Novelist-turned-bookstore owner Ann Patchett has no shortage of stories to tell, but she reserved a special tale for booksellers in attendance for her opening remarks at the American Booksellers Association’s seventh Children’s Institute, held in Pittsburgh late last month.
Trading biting humor and powerful reflections, Patchett regaled booksellers with the story of how she co-founded her Nashville-based independent bookstore, Parnassus Books, how it made it possible for her to become a children’s author, and how it compelled her to confront her own painful memories of learning to read after finding herself illiterate in third grade.
However, she opened her remarks by giving fellow booksellers a hard time.
“Booksellers as a whole are like Depression-era babies,” she said to a laughing audience. “Even when times are good, nobody can admit it.”
“If you have a good year, celebrate it,” she added. “Feel happy. I give you permission.”
Patchett said she discovered a newfound happiness herself by re-evaluating her life in light of how much has been changed by owning a bookstore. “All my life I’ve had this vision of what life is. I think of life as a hallway, and when you’re born all the doors on both sides of this long hallway are open,” Patchett said. “Anything’s possible.”
In her own way, Patchett found comfort in seeing those doors close shut. “At some point you make a decision,” she said. “I’m not going to be a gymnast. I’m not going to be a chemist. I’m not going to be a linguist. I really don’t like beets. And you close the doors. For some people this is a very sad thought, but for me it’s always been a really happy thought, because I think about closing those doors as focusing on what it is we’re here to do.”
Among the doors that Patchett had closed was the door to retail. “At some point, maybe around [age] six, I pulled the retail door shut,” she said, but after meeting her future co-owner Karen Hayes, Patchett decided to open Parnassus. That led illustrator Robin Preiss Glasser through the store’s doors (for a Fancy Nancy event), then to Patchett, and ultimately to their collaboration on Lambslide, a picture book they collaborated on, which HarperCollins published together in May.
Patchett initially resisted Glasser’s overtures. “I said no because that door is closed. I don’t write children’s books. I don’t have children. I don’t know children. I don’t actually feel comfortable with children,” she said.
Her initial sentiment changed when Glasser shared tips with her on how to think about writing a children’s book. Patchett was soon unable to stop thinking of picture book ideas. Following Conor Lamb’s 2018 congressional election victory in Pennsylvania, she saw a photograph of someone holding a sign that read “Lambslide” in the New York Times, which led to a story of lambs who use democratic action to get a slide.
Soon, she was on the road with Glasser, touring bookstores and schools, and meeting children with the book in hand. “Suddenly I am no longer Ann Patchett,” she said, “I am just Robin Preiss Glasser’s sidekick. I am the person who works the lamb puppet and does the chicken voices.”
Opening New Doors
The entire process has made Patchett reflective about her own childhood.
In her late 30s, Patchett was approached by her third-grade reading teacher, a nun who she had reviled named Sister Nina. The nun needed financial support for her students and herself, and Patchett ultimately went to meet her. The encounter forced her to reevaluate her opinion of their relationship.
As a child, Patchett had tried to hide from the nun, who kept her after school and inside during lunch period because, as she told the audience, “I didn’t learn how to read until I was in third grade.”
“There was this day I was sitting in a reading circle and they were passing this book around and as the book was coming towards me, I realized I didn’t know how to read,” Patchett said.
After meeting Sister Nina as an adult, Patchett said she realized that her memories and her hatred were misguided. “I had this revelation. She has no idea that she’s my bad nun story. She has no memory of being horrible to me. She thought that I should learn to read. And I was really very comfortable not being able to. She was not comfortable with me going through my life not being able to read.”
“It turns out she loves children and all children love her,” Patchett said. “We ended up becoming best friends.” Patchett even bought a house for the nun in her retirement.
“I made a decision about someone when I was five years old and I closed that door and I stuck with that decision until I was 39,” Patchett said. “I never went back and wondered why I hated her so much. I held onto the hatred without holding onto the fact that she had taught me how to read.”
Similarly, she told the audience that if she had not opened Parnassus, then she never would have met Glasser and discovered her love for writing children’s books.
“The door kicked open. That’s what owning a bookstore can do for you,” she said as audience members rose to give her a standing ovation. “You are doing God’s work.”
Postscript to an Ovation
In comments later sent to PW, some attendees took issue with Patchett’s remarks. One bookseller who asked not to be identified said that Patchett's description of the ease with which she learned to write children's books after having a successful career as an author for adult readers was disrespectful because it was “minimizing the art of writing for children and the importance of the children’s book industry.”
Patchett responded immediately to an inquiry from PW on Monday, writing that she was “grateful to have a chance to respond to the criticism.”
“I was telling a story of my own experience—of meeting Robin Preiss Glasser and how she suggested we do a picture book together, and what a joyful collaboration this has been for me. By saying that writing picture books has come easily for me, I in no way meant to imply that I perceive it to be a simple or lesser art than writing for adults. I was telling the story much the way one tells the story of being struck by lightning—the experience has been shocking and wondrous.
“Still, I can see how insulting this could be, that I’ve come over from adult publishing and stomped around without taking other people’s process into account. Please know how deeply I respect picture books and the people who devote their lives to them. From my heart, I apologize for not first addressing my awe at the brilliant work that surrounds me, and acknowledging the differences in our experience. I get it, and I’m sorry.”