Interview: Alice Hutchinson of Byrd’s Books/ PiBoIdMo Kickoff

This week, we have the pleasure of welcoming Alice Hutchinson, owner of Byrd’s Books, an independent bookseller in Bethel, CT. Alice has been involved in the world of literature for over 30 years, beginning with roles as buyer and manager for her mother’s New Age bookstore. Alice has held several leadership roles within the Bethel community, and holds a Masters of Arts degree in Teaching with a concentration in Young Adult literature. Byrd’s Books was founded almost 3 years ago, and expanded last year into a larger location. If you are in the Bethel are, you can certainly stop in for a visit, but online ordering is also available.

Byrd's Books Logo

 

KDC: Alice, thanks for taking time to give us your insights into the book industry. Tell us what inspired you to open an independent bookstore?

AH: I believe a bookstore creates community, and it becomes a special place where people can support the arts. In our area, there was a vacuum when Borders closed, which I felt created a hole for the book community. There was an opportunity to fill that void, and I had a theory that people still wanted books along with their e-readers. I initially opened in a small location, and found that my theory was correct. So far, this community appears to want to support a brick-and-mortar bookstore, and we moved into a larger location to expand our ability to provide quality literature and book-related merchandise. People realize that when you buy from a local bookstore versus looking in person and then shopping online, you support a business that will then return more funds and involvement to the community itself. We put an emphasis on Connecticut authors, and actively support them through signings, consignment of self-published work, and other events.

KDC: What trends are you seeing now in both the publishing and consumer buying of children’s books?

AH: At Byrd’s Books, our most popular section is Connecticut authors, second most popular is books for ages 9-12, and third is books for 4-8 years old. Parents are looking for chapter books as well as books in a series that their children can get engaged with in order to improve their reading ability. We don’t carry most of the more populist book series (like those from Disney) – I strive to find series with more literary content like those from Kate DiCamillo. Bookstores are responding to the changes with education and the Common Core requirements, and the best way to do that is to carry great non-fiction including science books, good biographies of interesting people, and stories about people and topics that are fun and compelling. Non-fiction is on the rise, which is a good thing for literature anyway and fun to buy for.

KDC: How do you decide what books to buy for the store?

AH: We read Publisher’s Weekly, and we are very active members of the American Bookseller’s Association. We get advance copies of books from both the Association’s division Indie Bound and from publishers, and we do our best to review many of them to find those that are high quality and would be the right fit for the store. Most catalogs from publishers are on a system called Edelweiss, where reps add markers that allow us to see if books are trending on Goodreads, Publisher’s Weekly, or other sources. We do a lot of special orders for customers, which sometimes helps us discover interesting new books.

KDC: If a 5 year old and a 10 year old asked you for book recommendations, what would you tell them?

AH: I would ask them, “What’s the last book you read that you loved?” I listen carefully to how they talk about the book, and that will give me a jumping off point to find them books with similar topics or tone. At 5 years old, children often want chapter books but secretly are still interested in picture books. It also depends on whether they are reading, or they are being read to. If they are reading to themselves, you want to encourage their sight recognition of the words. At 8 years old, children are right on the edge between the 9-12 and 4-8 categories. If they are exceptional readers, you still may find good content in the 4-8 category because it is so wide. I will often take a strong 8 year old reader over to the Newberry section or introduce them to some classics like Mr. Popper’s Penguins, or From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. These books are fun to read, and are an important part of cultural literacy. Often a parent will tell me what they want their child to be reading and that they are bright, but that does not necessarily translate into reading ability or maturity. Your average 11 year old with above average reading ability will come in and ask for books in the teenage section (like The Hunger Games), when there are plenty of great books at the 9-12 level that provide challenge without getting into the issues with social relationships and violence that a high schooler is better prepared to grapple with. Helping match a person with a special find is one of the great joys of book selling.

KDC: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

AH: As we discussed before, our online ordering capability allows you to get the book you want 24 hours a day. We also have a lot of great events coming up, including a children’s writing workshop in February with Gail Carson Levine, and in late November is an opportunity to support your community bookstore through Small Business Saturday. Like ours, many bookstores will be having authors selling books right within the store on that day.

Thank you Alice for your great perspective on the book selling industry. We appreciate your time.

Make sure to support your local bookstore and if you are looking for a place to order your next book, give Byrd’s Books a try!


From Joanna’s desk:

Attention Picture Book Writers! November is Picture Book Idea Month–or PiBoIdMo, for short.

Tara Lazar, who hosts one of 2013’s Top Ten Blogs for Writers, has organized this fun event for quite a few years. The basic premise is to come up with 30 new ideas for picture books, all within November. You could do one idea a day, or all 30 ideas on the last day of the month–that’s up to you. Each day, there will be a special post of encouragement from various peeps in the kid lit world–I’m especially excited about Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen and Ammi-Joan Paquette. There are books to win, even critiques from published authors, agents and editors. Katie participated a few years ago; this is my first time.

Registration is open until Nov. 7th. Sign up here.

 

The Next Step for A Life Spent Reading

From the desks of Joanna and Katie

Hello faithful readers! We’ve been writing our blog for 2-1/2 years now, and have learned so much about ourselves, our readers, and the field of children’s literature. 2015 is just around the corner–and feels like the perfect time for us to upgrade your experience of the blog with more varied content, an improved look, and increased opportunities for us to interact with you.

Over the next few months, we will slowly integrate new types of content, including interviews. We want to make sure the content remains fresh, interesting, and encourages you to share the blog with others. To do this, we need your help! Please take a minute to complete the poll below, or click over to our site if you are an email subscriber. The poll will remain open until Friday, October 31st. Your feedback will help us make the updated blog a great one.

We appreciate your time and input!

Review: Mouse and Mole, A Perfect Halloween

One of my favorite Halloween books this year (last year, too) is Mouse and Mole, A Perfect Halloween, by Wong Herbert Yee. Yee wrote the Fireman Small picture book, which my son loved as a preschooler. When I saw this easy reader, I knew we had to have it.

Divided into four chapters, the book follows best friends, Mouse and Mole, as they prepare for Halloween. Mouse is whimsical, brave, and laughs at everything, while Mole is serious, timid, and does things by the book. As they decorate houses and carve pumpkins, Mouse is the one holding Mole’s hand throughout the scariness of the holiday. But don’t be fooled–there are plenty of twists to keep things interesting!

A Perfect Halloween is suitable for young independent readers, though it’s wonderful to read aloud, too. Mouse and Mole seem like a modern Frog and Toad, and their friendship is just as fun to watch. Yee’s accompanying artwork is also very charming and funny. This story is one of seven books written about Mouse and Mole. So far it’s the only one I’ve read, but the more times I read it, the more I want to read them all.

This would be a fun book to read before carving pumpkins. (You’ll just have to read to find out what happens to Mole’s jack’o’lantern!) Also, it would be a nice choice if you have young ones that might be a touch scared by Halloween–they will be able to see themselves in Mole’s story and find fun in the end.

Book Recommendations: Our Favorite Picture Books

A few months ago, we shared our favorite books for children 1 year and under. Next, we are sharing our favorite picture books. It is a good mix of recently published and rediscovered classics. To choose our list, we considered several criteria. First, did we enjoy reading it as adults (quality of craft and/or a multilayered story)? Did our children ask to read it repeatedly? Did we feel compelled to buy it and add it to our permanent home library? Can we anticipate saving the book for future generations?

As before, each of our personal lists brought back many memories. We will have to read some of these again soon!

Here are our favorite picture books for children, in alphabetical order by author:

An Egg Is Quiet, Dianna Ashton

The Mine-o-saur, Sudiptha Bardhan-Quallen

The Curious Garden, Peter Brown

Mr. Tiger Goes Wild, Peter Brown

One Cool Friend, Toni Buzzeo

If You Find A Rock, Peggy Christian

That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown, Cressida Cowell

Llama Llama Red Pajama, Anna Dewdney

Moonshot, Brian Floca

Whoever You Are, Mem Fox

Ox-cart Man, Donald Hall

Bread and Jam For Frances, Russell Hoban

The Horse in Harry’s Room, Syd Hoff

The Story of Ferdinand, Munro Leaf

Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, Bill Martin, Jr.

Me…Jane, Patrick McDonnell

Race You to Bed, Bob Shea

Born Yesterday: The Diary of a Young Journalist, James Solheim

The Stinky Cheeseman and other Fairly Stupid Tales, Jon Scieszka

Grandpa Green, Lane Smith

Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, Mo Willems

Owl Moon, Jane Yolen

You are a Lion, Taeeun Yoo

Do have other favorites not on this list? Please share!

Connections Across the Miles

I believe that technology can be an amazing resource for a writer. It certainly can have its downsides, but used properly it can make information and support much more readily available.

In my writing, I often have questions about certain details. For example, I am writing a picture book about a boy in Venice. As I was writing, I wondered: What type of boats do your average Venetians own? If the main character went out into the Adriatic Sea, would he be able to see land? How do you say “my boy” in Italian? Thanks to Google, YouTube, and other Internet resources, I had my answer quickly and could focus on the story telling. Just 10-20 years ago, I would have needed to make a list of my questions, go to my local library, and search for the answers in reference books. And if I still had questions, I might need to write letters to experts, or travel to other libraries.

Technology such as video chatting, email, online courses, and file sharing sites help us stay connected as writers. I began my formal writing journey years ago with an online course with Gotham Writer’s Workshop. I took several courses with other aspiring writers from all over the United States, and the world. As a result of that class, several of us formed a critique group that met virtually – first by email and Google Docs, and then by video chatting.

Over 3-1/2 years later, our critique group endures. Its members have ebbed and flowed, and we have added other tools to help us better support each other’s writing. The constant has been Joanna and me, and our writing partnership.

Prior to this week, Joanna and I had only met once before in person at an SCBWI conference 2 years ago. I need to often remind myself of this, since I talk to her frequently by email and video chats every few weeks. This week, Joanna travelled all the way from Wyoming to the East Coast for her MFA residency. She spared a few days before school began to visit with me and my family.

Joanna was only here for less than 24 hours, but connecting with her in person was such a blessing. We hiked, we talked, I showed her my town, and my children totally fell in love with her. When she got on the train and waved goodbye, my daughter cried and I couldn’t help feeling a little sad too. She has had such a positive impact on my writing, and has supported me through all the ups and downs of new projects, rejections, and becoming a better writer.

So technology has brought me wonderful resources, feedback, support, and friends. It sustains me through the long writing process. But it could never replace how it feels to connect with another person, walking beside you. We got a little lost on our hike, but as always, we found our way out together.

Book Recommendations for Children 1 Year Old and Under

One of our critique group members recently became a grandma, so we were discussing our favorite books for very young children. Each of our personal lists brought back many memories, and we ended up with a solid list of quality books. So we thought we’d share them with you!

Here are our favorite books for children 1 year old and younger, in alphabetical order by author:

Hug, Jez Alborough

Sandra Boynton Books– including Pajama Time; Blue Hat, Green Hat; Moo, Baa, La la la!; Barnyard Dance!

The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Eric Carle

Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type, Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin

Are You My Mother? P.D. Eastman

Time For Bed, Mem Fox

Orange Pear Apple Bear, Emily Gravett

Cowboy Small, Lois Lenski

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?/ Panda Bear, Panda Bear, What Do You See? Bill Martin and Eric Carle

Guess How Much I Love You, Sam McBratney

Blueberries for Sal, Robert McCloskey

Good Night Gorilla, Penny Rathmann

Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever, Richard Scarry

I Am A Bunny, Richard Scarry

Sheep in a Jeep, Nancy Shaw and Margot Apple

I Love You Through and Through, Bernadette Rossetti Shustak

Hop on Pop, Dr. Seuss

Owl Babies, Martin Waddell

That’s Not My Puppy/ That’s Not My Car/ That’s Not My Dinosaur, Fiona Watt and Rachel Wells

Knufflebunny, Mo Willems

Goodnight Moon, Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd

Runaway Bunny, Margaret Wise Brown

Do have other favorites not on this list? Please share!

Returning to Page One: A Second Take on Rereading

A few weeks ago, Katie shared why she doesn’t reread books. Basically, there aren’t enough hours in the day–she’d rather expose herself to something new. That’s a completely valid point. In fact, it reminds me of a different friend’s opinion that movies should only be watched once. (Gasp!) I have a slightly different take. It’s not a rebuttal, exactly. My day is, unfortunately, just as hour-deficient as Katie’s, and there are many books I enjoyed reading but would never reread. Still, I can think of at least two reasons to return to page one.

Lately, the primary reason I have reread books–wonderful stories such as Graceling, The Fault in Our Stars and One Crazy Summer–is because I’m studying craft techniques as part of my MFA. In the past few months, I’ve read each of those books at least three times. It’s only by reading so closely that I was able to dig deep enough to see how subtle  writing can be.

The second reason to reread is to reconnect with an emotional journey. Sometimes I reread to snicker (Ella Enchanted), or to have a good, solid cry (aforementioned The Fault in Our Stars). I’m also a sucker for reliving the moments of hesitation and resistance and surrender that first love brings; at 38, I’m never going to fall in love for the first time again. Mostly, I love coming of age stories–I feel as if I’m constantly coming of age. And maybe I can learn from watching someone else struggle through her own journey, even a fictional one.

Both of these reasons could be boiled down to this: Rereading means learning.

Every time I reread, something different in the text pops out at me. Maybe it’s a character trait I hadn’t noticed, or the way an author sets up a series of tiered epiphanies. Whatever it is, rereading has strongly influenced how I’ve evolved both as a reader and as a writer, and arguable as a person.

Next question: Do you keep books or pass them on?

Weakness and Opportunity

I’ve been absent from the blog while working toward my MFA at Lesley University, and it’s good to come back for a quick reflection. When Katie and I chat, which we do with semi-regularity, we often discuss the latest thing I’m learning in my program. There’s always a lot to talk about.

During my recent residency in Boston, one of the faculty asked us to be truthful about our writing weaknesses. A task such as this is always easier said than done. Of course, we all have weaknesses. (Mine is dark chocolate sea salt caramels. Isn’t yours?) Prior to this seminar, I would have said revision was my biggest weakness. But if our weaknesses should be our top priority when it comes to revision, as this faculty person said, then revision itself couldn’t be my weakness. Besides, revision isn’t a craft technique. It’s the process of reworking the mechanics (read: craft techniques) of a piece. So I couldn’t play it safe with “revision.” But what I discovered at first unnerved me.

In general, my characters are deemed likable or relatable. At the same time, they trend toward being one-dimensional, lacking backstory, or blurring with other characters. In the case of my current WIP, I’d been thinking about these characters for over three years—I was convinced I knew them well. But when my chapters were workshopped at residency, there were questions about my characters I couldn’t answer. Here are just a few:

What was Sage doing when she found out her father had died?

What did she think when her mother first told her they were moving out of the country?

What did AJ think when he met his adoptive parents for the first time?

Why did Leighanne resist going to Nepal all those years?

Did Tenzin ever resent having a nun for a mother?

What fascinating questions! And what I wouldn’t give to know the answers to them.

It’s incredible to grasp how much I can not know my characters. Right now, they live only in my head. At some point, I hope they will live in your head as well, but until that day, I’m all they’ve got. To tell their stories, I would have to get to know them better.  I’d discovered a weakness, and a pretty significant one at that. What to do?

My advisor for this semester, Sara Zarr, recommended daily writing prompts by Sarah Selecky. (You can access it here.) Using these prompts, I write scenes with various characters from my WIP. A recent favorite involved an unnamed baby. In writing this scene, I discovered more about the dynamic between my protagonist’s parents. And while their relationship is somewhat critical to the backstory, I honestly hadn’t given them much thought.

Now, uncovering the details about my characters is a top priority, and the daily prompts are a big part in this process. Since I don’t know the answer (and arguably there is no right answer) of who my characters are, I can simply experience the joy of discovering new things about them. And my characters are so much more interesting than I ever would have imagined. I don’t foresee being able to use these scenes directly in my WIP, but I’ve only been doing them a few weeks, and already I feel more in touch with my characters. I’m hooked.

At first I was scared to confront the idea that I didn’t know my characters. Now I see that even within weakness there is opportunity. This is true beyond writing as well. Whether your weakness is defining characters or asking for help or speaking in front of large groups, be brave and embrace it fully. Who knows what will come of it.

Lost (and Found) in MFA-land

Here’s a shout-out to Katie for giving so much love to the blog!

I’ve been a bit absent lately. And will be for the next few months.

Remember when I applied for an MFA? Writing submissions, check. References, check. Acceptance, check! I was accepted into three of the four programs I applied for and am now happily enrolled  in Lesley University in Boston. In fact, my first semester is almost half over. That’s like 1/8th done with the whole MFA!

Okay. I’m counting pennies, but I’m so excited to be doing it. Critically reading young adult literature (and having to write essays about what I discover–still painful at this point). Ripping apart and rebuilding one of my manuscripts. Researching 17th century Holland for a different one.

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It’s all so interesting, stimulating. And how can my writing do anything but improve?

One highlight so far has been working with my faculty advisor, Jackie Davies. She’s written a number of successful books for young people. My recent favorite is The Candy Smash, the fourth in a middle grade series about a brother and sister. I’ve learned so much from her guidance, and this kind of close mentorship was precisely what I was looking for in getting an MFA.

Here’s a sampling of the books I’m reading for my various independent studies:

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It’s a great variety, and that helps keep me engaged, for sure. I’ve only just begun, but I am so excited for wherever I am going with this! From time to time, I’ll chime in to the blog, to share what I’m learning. And thanks again to Katie for keeping our blog’s momentum!

The MFA: Part One

A few months ago I wrote a post about MFAs, specifically on whether or not I would apply for one of the few programs on writing for young people. I ended up applying to four schools, getting into three, and finally accepting a position at Lesley University in Boston (forever known to me as Bostron from my college days). I couldn’t be happier about Lesley. I’m not sure I totally understand what I have signed up for, and might not know until the two years are up, but I can already feel the momentum building underneath me. A literary adventure awaits!

In preparation for the first of five residencies, Lesley and Co. has sent out a list of required/recommended readings for workshops, and then there will be manuscripts to read as well. Having this work at first overwhelmed me. How was I going to tackle it all? But now that I’m engrossed in the reading, my excitement for the endeavor of getting an MFA increases with every assignment I read.  So far I haven’t gotten through that much, but I’ve already applied the readings to my own WIPs (at least mentally). I can’t wait to see how my writing and critical thinking improve through this program.

Lesley’s program appealed me for many reasons, one of which is their interdisciplinary slant. For the first three semesters I’ll take a class in a subject related to, but not necessarily on the craft of, writing. Maybe this will be Creative Writing Pedagogy (a class that would be great if I ever want to teach) or Historical Fiction. I could even develop an independent study specifically for one of my WIPs — like a class on 17th century Surinam for my historical YA manuscript. So interesting! As a generalist in almost all things, the opportunity to learn many different aspects of the craft is very exciting. Though I expect to work closely with my advisors so that I don’t spread myself too thin (one of my habits).

Amidst all this excitement is a good-ol’-fashioned case of stage fright (Book fright?). What if, once I get there, Lesley doesn’t think I’m good enough? <Sigh.> This is normal, at least for me, and I’ll do what I always do in situations that press me. Pretend I’m not scared! It’s not very suave but sooner or later I’ll be in it, doing it, using that strong self-critic to drive my work. At least, that’s what I’m hoping for!

Have you gone through later-in-life schooling or expansion of some kind? Was it harder or easier than you expected?