Retailers spend days—and sometimes nights—shelving books by countless authors, perhaps dreaming of the day when they might be placing their own work on those very bookshelves. PW spoke with three children's booksellers who have removed such aspirations from the realm of daydreams and have added "author" to their list of accomplishments.
Minding a Gap on the Shelf
"Every fall season my customers ask me for books about apples," said Jody Fickes Shapiro, who for almost 25 years has owned Adventures for Kids in Ventura, Calif. "I kept waiting for a really good story relating to apple-picking to be written—not a Johnny Appleseed kind of story, but a realistic book that a California child could relate to. When no one wrote it, I decided I would do it."
And so she has. Published by Holiday House this month, Up, Up, Up! It's Apple Picking Time, illustrated by Kitty Harville, is now filling that vacant spot on Shapiro's and other booksellers' shelves.
The story focuses on siblings who spend a weekend picking apples and helping to sell them at their grandparents' orchard. "My brother-in-law has an apple orchard in San Luis Obispo, and this book reflects my own children's experience helping out there," she said.
Shapiro believes that her years selling books also played a key role in shaping the tale. "As I wrote the story, I wanted to be able to picture myself reading it aloud at story time. As a bookseller, when I look at a picture book to buy, I want it to be short enough for story time, and I tried to write my book so that it would work well in that venue."
Shapiro finds it very rewarding to handsell her own book, noting "what's really neat is that people are actually buying it—from me anyway." She praises her publisher for "doing a beautiful job" producing the book and is thrilled with the art Harville created to accompany her text. "The illustrations have vibrant colors and they work very well when one holds them up in front of a group of children," she said.
This first-time author is quite happy with her new identity and expects to keep it indefinitely. "Though I feel as though I wrote Up, Up, Up! It's Apple Picking Time more as a bookseller than an author, once I got the writing bug I decided to try other books as well," she remarked. "I had the wonderful gift of time when I lived for two years in Melbourne. While there, I finished a novel for children, which I am now editing. I have also written some other picture-book manuscripts, which are also connected to my own personal experiences."
And she has no shortage of additional book ideas. "There is still plenty of material in my brain and more books that I would love to get out of my system and out into the world," Shapiro said. "It's fun to be wearing a new hat at this stage of my life."
Book Talent Blossoms in Brookline
For 17 years, Leo Landry, who attended art school and studied architecture at Rhode Island School of Design, has worked at the Children's Book Shop in Brookline, Mass., just down the road from Boston. "For all that time I have wanted to create my own books, and finally it is coming to be," said the bookseller turned author/illustrator, whose first title, Oh Baby! A Celebration of Babies, was released in April under Little, Brown's Megan Tingley imprint. And due in October from Houghton Mifflin is Landry's The Snow Ghosts, which chronicles a playful day in the lives of young ghosts in the snowy north.
Landry's longtime hope to create his own books began to solidify some five years ago, when, in his words, "I decided to make one last attempt to put together a portfolio of my art and took it around to publishers. I guess that I must have reached a better level, because people really liked what I showed them. But many said I should also try to write something, too. I initially thought, 'Oh no... I have to do more work.' But I tried writing, and it seemed to work."
His bookselling profession has given Landry a double-edged perspective on his writing and illustrating career. "All day long I am surrounded by great children's books and get to see the latest work of my favorite authors and illustrators come in the door, which is always inspiring," he noted. "On the other hand, I also see daily the reality of the business. There are so many books being published that you realize that if you did break into publishing it would be very hard for your book to be a success."
Yet Landry certainly has a leg up on the non-retailer author—at least on his home turf. "Working at the store, I had the chance to create a window display for Oh, Baby!," he said cheerfully, "and it was up for a long time." And the exposure clearly paid off. "I'm not sure how the book is doing in the rest of the world, but here it has been second in sales only to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," he said. "And it was our number one seller until Harry showed up." Still, Landry humbly revealed that he has yet to feel comfortable handselling his book to customers he doesn't know: "I can't seem to make that last leap."
Next up for Landry are two beginning chapter books, which he sold to Laura Godwin at Henry Holt; those will likely appear in 2005, as will another picture book from Houghton Mifflin.
Though he said it has been difficult balancing full-time work at the bookstore and his book projects, Landry credits Terri Schmitz, owner of The Children's Book Shop, for "being gracious enough to let me take some time off when I have final art due." And the author also expressed gratitude to illustrator Melissa Sweet, who, he said, "told me that if I really wanted to be an author and really believed that my work was good, I just had to have patience and it would work out. That was great advice."
New Guise for Guide to Children's Books
Valerie Lewis claims it was her idea, yet admits that Walter Mayes insists it was his. "You know, it could even have been our agent, George Nicholson, who first had the idea," conceded Lewis, discussing the genesis of Valerie & Walter's Best Books for Children: A Lively, Opinionated Guide, her collaboration with Mayes, a former sales rep for Bantam Doubleday Dell, which was published by Avon in 1998. Yet all agreed that this well-received guide to children's literature was due for an update, which will be released by HarperCollins in trade paperback next March.
Lewis, for 25 years co-owner (with her sister, Monica Holmes) of Hicklebee's in San Jose, explained that she and Mayes made the ideal team to create their guide. "Walter was our sales rep for years, and he would repeatedly come into the store and tell us about his company's new books but also get us excited about books other publishers were coming out with," she recalled. "And we'd show him great new books that we'd come across. We wanted to create a guide that came as close as possible to our frequent conversations about children's books—one that would incorporate both of our opinions and would communicate the importance of getting books into children's hands."
Lewis estimated that the revised edition includes more than 50% new material, and wryly noted, "I swear this edition took as long as the first to complete." She and Mayes worked down to the last possible minute to ensure that the new edition included publishers' fall 2003 titles. She is pleased that the book's updated design makes it, in her words, "much easier to read. There is also a better index and much stronger cross-referencing than was in the original book."
Did Lewis's bookseller persona come into play when selecting the book's entries? "Absolutely," she responded. "We laugh about being in the trenches, but that is exactly where we are. Walter is now a middle-school librarian and travels around the world storytelling. I am not sitting at a desk, but am sitting on the floor reading aloud to kids and am working with teachers, watching which books work."
And did she have a chance to handsell her book on the floor of Hicklebee's? "Are you kidding?" she quipped. "Our book was a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller!" Ah, the fringe benefits of being both a bookseller and author.