. Nick Bruel cites I Stink by Kate and Jim McMullan as one of the books that impressed him for not following a formula.
Right in the middle of these anecdotes about a truck, there’s an alphabet of all of the disgusting things that this truck wants to eat. The alphabet is not important to the story, but critical to the book as a whole. Picture books don’t necessarily have to be storybooks. Or rather, you can tell a story in myriad ways. I didn’t appreciate that until I was working at the store.

Peter Glassman, co-founder of Books of Wonder as well as an author himself (The Wizard Next Door; My Working Mom; My Dad’s Job), says that he doesn’t set out to hire talented writers and illustrators. He says the most important qualification is “an ability to communicate a love of books. If you can’t sell books, we have to close the store.” Elizabeth Bluemle has run The Flying Pig Bookstore in Vermont (with co-owner Josie Leavitt) while also writing several picture books (Tap Tap Boom Boom; Dogs on the Bed), but she keeps the roles very separate. “They are completely different zones of the brain. When I look at my work after it’s done, I think from a bookselling and teaching point of view about whether it has a resonance with an audience.”

Peter H. Reynolds (The Dot) had established himself as an author and illustrator before opening the Blue Bunny Bookstore in Dedham, Massachusetts, in 2003. Since then, the store has grown up with its audience. Having started with board books and picture books, it now includes a café and books for adults. “Being in touch with the front line — seeing how kids light up when a book is special — definitely inspires me,” says Reynolds.

The Blue Bunny Bookstore. Photo courtesy of Peter H. Reynolds. The Blue Bunny Bookstore. Photo courtesy of Peter H. Reynolds.

* * *

Several authors and illustrators have also mentioned the benefit of knowing the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that goes into bookselling. While working on the Books of Wonder website and newsletter and on the sales floor, Jason Chin learned the nuts and bolts of how bookstores operate. Among other things, “I understand when I go to an event now that I should always thank the booksellers. It’s a lot of work.”

“It’s physically grueling,” agrees Bruel. “You are on your feet for hours a day, hauling boxes of hardcovers around. I think everyone in publishing needs to spend at least a month working in retail because you need to see what becomes of the end product you create.”

One of Brian Selznick’s duties at Eeyore’s was painting art on the store windows. “I would change them every couple of weeks. They had to look good from across the street and up close, and this training was helpful when it came to doing book covers because you want to grab people’s attention.”

George O’Connor, creator of The Olympians graphic novel series, was an illustration student at Pratt Institute when he started working at Books of Wonder. He credits the bookstore, rather than his schooling, for teaching him about the publishing industry. “There wasn’t much taught about the business side in my program. I got to meet tons of illustrators, authors, editors, and marketing people through the store.” He followed the advice that Shel Silverstein, a frequent customer, gave him: “Write your own books. Editors are looking for reasons to reject you and they might not like the writer you teamed up with. Plus, you get paid twice.”

Bluemle says she is “more realistic about some things,” such as book tours, because she has been a bookseller. “I didn’t have the illusion that I would have a hundred people at my readings in places where I didn’t have family and friends.” On the other hand, she says, “one of the great gifts [of being a bookseller] is that I know there is room enough for every good book to find its home.”

From the January/February 2016 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.
Abby McGanney Nolan
Abby McGanney Nolan
Abby McGanney Nolan is working on a nonfiction children’s book about American utopian communities.
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Charlene O'Brien

This post truly speaks of the passion inhabiting the hearts and heads of those who work in children's books. Some types of work might be better paid, but, it's almost all good work in which to be involved.

Posted : Feb 11, 2016 08:40

Aaron Barnhart

I am so looking forward to Abby's book this summer!

Posted : Dec 31, 2015 03:52

Nick Bruel

Interesting foot note. Back before I worked at Books of Wonder, I worked for many years at a general bookstore called Shakespeare and Co. on the Upper Westside. I really wasn't a bookseller, since for most of my tenure there I worked in the stockroom where I labored day in and day out hauling boxes around, checking in orders, maintaining inventory, and quietly suffering. Since the stockroom had its own separate entrance to the street, there was very little reason for us to enter the sales floor, so instead of customers we mostly interacted with other residents in the building. One day, someone new appeared, a young man who was slightly taller and even slightly skinnier than me and wearing a wide, bold smile. And, yes, I was once tall and thin instead of the hunchbacked Pillsbury dough boy I've since become. He was hauling boxes with a hand truck out of a tiny room that I wasn't even aware of being a room. I, too, was hauling boxes with a hand truck out of the stock room. (If you've ever worked in retail, then you will know that there really is no skill more admired than being able to master a hand truck. If I had to be stranded on a desert island with only one other person, I would rather that person owned a hand truck than a carrot cake. It's just a sign of good breeding.) He and I exchanged pleasantries, and he told me that he worked at the nearby store Eeyore's which was renting this glorified closet for storage purposes. Over the next few months, I would run into this nice guy several times until, of course, Eeyores closed its doors and never reopened them. Years later, Brian Selznick and I would run into each other at the CBC Children's Book Week Gala and realize that we knew each other way back during our respective previous lifetimes. It was a pretty marvelous realization. If there's any message to this story, it's that Brian Selznick was always a pretty friendly and nice guy, even long before he won a Caldecott.

Posted : Dec 18, 2015 04:08


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