Lynn Reads a Book
This blog reflects Lynn Rosen’s comments on books she’s read and on happenings in the world of book publishing. You can purchase Lynn’s book recommendations at Barnes & Noble (we especially recommend Lynn’s store in Philadelphia!) or at your nearest indie bookstore. Wherever you choose to shop, we ask that you please support a bricks & mortar bookstore. They need your support! Shop local!
I started paying serious attention to children’s picture books for two reasons. The first reason, you can probably guess: I became a parent. The second reason was that I opened a bookstore. Both for my own children and for my customers, I wanted to make sure I had a really good selection of children’s picture books. The question was: what makes for a good children’s picture book? This leads me to mention something I’ve learned in my publishing career from working with writers and wannabe writers. Lots and lots of writers want to write children’s books. And why is that? Because they think it’s easy. After all, picture books don’t have a lot of words. That must mean they’re easy and quick to write, right? But actually, the opposite is true. Just ask a poet or a short story writer. The fewer words you have to work with, the harder it is to get your point across. So back to the question: what are the qualities of a good children’s picture book? A good children’s picture book has to be well-written. The language should be beautiful, each word well-chosen. I don’t like silly rhyming couplets. I don’t like books that sound like they are talking down to children. The more sophisticated a book is, the better. Let the children appreciate the sounds of the words. Maybe they’re complex and therefore funny to say. Maybe they are rhythmic and repetitive and lull the reader with a sense of comfort And sure, maybe they are silly and just plain fun. Just try saying “click, clack, moo” over and over. It’s fun to say! And then there’s the art. I’m not drawn to anything that’s bright pink or glittery. Mermaids and unicorns feel clichéd. I want art that’s art. It’s beautiful and it shows the talent of the artist. It’s interesting to look at. You might even wish to hang it on your walls. If a customer is trying to find a picture book and doesn’t know what they want, I always tell them to follow their eye. Pick something that looks good. If you like the art, there’s a good chance you’ll like the text, too. Let’s finish by talking about probably the most important part: the message. Because children’s books almost always have a message. That message might be: go to bed! That message might be: learn colors or numbers or shapes. But the more children’s picture books I read, the more I found ones with this message: feel good about yourself. Believe in yourself. Be who you want to be, no matter what anyone says. That’s a good book. That’s a book I wish I had when I was growing up. That’s a book I’m happy to read to my kids and to recommend you read to yours. A good children’s picture book is a hard thing to create. Choose carefully. Here are just a few of my...read more
During part of the eight years I ran my literary agency, Leap First, in New York, I had office space on West 57th Street. Next door, in a small office, was an older man whom I would meet occasionally in the hallway when the food cart came around. He was friendly, and our conversations were brief. One day my office-mate Nanette said to me: “you know who that is, don’t you?” I did not. “That’s Robert Caro,” she told me. Some of you, my dear readers, will know who Robert Caro is, and some of you won’t. He is an esteemed Pulitzer-prize winning biographer. He writes big books, and I mean big in all senses of the word. His first book was The Power Broker, a biography of New York City Commissioner and urban planner Robert Moses. For those of you who have spent any time at all on New York’s highways, bridges, or many of its public parks (such as Jones Beach), you have Robert Moses to thank. Caro is currently at work on the fifth volume of his biography of Lyndon Johnson. In my time on West 57th Street, I got to know Caro a bit better after I admitted to him that I knew who he was. When we met at the food cart, we would talk publishing, and once he invited me in to see his office. He was always kind and I have warm memories of our very brief conversations. Recently I started reading his memoir, Working. I love the memoir genre, and I especially like books by writers about their writing life. In this book, Caro speaks frankly about why he chose to write the books he wrote (and is writing), why they take so long to write (a question he is often asked) and why they are so big. He talks about his research methodology and why it is important to him to be so thorough. (For example, he and his wife Ina spent three years living in the Texas hill country where Johnson began his life and his political career so he could really get to know the people who knew Johnson.) He says he plans to write a full-on memoir someday, and that this book Working is just meant to be a taste of his thoughts. But it is just right for me, and offers wonderful insights. He talks about his early career as a journalist and how he became good at his work, and how he learned to be such a thorough and methodical researcher. I connected with that part. I’m sure I would not have the forbearance to slog through file cabinets of memos as he and Ina did, but I do love hanging out in libraries and doing research. The research was my favorite part of writing my book Elements of the Table and I did read every book I could find on the subject. I’m still reading the book, but I can already tell you that my favorite chapter is and will be the short piece he wrote about how he was selected to use the Frederick Lewis Allen Memorial Room at the main branch of the New York Public Library, which he describes as “a marble and wood-paneled space containing eleven cubicles for writers.” He...read more
In the last two days, I have finished reading two books, both of which were a struggle for me to read. Here’s what they were and why they were a struggle. The first book was In Memoriam by Alice Winn. I chose to read it because it received excellent reviews. Here, for example, is what The Guardian says about it: “In Memoriam is at once epic and intimate, humorous and profound, a vivid rendering of the madness and legacy of the first world war as seen through the lens of a schoolboy love affair.” The book drew me in right away with very good writing and a compelling story. I liked the characters I was meeting, and I enjoyed the setting in an English boarding school just before World War I. I was also very taken by the two main characters. Ellwood and Gaunt. Once the story moved into wartime, it became a much more difficult story to read and yet, despite the extreme graphic gruesomeness of the descriptions of war, I still enjoyed (maybe that’s the wrong word, but still) the reading. I was captivated by the story, and also felt that I was learning some history. About midway through the book, there’s a very important traumatic moment. I’m not going to give anything away, I’ll just say that I didn’t like that moment very much. I thought it was a clichéd plot twist and it bothered me so much that I put the book aside and stopped reading it for a few weeks I was very uncertain as to whether I was going to go back to the book, but I left it around the house. It stared at me, as books do (at least my books do!), and challenged me to return to my reading. I finally picked it up again since I had already made such an investment in it. But for the next quarter of the book my reading was sporadic. I continued to be bothered by some of the plot twists, and I found the gruesomeness of the war descriptions to be getting more difficult to bear because by this point, they were unremitting. Of course they were accurate in reflecting the brutality and stupendous loss of life during World War I, and the author clearly did her research into not just the fact that much death happened, but exactly how it happened, down to every possible permutation of how a body can be mangled and destroyed. However, I persevered, slowly. And last night I finished the book. Hurrah! And you know what? It’s really a terrific book. Wonderful storytelling, tremendous historical detail, and characters who truly remain compelling until the end because they are so well drawn. They’re deep and complex and interesting. I think that Ellwood and Gaunt will stay with me for a long time. Kudos to you, Alice Winn! This is quite a book! A good partner, I think, with Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The second book I started last week is The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. This choice probably falls more under the category of research. This is an incredibly popular book, and over the years, we have sold hundreds, maybe thousands, of them at my store. I thought it was time to find out what...read more
A bookstore is much more than a place to purchase books. A bookstore is about the process of finding, choosing, and selecting books. In this age of internet retailing, the brick & mortar bookstore is not only surviving, but thriving. More people became readers during the COVID pandemic, and once they were able to be out and about again, people flocked to bookstores. I can’t tell you how many times I asked a customer at my store if they needed any assistance and they smiled and said: “I’m just so happy to be in a bookstore again.” What is it about bookstores that makes us happy to be in them? What do readers want and need from bookstores? While you might pop into a bookstore looking for something specific, often a bookstore is a place to be and browse without a specific goal. A bookstore should have a welcoming atmosphere. It should have booksellers who are friendly, helpful, and knowledgable. A bookstore is a place where community coalesces. Some small neighborhood stores are gathering places, and places to find information, be it about local events, real estate, or other local news. A bookstore is a place to interact with people who care about books, and to talk about books. A bookstore is a place to find something you didn’t know you were looking for. Every bookstore has a personality. Some are bright and modern. Some are small and cozy. Some are cramped and musty, their books lovingly askew on the shelves. Others are spacious and smell like new books. You know that smell. You might not be able to describe it, but you inhale it happily when you walk into a bookstore. Some bookstore’s personalities are created by their theme: mystery bookstores, or feminist stores, or bookstores that specialize in cookbooks. Some announce their politics front and center. Some focus on literary fiction, while others offer you the latest beach read. Some bookstores carefully curate their collection, while others try to give you some of everything. What does a bookstore need from a community? Support. Bookstores need to be shopped in order to survive. And what does a bookstore owe a community? Open arms. Helpful booksellers. A thorough and diverse selection. A focus on local topics and authors. And love: a love of books and a desire to share a love of reading. For five years I was the co-owner of a small independent bookstore, and now I work for Barnes & Noble and I am a store manager at a big city store. I’ve worked in book publishing for decades, my entire career, and I’ve been an editor, a literary agent, and a program manager for a graduate publishing program at a small college. Then I became a bookseller and I found the place I wanted to stay. There is a term in our business called “handselling,” and it means helping a customer find a book, recommending just the right book for them, and literally putting it in their hand. There is nothing more rewarding that I have ever done in my entire career. My mission in life is to share my love of reading and to spread my belief that books can change lives for the better. I accomplish that as a bookseller, at a bookstore. Come...read more
You are one of two types. There are only two. You finish every book you begin. You stop if you don’t like a book. You are the “so many books, so little time” type. Am I right? Which one are you? I’m the second type. There are so many books I want to read. My TBR list is incredibly long. I start a lot of books. I don’t finish them all. In fact, I don’t finish many of them. I’m not bothered by that. I don’t feel guilty. I’m, as they say, choosy. The question, however, is: how soon do you know when it’s safe to stop? Because I certainly have had experiences where I didn’t think I was going to like a book in the beginning and, in the end, I was really glad I read it. Maybe it was assigned for a book club. Or maybe I was stuck somewhere, like on a long plane flight, and didn’t have any other options. So I kept slogging and it wound up being worth it. And I’m guessing that’s what motivates you Type #1s to finish every book. Because you never know. Because once you’ve started, you’ve made a commitment. But I have no such scruples. My life is littered with discarded books. Once in a while peer pressure persuades me to give a book another try, but mostly, once I’ve stopped, I’m not going back. How do I know when I’m finished? Mostly it’s just a feeling. The writing doesn’t resonate with me (it’s too simple, too straightforward, boring). The plot doesn’t interest me. In one recent book, the author’s ornate and verbose writing style was appealing at first. I admired his sentences. And then they became tedious and showy. I do know what I like when I find something good. There’s nothing I like better than a book that pulls me in right away. I read a few sentences, and I’m engaged, off and running. That happened for me recently with Rebecca Makkai’s I Have Some Questions for You, and with Virgil Wander by Leif Enger. Sometimes I read 20 or 40 pages, or sometimes even as much as 100, and I just think: I’ve tried. I’ve tried, and I can’t. Occasionally, it happens much later in the book. I’m currently reading In Memoriam by Alice Winn. That was one of those books that pulled me in right away, and I loved it. It’s so well-written, and an interesting story. And it has quite a lot of WWI battle scene gore, but that didn’t scare me off; I loved the characters and the story. And then, at the end of Part 1, came a plot twist that felt so derivative, so unoriginal, that I stopped reading. I mentioned this plot problem to my friend Andy Kahan at the Free Library of Philadelphia (he’s an excellent reader – I love to compare notes with him) and he said: “oh, it kicked you out of the book?” I thought that was such a good way to put it. Yes, it kicked me out. And I haven’t had the strength or the interest to dive back in. As I write this, the book is eyeing me from my kitchen counter. “Are you coming back?” it’s asking me. I am forced...read more