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Saturday, July 22, 2017

Book Review: The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin, narrated by Dominic Hoffman (audio)

This book is for middle grade readers, so it is rather short, but boy, it's so well-written, that if I didn't know it was geared towards kids, I wouldn't have known. (One other clue was at the very end, when putting this incident in the bigger context of the civil Rights Movement to come, the author explained who a few people were—Martin  Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks—who an adult author would have just assumed we knew.) And on the plus side, because it was geared towards children, it was very clear and straightforward, which I really appreciated.

During World War II, while minorities were allowed to join the armed services, they served in segregated units. And the few that didn't, were still relegated to lowly, menial, and hard-labor jobs. Most of the African-American young men signing up for the navy had no idea that meant they'd never be going to sea. The navy believed that in the confined space of a ship, any disruption could become dangerous and they didn't want to risk it. In Port Chicago, the African-Americans had to unload and load the munitions, with no training, and do it as fast as possible. In fact, often the white officers in charge would bet each other whose crew would work faster, and you can believe that if a white officer lost money because his crew of African American sailors wasn't working as hard as he thought they should, there'd be hell to pay. Additionally, there were the usual privations that came along with segregation, of shoddy quarters, eating cold leftovers, and not even being able to see movies in the local theater in their off hours.

One night there was an explosion. Of the 300+ men killed, 3/4 of them were African-American. The men from that loading unit who survived, were transferred, and told to start loading munitions again. They refused. And they were court-martialled under mutiny, which came with the death penalty. Eventually Thurgood Marshall took up the appeal. This case, now long-forgotten, was pivotal in kicking off the Civil Rights Movement and was critical in gaining unprecedented rights for African-Americans in the armed forces, even if it didn't end well for the 50 men involved.

I do think this deserves an adult full-length exploration from someone like Erik Larson or Hampton Sides, who can really dig into what happened in the explosion itself, which was not solved at the time, and therefore was glossed over in the book. (Surely we have more resources and technology today and can have more than a guess now.) But I loved this book in this version. There were an awful lot of people involved and with a cast of characters that size, and the scope of this event, it would be so easy to get very confusing. However, since this book was written for middle grade kids, it wasn't at all. It was so easy to follow, and it was nice to have the ramifications spelled out. The narrator also was great. I'd highly recommend this for any kid but also, it would be a terrific listen for the whole family, as trust me—the parents will learn just as much!

This review is a part of Kid Konnection, hosted by Booking Mama, a collection of children's book-related posts over the weekend.

The print version of this book is published by Macmillan, my employer, but I listened to the audiobook, which is published by Random House. I downloaded this eaudiobook from my library via Overdrive.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Book Review: Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977-2002) by David Sedaris

I have rarely not just dived into a David Sedaris book and read the whole thing in one gulp. But this time, I couldn't. I had a ton of work reading to do, and also this was his largest book by far. But it was delightful instead to spend a few minutes with David, every night for several weeks. I do love getting enveloped by a book and reading it whole, but it is nice sometimes to parcel out a treat in small amounts to make it last longer. It's just when it comes to David Sedaris, I don't normally have the discipline. And I think he'd appreciate that. I should also mention I've seen him in person four times.

For people who aren't already familiar with Mr. Sedaris, I'm not sure I'd suggest you start with this book. In fact, I think I'd read his books in order mostly. Because with this book, one of the coolest things, is knowing where he's going (bestselling author) and seeing how he gets there. And seeing his sister Amy's career get off the ground. And reading about notable moments, such as when he first meets Hugh, that HE doesn't know yet are notable moments. You catch glimpses and clues along the way about his family and his career path. But as this is exactly what it says it is--his own diaries (lightly edited but he leaves the crazy and juicy stuff in), if you don't know the context of the bigger picture, I can't imagine these would do a lot for you. But with that bigger picture, it's a real treat. In particular I liked the crazy things with his sister Amy, and I loved seeing the morsels that later became big juicy stories such as all the source material for Me Talk Pretty Someday. My only annoyance was that they ended. Obviously, we're totally set up for a volume 2. I just wish I didn't have to wait! This was the shortest 500 page book I've ever read. It flew by.

I bought this book from my local independent bookstore, Watchung Booksellers.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Book Review: In the Great Green Room: The Brilliant and Bold Life of Margaret Wise Brown by Amy Gary

Books like the Little House on the Prairie series, I think make all kids wonder about the authors of their books. We know what Laura Ingalls's life was like—who else had interesting lives? Are their stories inspired by their lives? Do they live in a garret doing nothing but write? Do they live glamorous lives? Maybe I just wondered those things because I was destined to work in book publishing (or vice versa). Regardless, it was a real treat to get to read this biography of Margaret Wise Brown, the author of hundreds of children's books, most famously, Goodnight, Moon, although my personal favorite is Runaway Bunny.

And I was not prepared for how interesting a like Brown's turned out to be! Wealthy, she went to prep schools and on to Hollins College where her grades initially would have likely gotten her turned out if the Depression hadn't hit and taken a toll on all colleges' enrollment. Afterwards, Margaret moved to New York City and got a job at Bank Street, the educational pioneer. She quickly transitioned from teaching to their publishing arm, working on textbooks in a very new style that emphasized children's experiences, multi-sensory experiences, and being sure not to talk down to kids. She never did anything by halves. She threw herself into this job, and into her own writing, and into her relationships. She was interested in a Carnegie in college but he married her friend. After a brief engagement to an Armistead , she later embarked on a long, tumultuous relationship with John Barrymore's ex-wife, Michael. And at the end of her life, she was engaged to a Rockefeller. She never married, never had kids, never achieved the literary success she'd long dreamed of, in terms of writing important, adult literature. But boy, did she leave a huge impact on children's literature. She didn't just write her books and textbooks, she helped a fledgling publisher as an editor for many years, discovering and encouraging many of the premier children's book illustrators of that era, including Clement Hurd who illustrated Goodnight, Moon.

Amy Gary had unprecedented access to Brown's journals and papers. At Margaret's sister's house, she found a trunk completely full of papers including dozens of unpublished manuscripts. (Gary is now the archivist for Brown's works.) Thanks to Brown's journals, this book feels so complete and whole, and you get her inner thoughts without the feeling that Gary is guessing at what Brown was feeling. It nearly has the feel of a third-person memoir.

Her life was fascinating, and this biography should not only be read by children's literature aficionados. It reads smoothly and trips along through the myriad adventures and books and homes and loves of Margaret Wise Brown's life, never feeling voyeuristic, but instead feeling like an unfurling of a rose, with more and more layers of petals.

This book is published by Macmillan, my employer.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

What My New Job is Like Part II

So I realized that when I posted last month about what my job as a field sales rep is like, I really only talked about half of the job. Each season (and book publishing only has 3 seasons, not 4), I am on the road for about two months, but that means I am in my home office for about two months. What am I doing during those two months?

Well it all begins with Sales Conference. I went to my first one just 4 days after starting my new job. It was in Nashville (my hometown!) and it was kind of fun, although also completely overwhelming. But I was still in the stage where I didn't know what I didn't know yet, so I wasn't very anxious. I just tried to pay attention and hoped I was writing down the right things and I asked a lot of questions (not in the presentations but to my colleagues) and it was fine. I have some very nice, very helpful colleagues, thankfully, and I felt like I got up to speed fast.

This season, I was kind of scared of Sales Conference. After all, it was virtual. Which meant instead of sitting next to Anne and Ben and asking them questions, I was in my home office, on 6-hour conference calls for 4 days. Compounding that difficulty, my landlord is moving a carriage house from behind my house to next door. They were digging and pouring a foundation literally 8 feet from my office that week. But it was not bad at all, considering! It was a bummer that I couldn't speak up thanks to the construction noise, instead I had to type all my comments into the chat box, but that's not a big burden. Did I mention that PSE&G has also been jackhammering the street in front of my house off and on for the last month? So much fun. I did end up consulting a children's picture book to find out the names of all the construction vehicles, so now I know a back-hoe digger from an excavator.

In Sales Conference, the publishers present their bigger books, or books that could use more attention, and hopefully they tell us some interesting things about the books that we can then use to sell the books to our accounts. So throughout the presentations, we're all frantically typing notes into Edelweiss for every book. They're not in the same order, Edelweiss has some issues sometimes and doesn't always cooperate, and on the last day I had some problems with the presentation software and couldn't see the PowerPoint for most of the morning. But it was still much better and smoother than I had imagined.

Afterward, we then take about a month or six weeks to prepare to hit the road. Usually, the last season (Fall 2017) still has some mopping-up—I still had a couple of sales calls over the phone, and I had a half a dozen orders to enter. I had some huge expense reports to submit. I also had a ton of emails to address as while I was on the road, mostly I was only able to put out fires and everything else had to wait. And to prep for the next season, I have to plot out my calendar for when to go where (which is harder than you'd think, especially trying to squeeze in a 2-week trip to NC and VA around Labor Day, Columbus Day, two family visits, my anniversary and my husband's birthday, SIBA and NAIBA's fall trade shows, and get it all in before the next sales conference. I can't go to my college stores in VA and NC in mid-August because of back to school, and I can't go to my beach stores in DE until after Labor Day.) Then I have to send emails and try to schedule 38 appointments. Once I get those set, I have to book all my hotels, and I have to make a flow chart for where my F&Gs will go. F&Gs are Fold & Gathers, or the ARCs for picture books. They used to be just printed pages that were literally folded (not bound in any way) and just gathered together. Today they do tend to be stapled. I don't get 38 of them. I get 7. We like to be kind to the environment, stores don't like to have to figure out what to do with all of these from all publishers at the end of a season, and it is a cost savings that helps us do more for stores. So Store #1 needs to send their F&Gs on to store #8. Store #2 has to send theirs to Store #9, etc. I have to figure out the flow chart, and print UPS call tags for every shipment along the way, which I bring to the sales call, so the stores don't incur the shipping cost. I also send ARCs to my stores that I think they will like (and stores make a ton of requests which is so nice as then I know they will really want what they're getting!) Finally, I have to get back to Edelweiss and finish making my notes. See, even in four days, my publishers can't possibly present 1200 books to us. Not by a long shot. So I have to go back to book 1 and I look over the tip sheet and launch sheet (which ought to be attached) and listen to the audio presentation (these are cool—the editors talking about the books, hopefully not just rereading their copy I already have, but talking about why they bought the book, what the author is like, what inspired the story, etc.), and the catalog copy. I then distill that down and I write a 1-2 sentence description followed by 2-5 bullets of selling points for the accounts. Some accounts really only look at my mark-up notes when making their decisions, so I put a lot of effort into them. My predecessor wrote really funny ones, and I can't compete on that, but I do add fun facts and personal anecdotes and a couple of gifs. I can do 80 on a good day, but that's balanced with 10 on a bad day (when the emails don't stop coming). I pretty much max out at about 250/week. A couple of my colleagues share theirs (as do I) so I can sometimes crib from them and that can help (although it can also hurt as I won't be as familiar with those books when it comes time to sell.)

Oh, and the last thing that I do? Read. Read read read. I have a goal this season to read 75 books. Now, a bunch of those are picture books so it's not as crazy as it sounds. I managed to read about 25 of those in 2 days. I've read 53.5 so far. So 21.5 left. I am hoping the children's department will upload more of the picture books, but I'm feeling pretty good with how I'm doing. I started reading Winter 2018 books in May, and I'm giving myself through August before switching to Spring/Summer 2018 books. It's funny—I might not make my Challenge to read 31 2017 books but it's not because I'm not reading new books—it's because I'm reading even newer books than that!

So that's the other part of my job, which is just as big and important as the part where I drive around and visit stores.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Book Review: A Patron Saint for Junior Bridesmaids by Shelley Tougas


Shelley Tougas writes such believable kids, it's impressive and yet, because she' so great at it, I think it's an overlooked skill. The most highly skilled people make the hard work look easy.

No one believes that Mary's cousin Eden is getting married, but Mary's not going to look an offer to be a junior bridesmaid in the mouth! Not to mention, it distracts from her being disciplined at school for hitting a boy, Brent. Not that her mother needs a lot of distracting lately--with her father having moved to North Dakota for work and her mother hanging on as a single parent with a low-paying job so Mary and her brother can finish out the school year, she's pretty distracted most of the time. But it finally is the end of the school year and Mary and her brother are going to live with their Grandmother and Eden, while their mom heads to North Dakota to look for a job and a place for them to all live.

Mary throws herself into being a good bridesmaid. And one of the first thing she learns is that her job is to make the bride's life easier. And considering that Eden has crippling social anxiety (as does her fiance, which is how they met--in a support group), Mary knows that trying to help mitigate the giant, fancy wedding their grandmother is planning that Eden doesn't want, should be her number one goal. But she doesn't want to hurt their grandmother's feelings either, and she's a very formidable woman who basically always gets her way. Mary has found praying to Patron Saints a lot easier lately, but she can't find a patron saint for junior bridesmaids, so she's having to navigate a lot of tricky waters with her family (not to mention the cute boy down the street), solo.

This is a great middle grade book because it's not chock-filled with Big Issues. Don't get me wrong--it's not a light fluffy novel with nothing at all bad, it's just not dark or depressing and things work out in the end. The reason that Mary punched the boy in her class, and the aftermath of that, is by far the most compelling story, although it's by no means the main storyline. It's really nice to see Eden, dealing with her anxiety in productive ways and actively working to get better, and it's nice to see a positive and empowering story with that particular issue. Mary has a close, loving family, whose biggest problem is that they tell white lies to spare each others' feelings, and there's a bit of an internal fight/joke about whether Irish or German food is better. I especially liked the neighborhood boy who is a love interest that never really gets off the ground, but as a Unitarian, opens Mary's eyes a bit to her own Catholic faith and to the wider world around her.

This review is a part of Kid Konnection, hosted by Booking Mama, a collection of children's book-related posts over the weekend.

This book is published by Roaring Brook, a part of Macmillan Publishers, my employer.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

My Month in Review: June

The Month in Review meme is hosted by Kathryn at Book Date.

I note the non-Macmillan books in this post with a star.

This month was Sales Conference, so I had to read in preparation for that, but also coming out of that I had a lot of books I was really interested in reading. I'm starting to realize that I'm going to have a problem with how I currently list my reviews. Since I'm reading so far in advance, I'm holding most of my reviews until about a week before the book publishes. I don't think it's nice or fair to tease about a book that isn't coming out for six months or longer. Not to mention, you'll have completely forgotten about it by then. But that means that a lot of books I'm reading in 2017, I won't publish the reviews for until 2018. Hmm. Not ideal. Maybe I should change my "Books Read" list to "Books Reviewed?" But I often look up a book on Goodreads to see what year I read it, in order to find t he review on my blog easily, so that will mess things up if I do that. I can post them all to my "Books Read 2017" list retroactively, in 2018. I'll have to ponder this issue a bit. If anyone has suggestions, I'm all ears!

Also, it's now exactly six months into the year. According to Goodreads, not including picture books and the like, I've read 85 books. So I'm on track to set a new record, by a long, long way. My previous record was 103 in 2011. I should pass that in another month or two. Granted, I've been reading a lot more children's books than I have in past years, but I only count them if they're substantial--more than 100 pages, a chapter book with some substance. Middle grade is my cutoff, but I don't even count all of the middle grade books, if it feels too goofy or just doesn't have enough content. Counting the books below that really feels like padding. Now, between all the audiobook (20! A new record! It's weird to set a record so early in the year.) and the children's books, my total number of pages is running closer to par at two-thirds of my previously highest year.

Books completed this month:
Prairie Fires: The Life and Times of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser
Real Friends by Shannon Hale
*The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women by Kate Moore (audio)
P.S. I Miss You by Jen Petro-Roy
In Search Of by Ava Dellaira
The Lambs: My Father, a Farm, and the Gift of a Flock of Sheep by Carole George
As She Fades by Abbi Glines
*Killers of the Flower Moon: Oil, Money, Murder and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann (audio)
Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children by Sara Zaske
Mothers of Sparta: A Memoir by Dawn Davies
*Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977-2002) by David Sedaris
A Patron Saint for Junior Bridesmaids by Shelley Tougas
Ellie, Engineer by Jackson Pearce
Stella Diaz Has Something to Say by Angela Dominguez
Snow Lane by Josie Angelini
#Prettyboy Must Die by Kimberly Reid
Plus thirty-two picture books that I've read for work.

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
Zombie Abbey by Lauren Baratz-Logsted
The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: My Encounters With Extraordinary People by Susan Orlean
Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell
You know, I don't know when, if ever, I'll finish these two books given my current work, so I'm going to stop listing the Orlean and the Mitchell every single month. Rest assured they continue to live on my bedside table and haven't been forgotten.

What I acquired this month (non-work books): 
I was thrilled to get these books at BEA!
Love, Hate & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed
Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder edited by Nancy Tystad Koupal
Caroline: Little House, Revisited by Sarah Miller
D'Arc by Robert Repino
Don't know when I will ever get to read them, but I have hope!