In reading about the Marcy’s Diner debacle this past week, I needed to remind myself to not be upset or horrified by the well of angry emotions that boiled up in the comments by readers. Vehemence against children seems an all too easily triggered meme, and my guess is it reflects our own childhood experience of being seen as an unworthy little annoyance.

I wish I could invite all those angry readers into my cheerful children’s bookstore. I’d give each a sticker and read them a story, and really listen to them and take them seriously as learning people. I’d show them books that would make their eyes sparkle with joyful anticipation, and do what I could to help give back their birthright of a joyful childhood.

I’m afraid I couldn’t fit all those needy adults in my store, however, but I wouldn’t force them to leave if they cried loudly at realizing they were gypped out of the happy childhood they deserved. Because they would cry – I’m certain that’s why they are yelling now.

Most astonishing to me was how the internet conversation centered around etiquette. A person is in despair and howling and we’re focused on manners? Are tears worth less because they are from a small person? Is anyone at all concerned with WHY the child may have been wailing? How was that being addressed and by whom? Why is it expected that small children cry irrationally? Just because we misunderstood or are unable to determine the cause of a child’s distress doesn’t mean the child isn’t crying for a very valid , to him or her, reason. Isn’t it a parent’s job to HELP the child? And too, as a store owner, my role is to offer help if *any* of my customers is in distress, regardless of their time/space coordinates.

In my view, children need to learn that there are people in the world who will help them (hopefully, their parents, who have a deep moral obligation to do so), help ease their distress until they develop the skills to do so themselves. Isn’t that what we all need? In my view, that’s much more important learning than mere manners.

Also, making one’s child a priority ahead of “what people think of me or my parenting” is, from my experience, the absolutely right approach. With a modicum of creativity, seeing that your child’s needs are met shouldn’t need to inconvenience or upset others. Quite honestly, I’m far more upset when a parent drags a screaming child out of a public place than I am hearing a parent trying to respectfully help a crying child. At the same time, I sympathize with the parent for so many reasons, not the least of which is a clear view to their childhood self, and their own deeper needs unmet.

I would have served free pancakes to everyone with a whopping dollop of “I’m so sorry.” The owner and mom could have apiggone on squabbling while baby and I had a good time and some yummy pancakes.

You Are My Families

January 1, 2014

The other day I had the joy of helping a mother and her three girls, each with a generous gift certificate.  This is a reading family, a book loving family in which each person clearly has their own unique and evolving relationship with books.

The youngest had just begun reading and she sat at our little table with a stack of books. She read a bit from each book softly, the words barely audible under her breath. She was clearly proud of her new ability and intent on finding a book in her comfort zone, not too difficult but challenging enough to hold her interest. The oldest daughter nearly skipped about the store, creating a huge arm filling stack, eyes sparkling brightly. Mom sought advice and gave the girls good input, clearly putting great thought into the unique needs of each child. The middle child was the most discerning: too long a book wouldn’t do, nor would  a too slim volume work. It couldn’t be too boring, too silly; nothing seemed to suit her. Mom and the other sisters were patient and helpful, making suggestions, reminding her of books she’d read and liked. Finally, when accounts were being tallied, she found, entirely unassisted, a wonderful new graphic novel from The Olympians series. This was perfect she’d decided and all of them, including mom, left happily anticipating their new reads.

While admiring this delightful bunch and thinking about the many other “book families” who frequent our store, I was taken back to a conversation I’d had a few years ago. It was late September in 2011 and Borders was closing. My daughter and I drove to the Mount Kisco store to see if there were any great bargains as well as possible booksellers looking for work. We found a few books whose prices were lower than our wholesalers and a couple items that satisfied my daughter’s ‘need right now’ whims.

We stood in a long line when the cashier looked past the faces of a few people ahead of us. “Hey” he smiled, and while he looked a bit familiar, I couldn’t quite place him. Our turn came to pay and he gave my daughter a huge grin. “My goodness you’ve grown!” he remarked. Seeing the puzzlement on my face he said ” White Plains Borders, you used to come there with your whole family. You’d stay for hours.” Suddenly I recognized him as a very nice and helpful bookseller “And your brother, (he turned to my daughter) well, he must be in college by now … right Mom?”

I swallowed hard as my eyes filled, we’d spent so many happy hours there, browsing, reading, sharing. I began to stumble over my words, always fearful of people’s reactions … “We, um, well, the sad story (I ease them in slowly, it’s like landing a plane) well, we , actually, we lost her brother two years ago. He had a seizure in his sleep.” “Oh no,” the kind bookseller looked stricken “I’m so sorry …” “No, no, ” I replied “I’m so grateful for you remembering us.”

And then, the tears on both sides of the counter breaking down social boundaries, he shared his memory of us as “his family.” “In the store we each had favorite customers and families and you guys were like “my” family. I always loved when you came by, which was a lot, and your kids were so nice, and they loved books, and you were all so happy and always having a good time. And he used to wear them funny pants,” (he looked suddenly apologetic but I laughed, remembering our boy’s penchant for “easy on” clothes) ” … and he’d get excited and kinda jump around,” (yes he did, my joyful kid). And the tears streamed and I thanked this sweet man for the gift of his memory.  He remembered. He’d seen us.

And on this sad and happy transition into a New Year , just to say, to “my families,” I see you.

Happy New Year.

2014

Elf Resigns! Goes Off Shelf!

December 14, 2012

Elf resigns. Says controlling children with threats is just wrong.

Elf resigns. Says controlling children with threats is just wrong.

Dear Santa,

After working for you in the capacity as Elf on the Shelf for quite some time, it is not without some regret that I resign my position. I will miss my visits to the North Pole but I must say I will be relieved to not have to report misdeeds of children to you each night.
In addition to the wear and tear of such travel, I have discovered a new way of looking at and relating to children that no longer allows me to threaten them into goodness. I’ve discovered that coerced goodness is not goodness at all, but is in fact a dynamic that breeds mistrust, cynicism and deeply interferes with real learning.
Rather than helping the children that depend on me to learn to be good, they are simply learning to appear to be good. That is a huge difference and puts them at risk for doing bad or even dangerous things behind my back.
I really like the kids I live with! Why would I want to have a relationship with them based on fear and mistrust? We are now having great discussions about my thoughts on goodness and theirs. I’m learning so much from these talks too; about them and about myself. Plus I am modeling goodness rather than being a nasty tattletale.
Santa I know how much you love kids, now it’s time to learn to respect them as well. It’s a new era Santa, where adults need to be trusted advisors to children and not behavior police. It makes us all kinder, smarter and happier.
Sorry for the short notice, have a great holiday!
Yours Truly,
Elf off the Shelf

Waiting for the storm …

October 29, 2012

Image
I write this while working from home, book store closed, waiting for Hurricane Sandy to officially show up. So far, the announcement of her impending arrival has been dramatic, as branches and leaves fly recklessly across the backyard and the whooshing in the trees begins to sound like a train.

It is an odd limbo-like place to be, awaiting a storm. And yet, in truth, not unlike our every day existence if we admit it, only a vague idea of what peril or pleasures await us moment to moment.

I’m always impressed by human resilience and bravery (sometimes foolhardiness). There is a spirit of survival in each of us that is remarkable in the face of even the worst tragedies and circumstances. Grim news, divisive politics, monster storms and yet we struggle and fight to assure the safety of ourselves and our loved ones. For all our vulnerabilities and flaws, as a species I think we pretty much rock.

I am amazed by all the technology involved in storm tracking, the ability to forecast and measure and project … all things that help us plan and prepare for safety, creating better odds of survival. It is breathtaking to see how far we’ve come. The ancient forecasters with animal entrails, offerings to the gods, superstitious attempts to curry favor with a random universe, seem like children playing compared to the sophisticated methods of our scientists today.

Still, as the wind gathers strength, and envelops our aging shelter, tile and stucco, rattling windowpanes,  there is a part of me that thrills at the power of this elemental force. With the primal spirit of ancient ancestors, I want to run out into the wind and rain, shouting and dancing like the excited children next door. I hear their shrieks of wild laughter as I once again refresh the online navigational chart of the path of the hurricane and worry if I’ve secured the porch furniture well enough. I’m probably safe.

Mother Love

April 28, 2012

With Mother’s Day around the corner I’m thinking about the unconditional, all encompassing love we feel for each of our children. There are wonderful mothers in books, from Marmee of Little Women to the fierce “Not my daughter!” Molly Weasley in Harry Potter.

An old Chinese proverb tells us “There is only one pretty child in the world, and every mother has it.” And then there’s the angrily protective Mrs. Jumbo, defending her darling large-eared baby from the teasing crowds.

Like many little girls, I easily expressed my own motherly instincts with a favorite doll. I took her everywhere, including our community center in Allentown where we attended the local pool.

One day, amidst the splashing crowds, our play was interrupted by the crackling public address system announcing a Beautiful Doll Contest at 2 o’clock. My sister rolled her eyes as I pleaded with my mother to let me enter the contest with my beloved doll.

My mother pointed out the little girls in party dresses and their fancy expensive dolls (Madame Alexander was all the rage at the time). Nothing would deter me from presenting my own beautiful baby of mottled vinyl, dripping wet and naked, her hair chopped by me several days before.

According to family lore, I sat proudly and utterly unaware of the chuckling in the audience and among the judges. While the other girls held their fancy dolls awaiting the golden trophies lined up on the table, a kindly judge reached into his own pocket and awarded me a quarter for the Most Loved Doll.

I bought my sister ice cream with my prize money and smiled adoringly at my prize winning baby.

May each of you be an adored child. It’s everyone’s birthright.
Happy Mother’s Day.

We recently hosted children’s book author Roni Schotter at our store with her wonderful new book, All About Grandmas. My conversations with Roni seem to go right to the heart level, some kind of lovely chemistry bewteen us. It was no different this time, as we talked about what led her to write this newest of her many books. I’d commented that so many Grandma books, with the exception of a few favorites, are little more than 32 page greeting cards. This one, I said, has so much content, is so much richer than most and then she shared the story of how the book evolved for her. That was when I proposed that she be our very first guest blogger and share the sweet story of her path to this ” clever, buoyant look at many children’s favorite relative” (Kirkus). If you’re lucky enough to have your Grandma (or your child’s Grandma) around, a personalized copy would make a great Mother’s Day gift!

  HOW DID ALL ABOUT GRANDMAS COME TO BE WRITTEN?

I’ve written 29 books for children.  All of them come from deep feeling. My newest book, All About Grandmas, is no exception.  But, I’m not yet a grandmother, so why was I motivated to write a picture book about grandchildren and the grandmas who love them?

Simply stated, the answer is/was loss.  Many years ago my mother died–long before my son was born–so he and she never got to meet or know one another.  My mother-in-law, though “a cooking grandmother,” was not a particularly involved one. Fortunately, however, for the first year of my son’s life, Jean, a former dear friend of my mother’s and a woman with vast spirit, came to the hospital to hold my baby son in her grandmotherly arms, and visited during his first year of life.  Though she died soon after, it was so moving to me to have had her with us, however briefly, as an honorary grandmother.

When I speak to child writers, I call myself a writer/detective—because, so often, I am spying on others—listening in on conversations, ever on the track of possible stories.  While my son was growing up, I often found myself watching grandchildren with their grandmothers.  Since my son didn’t have the advantage of a grandmother of his own, I defensively imagined the grandchildren I saw as “burdened” with their aging grandmothers.

One day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, this protective subterfuge abruptly ended. There I saw a 12-year-old boy wheeling his grandmother in her wheelchair.  Poor thing, I thought of the boy–what a bore! What a chore!  But then I watched as he parked his grandmother’s wheelchair in front of a painting. Coming around to the front, he leaned his head up against hers as, tete-a-tete, the two of them discussed the painting.  Their intimacy and connection moved me to tears.  My protective armor crashed to the floor and now I ached to find a way to write about this truly special relationship.

The final inspiration for ALL ABOUT GRANDMAS came a few years later when I re-met “Tuz”– an old friend of my long-deceased mother.  Born with a congenital defect in her hip, she needed a walker or cane to get about, so she could only rarely visit her adult daughter. Despite all this, she had a mischievous soul and an activist nature—she and her husband worked to help people less fortunate than they.

Wanting my now nine-year-old son to know this former friend of my mom’s (and also of Jean’s!) I brought him to meet her.  On her walker, we watched her smilingly inch her way though the house.  “There are cooking grandmothers,” she proudly announced to my son, “and dancing grandmothers.  I’m a dancing grandmother!”  It was true—despite her body, her spirit soared and danced.  Her message to my son was an enduring one–about the mobility and power of a great soul. Inspired, I realized I’d found the way to write ALL ABOUT GRANDMAS!

“They come in different shapes and sizes.

Silly ones wear disguises.

Some stride about in stylish heels.

Others glide through life on magic wheels.”

Short and simple as it is, it took me a long while to write the book.  Along the way, I reconnected to my college roommate—a grandmother who, when she wasn’t teaching college-level Spanish was taking Flamenco lessons!  (Another dancing grandmother.)  Looking around me I realized how different and varied today’s grandmas are from those of the past.  Many modern grandmas continue working outside the home, others lead lives of energy, skill and accomplishment at home or elsewhere.  All of them are loved by lucky grandchildren.  ALL ABOUT GRANDMAS is my love song to grandmas and the children who adore them.

 Biography:  Roni Schotter  is the author of 29 award-winning books for children—from picture books to young-adult novels.  A number of her books are used in schools to inspire writing;  NOTHING EVER HAPPENS ON 90TH STREET was an NCTE Notable Trade Book in the Language Arts and THE BOY WHO LOVED WORDS won the Parents’ Choice Gold Award.  MAMA, I’LL GIVE YOU THE WORLD won the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Platinum Best Book Award, and, like 90TH STREET will soon be included in a nationally-offered textbook. Her Jewish holiday books—PASSOVER MAGIC and PURIM PLAY have recently been reissued.  HANUKKAH! won the National Jewish Book Award.  ALL ABOUT GRANDMAS, beautifully illustrated by  Janice Nadeau, is published by Dial Books for Young Readers. Personalized copies are available through our store.          

As part of our milestone 5th birthday celebration last week (and what a wonderful, amazing day it was!) we offered the following Trivia Quiz about our store. Test your knowledge or simply learn more about us with this sometimes tongue-in-cheek test.

Now we are five.

To see some wonderful photos of our big day,  check out our Facebook page. Please like us there if you feel so inclined or you might just wish us a Happy Fifth Birthday!

1. The Voracious Reader first opened its doors to the public in
(a) June 1997
(b) April 1897
(c) March 2007
(d). November 2007

2. The Voracious Reader now carries books for
(a) babies through teens
(b) non- fiction readers
(c) adults
(d) all of the above

3. In 2011 The Voracious Reader added a
(a) Tea Shop
(b) Shoe Store
(c) Swimming Pool
(d) Pet Shop

4. Which of the following animals has visited our store?
(a) shelter cats
(b) bunnies
(c) horse
(d) dog
(e) all of the above

5. Approximately how many events has The Voracious Reader hosted
since opening?
(a) over 4 million
(b) 1 per month for a total of 60
(c) 1 per week for a total of 260
(d) over 1,000

6. What award did The Voracious Reader win in 2011 from Westchester Magazine?
(a) The Richard Scarry Best Bookstore Ever Award
(b) Best Bookstore of the Planet Award
(c) Best of the Millenium for Kids
(d) Best of the Decade for Kids

7. What is NOT part of the mission and core values of The Voracious Reader?
(a) Help families slow down and embrace the joy of shared stories
(b) Connect with community over books
(c) Become a huge multibillion dollar online behemoth selling books
below cost in order to collect your data, destroying Main
Streets everywhere (ahem)
(d) Create and sustain book culture
(e) Have fun! Love books! Enjoy community!

Answers: 1.(c),  2.(d),  3.(a),  4.(e),  5.(d),  6.(d),  7.(c)

What Books Do

March 15, 2012

I worry a bit when I see students who suddenly have no time for books as they move into the busy schedules of high school. I want to tell them “Keep reading!” I want to share with them how books build a rich internal life that they can’t get by jumping through other people’s hoops, no matter how many A’s they get or what fancy school accepts them. I want to tell them that some day they are going to need that non-cynical, full internal life to get them through. I want to explain to them What Books Do.

Simply put, books save and heal us. They help us create a complex and varied inner landscape in which we can try on new ideas, discover feelings we didn’t know we had, and build a place of sanctuary within ourselves.

When Nina Sankovich lost her eldest sister at the age of 48, she turned to books to console and support herself. To honor her sister, she read a book a day for one year and chronicled her experience in her wonderful memoir “Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading.” The book is not only an amazing resource for readers, it is a testament to the healing power of books. Book lovers will adore her blog.

Sadly, I’m about to mark the third anniversary of the death of my nineteen year old son. He died of a seizure in his sleep. Losing a child is like no other grief, a loss whose pain shifts but never abates. Every day is a day with a huge hole in it. But books have helped and I’m so deeply grateful for their solace and even enlightenment.

Tundra swans in flight

One such healing experience came recently when I read Eowyn Ivey’s beautiful debut “The Snow Child.” Set in the raw beauty of the Alaskan frontier of the 192o’s, the book addresses friendship, marriage, parenthood, loss and survival. The book is gorgeously written, especially the depiction of a wild, untamed Alaska. Ivey knows the beauty of Alaska first hand as she was raised and resides there still.

When I read the following line, I felt the book change me on a deep, internal level, change my grief, change my deepest understanding:  ” … and when she turned to him, he saw in her eyes the sorrow and joy of a lifetime.” This powerful line found a dark, unopened place within me.  I could feel myself fill with the bright light of the Alaskan wilderness, the blinding shimmer of snow covered ravines and cliffs … and deep within, that part of me broke free, full of  the beauty and wisdom of a fairy tale well told. The book allowed me, encouraged me, to have the full experience of my own life, a life full of both joy and sorrow.

I was lucky enough to meet the author at a recent conference where I had the opportunity to thank her for her wonderful book and share how it played a part in my healing. Will her story have the same effect on you? Who knows. There’s no ‘one size fits all’ story. We bring our own story to the books that shape us. Each pairing is unique, reader and book, and holds its own transforming power.

That’s what books do. What books have changed your internal landscape?

 

 

 

I am an advocate for book culture. I want to create a world where books are desired and cherished and fill countless shelves in countless homes. I want to overhear people discussing books; I want to read books and then read books about books. I want everyone to experience that great comfort when finding a beautiful book and turning that first page. I want everyone to feel their pulse race when they read an astonishing first line. I want to see movies based on books, watch book trailers, enjoy the physical beauty of books themselves. I am a book nerd and I realize not everyone shares my book-centric fantasy. Still, I think the world would be a better place if we were to work at cultivating more book culture.

Here, in no particular order, are a dozen suggestions for creating book culture in our homes, book culture for our families and book culture in our lives and communities. I hope you’ll post some additional ideas.

1. Make a date with a book. There are so many competing events and forces that can come between ourselves and a good book. Having “no time to read” means only that we’ve “made” or “chosen” no time to read. If we make a book date, plan on meeting up with a desired book in that special comfy chair over a glass of wine or afternoon cup of tea, we can reignite our passion for books. Sometimes it’s a Sunday morning, staying in bed for several chapters with a warm mug of coffee on the nightstand.

2. Keep a book handy. In your purse, the glove compartment of your car, the baby’s diaper bag. You never know when there will be a free moment, a line to wait on, a napping baby and you will be prepared and happy.

3. Talk about books. Next time there’s a lull in a conversation, ask expectantly ‘so are you reading anything wonderful lately?’ If your friends look at you oddly, perhaps it’s time to find some book loving friends.

4. Join a book group, start a book group, recruit a book buddy (book group of two). Create themed book groups for different genres and purposes.

5. Never force a child to read or listen to a story. Same goes for bribes and threats. Encourage, share and model.

6. Read aloud. To a child, a lover, someone ill, yourself. Enjoy both the sounds of the words as well as the way they feel in your mouth as you say them. Especially poetry.

7. Visit libraries, many and often. Talk with the librarians, they are filled with amazing knowledge about books.

8. Keep a library basket in your home filled with the current books you’ve borrowed.

9. Give every newborn a large bookshelf (preferably well stocked). You’ll want board books, classics, award winners and the ones you grew up with or raised your own children with. Include books with the baby’s name (Olivia, Madeline, No David).

10. Give books as gifts. If you don’t know a person’s interests, give a gift card to their local independent book shop. Get the name, number and website of their local shop at Indiebound.org.

11. Support authors. Live and dead ones. Attend book signings of the live ones. Visit and support historic sites – Emily  Dickinson’s home in Amherst … the beautiful Faulkner House in New Orleans.

12. Be an equal opportunity reader, that is, give yourself (and your child) permission to read what suits your fancy, be it serious, light, silly or profound – give it all a try, trust your curiosity and whims.

You can find this lovely book-related art at http://etsy.me/wj1SoE

Read the rest of this entry »

Quality Matters

January 4, 2012

 

I strongly believe in honoring our children’s learning and respecting their evolving choices. As my children were growing up, that meant supporting their inclination to read books that I might not have chosen for them. There was a long stretch of Berenstain Bears, with the doddering dad and preachy lessons. We even had a brief spell of Precious Moments books at our house, which are, in my view, the literary equivalent of Hallmark cards. Thankfully we missed the Doras and Sponge Bobs, though admittedly, we had our share of Thomas (that cheeky little engine). At the same time I filled our bookshelves and library basket with as many wonderful, quality books as I could.

I see our children’s choices as part of a learning process about their own subjective taste, as well as the essential development of a critical view of objective quality. As parents we can appreciate our child’s developing tastes while also taking seriously our responsibility to offer and provide upgrades in quality.  It’s difficult to understand our own learning needs much less those of our unique child. I understand why a preteen girl might want a “girly book” about crushes and cupcakes; don’t we occassionally need a fluffy beach read ourselves?  Should we feel guilty for not having mastered The Western Canon?  Of course not, but you don’t have to be a book snob to want a more engaging, thought provoking read when you choose to give your valuable time to a book. So our children ought to be part of a rich environment of quality books.

The bonus, of course, is that when you read a book you wholeheartedly enjoy with your child, that pleasure is communicated to your child in the shared experience. Those are truly the “precious moments.”

I sometimes hear parents say  ” I don’t care what they read as long as they’re reading.” Would we say the same about food or is intellectual nourishment somehow different? Any thoughts on helping children develop their reading tastes?