Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The "Uber-Talented" Eleanor Davis

Eleanor Davis has been a star in our Children's Room for some time. Kids just learning to read love her graphic novel reader, Stinky, while her book, The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook, is one of our most popular graphic novel check-outs among young readers.

 But Davis' recent presentation at our library (part of our partnership with Politics & Prose) wasn't about kid stuff. Instead, Davis was focused on her new graphic novel for adults, How To Be Happy. Even more than that, her presentation, which was riveting, fascinating and more than a bit confounding, was rated PG-13. (Davis herself gave it that rating because of strong language and discussion of sexual topics).

It was a thought-provoking presentation of truth and lies, woven together and mixed with Davis' lyrical commentary and artwork that is simply stunning in its emotional impact and artistic vision -- much like her new book. After the program, Davis noted that she was tired of talking about her life,  and figured that presenting variations on her life -- mixing truth with falsehood -- would make things more interesting. It certainly did, and it was entertaining for me -- a former reporter -- to be taking notes on Davis' talk and then suddenly be told that the facts presented in that section were "90 percent lies."!

 While I've read How To Be Happy a couple of times and am awestruck by Davis' imagination and artistic talent, I would have a hard time trying to review it. The book is a series of short stories, each done in a different artistic style, so there are many different pieces to interpret and review. And I'm still very much a neophyte when it comes to graphic novels. So let me link to a couple of folks who do know graphic novels and are fans of Davis' work in general and of How To Be Happy in particular.

In his April 19, 2014 blog for Forbidden Planet, Richard Bruton noted that, "Eleanor Davis is, without question, a major young creator," adding: "Despite (her) changing styles, the constant is an incredible storytelling sense....." You can read more here.

Eleanor Davis signs books for a fan.
 And Tim O'Shea, in an interview with Davis published on June 30, 2014 on ComicBookResources.com says that "her work often strikes me as the comics equivalent of an interpretive dance. I have no other way to describe the core response that her work elicits from me. I look repeatedly at some of the pages in this collection (How To Be Happy) and still find something new each time." O'Shea's interview with Davis can be read here.

My only disappointment of the evening was when Davis said she wasn't planning to do a sequel to The Secret Science Alliance. Noting that she frequently gets letters from young readers asking for a sequel, Davis said that the book just took too much time, even with the lettering help from her talented graphic novelist husband, Drew Weing. But Davis urged disappointed readers to follow Weing's web comic, The Creepy Casefiles of Margo Magoo, which she likened to The Secret Science Alliance. I've just started reading it, and I'm enjoying it so far. Perhaps Weing will publish a book someday containing the entire story. That's how it goes these days in the comics world. Things that start as web comics can become big sellers in published print form -- just look at the success of Smile, Raina Telgemeier's best-selling graphic novel that started as a web comic.

One last note on Davis. In searching for information about her on the Internet, I discovered that she had been invited to do a Google Doodle a few months ago. Like all of Davis's work, it is quirky, beautiful and incredibly unique. Check it out in this interview that Davis did with Michael Cavna, who covers comics for The Washington Post and who deserves the credit for correctly labeling Davis as "uber-talented."

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Raina, Dave, and Jimmy Show

If you know a kid who likes graphic novels (and who doesn't?), then you likely are familiar with books by Jimmy Gownley, Dave Roman, and the reigning queen of kids' comics, Raina Telgemeier. So it was no surprise to see a big crowd of excited kids and parents yesterday when the three graphic novelists presented a program at Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C.

All three have won top awards for their work, and they've also been among the first wave of those filling the new -- and ever growing -- market for graphic novels for kids. Gownley's Amelia Rules books are beloved by our library's young readers, who especially enjoy the feisty Amelia. Roman's two Astronaut Academy books may be set in outer space, but readers love the fact that the characters face the kind of everyday friendship challenges that every kid understands. And Telgemeier's books, especially her Eisner Award-winning graphic memoir Smile, are among the most popular in our entire library. Kids are just fascinated to read about the emotional consequences of the dental drama that Telegeimer endured in middle school and high school.

At Saturday's event, the trio focused on presenting their newest books before taking questions from the audience. Gownley went first, talking about his new graphic memoir, The Dumbest Idea Ever!, which details how he created and self-published comics as a teenager. Gownley's initial efforts at creating comics were scorned by his best friend, who told him: "You should make a comic book about kids like us!" As Gownley told the crowd on Saturday: "I thought that was the dumbest idea ever, but it changed my life." Gownley's decision to create comics "about kids like us" resulted in the best-selling Amelia Rules series, which has shot him to stardom in the world of kids' comics.

In my library, kids who have read The Dumbest Idea Ever! have loved it, and it's become a word-of-mouth favorite. As Telgemeier does in Smile and her newest book Sisters, Gownley uses the graphic memoir format to both entertain and inspire kids. This trailer gives a sense of the pleasures readers will find in The Dumbest Idea Ever!.

Roman's Astronaut Academy books, meanwhile, feature wild characters (time-traveling pandas, dinosaurs with wheels, etc.) and over-the-top humor. Roman's books, featuring black-and-white artwork done in a manga/anime kind of mash-up style, are set in an outer space boarding school where the most popular sport is Fireball.  In the first book, Zero Gravity, we meet our spiky-haired hero, Hakata Soy, whose impressive quiff is more than a match for Tintin's. As a new student, Hakata is just trying to figure out the social hierarchy at the astronaut training school when suddenly he must cope with defeating a villain designed to look just like him.




In the second book, Re-Entry, Hakata and other Astronaut Academy students are eagerly awaiting the upcoming Fireball championship. Then disaster strikes, in the form of a shape-shifting monster, who is stealing and eating some of the nine hearts with which each student is endowed. As in the first book, Roman packs each page with action and hilarity; check out this book trailer to get a sense of Roman's style.

I titled a previous post "Raina Reigns" because her first two books, Smile and Drama, are so popular in my library. Her newest book, Sisters, has already become a "best-seller" among our young patrons. It's easy to see why, since Telgemeier once again displays a natural command of the emotions experienced by kids and teens. As she explained to the crowd at Politics & Prose, Telgemeier hadn't planned on doing another graphic memoir, but the legions of Smile fans kept begging her to tell more about her life. "I decided that since people seemed particularly curious about my sister, I would write a story about our relationship." Telgemeier added her sister was the first reader for the book, and it wouldn't have been published without her approval.

As her "framing device" for telling the story, Telgemeier said she decided to use a roadtrip from California to Colorado that her family took when she was 14 and her sister Amara was nine. As Telgemeier tells of the trip's many ups and downs (a snake plays a pivotal part), she also uses flashbacks to show how much she wanted a sister and how disappointed she was in the sister she got. Woven into the story is the increasing tension between Telegemeier's parents, who eventually divorced. As in Smile, Telegemier displays a genius for deftly combining poignancy and hilarity  as she captures the ups and downs of being a kid. Telgemeier gives a further glimpse into her book and her writing/drawing process in this charming book trailer.

Telgemeier, who clearly delights in meeting her readers, remained unruffled at Saturday's program when a young fan asked during the Q&A time whether she and Roman -- her husband -- would ever have kids. "I like kids very much," she said adding that she enjoys spending time with her baby nephew. "But we'll have to see about kids -- maybe someday." Roman, meanwhile, pointed out that Telgemeier wouldn't have as much time to publish books like Smile and Sisters if they were to have kids. Smile took five years to write and draw, Telgemeier said, adding that she also was working full-time at another job at the time. Sisters took less time because Telgemeier now focuses full-time on making comics, but even so, it didn't happen overnight; Telgemeier said she wrote the "script" or story in a month, and then it took her another year and a half to do the artwork.



Other questioners wanted to know why the trio decided to become graphic novelists. Roman noted that, "for us, comics is what we do. Whenever we get an idea, it's a comic book idea." Gownley added that he was happily stunned when he first discovered comics at the age of nine, and quickly decided that's what he wanted to do with his life. For Telgemeier, reading Calvin and Hobbes for the first time "was like a lightning bolt from the sky that came and hit me over the head... and I said 'I want to do comics!'"

Final note: Happy Birthday to Politics & Prose which is celebrating 30 great years in the book-selling business today!



Friday, September 5, 2014

The Marvelous World of Mouse Guard

The first thing you notice about the Mouse Guard graphic novels by David Petersen is how beautiful they are. Yes, the stories are real rip-roaring animal fantasy yarns, but it's the artwork that really pulls you in and keeps you turning the pages. Petersen has a distinctive artistic style, featuring finely-drawn characters and eye-catching, digitally-colored illustrations. It's a style that has won Petersen numerous fans as well as critical accolades, including the prestigious Eisner Award.

 But Petersen's own artistic vision took years to develop, as he told a crowd of Mouse Guard fans gathered recently at my library. "Early on, I tried to emulate other people whose work I liked," Petersen said. "But I was never really happy with the way my things turned out.... I'm not saying that drawing by copying other people's styles is a bad thing -- that's how we all learn.  I'm just talking about slowly shedding the ideas of other people... so you can learn to be you."

In his talk, Petersen talked about his childhood in Flint, Michigan, a city that many think of as urban and gritty. Yet where Petersen grew up, he could be surrounded by woods in a five minutes' walk, something he believes has totally informed his work. Just take a look at any Mouse Guard book and you'll quickly become immersed in what Petersen calls "the natural world."

 As a fine arts major at Eastern Michigan University, Petersen thought he would become a children's book illustrator. At the library program, he showed part of his portfolio, including an illustrated story that he wrote and illustrated called The Mouse and the Cardinal. Petersen joked that he quickly learned that "inter-species love was off-limits in the children's book world."

Another key influence for Petersen was his love and knowledge of role playing games, such as Dungeons & Dragons. He loved the games, and he enjoyed the friends he made as he played the games. At the program, he showed a picture of three of his good friends -- all role-playing game buddies -- each of whom has become a character in the Mouse Guard books.

The Mouse Guard books "are silly on the surface," Petersen said. "They're about mice who are walking and talking on their hind legs. But it's not a silly story," he added. And he's right -- the Mouse Guard books comprise a range of literary genres and emotions. While the characters are mice, they are stand-ins for human readers who will readily relate to their fears and joys. It's worth reading Petersen's FAQ on his website to learn more background about Mouse Guard, including this statement: "For David, mice became a perfect representation of being an underdog, having the world stacked against you, and having enemies with all the advantages of size and might."

 So far, there are three main Mouse Guard books written and illustrated by Petersen. He says the first book, Fall 1152, "helps readers learn the characters and their stories." Here's how Petersen describes, on his website, the overall world-building scenario for the series: "... mice struggle to live safely and prosper amongst harsh conditions and a host of predators. Thus the Mouse Guard was formed: more than just soldiers, they are guides for common mice looking to journey without confrontation from one village to another. They see to their duty with fearless dedication so that they may not simply exist, but truly live."

The second book, Winter 1152, is a "character-driven story," Petersen said. School Library Journal noted that the book "follows the darkening adventures of the brave troops of the Mouse Guard as they battle the elements, predators, and even other mice in order to secure their way of life. The high-quality artwork found in the first volume carries over into this one." Their final verdict: "Combining a tale of action, romance, comedy, and tragedy with the graphic-novel format results in a top-notch work with wide appeal."

 All of this intricate artwork and story-telling takes time, however. As Petersen told the library crowd: "It was taking me so long to get going on the third book, that I decided to do a spin-off of the series called Legends of the Mouse Guard." Petersen's idea was that he would ask other graphic novelists to contribute stories that members of the Mouse Guard might have told in the local tavern, adding that "I draw the bar scenes." So far, two of these Legends books have been published "and we're about to start on a third volume." Petersen particularly likes to spotlight talented new graphic novelists in these books, as a way to giving back to the community that helped him get his start.

Last year, Petersen published The Black Axe,  the third volume in the Mouse Guard series. "It's a prequel," he said, adding that it is set about 40 years before Fall 1152. This November, he will published another Mouse Guard book, Baldwin the Brave and Other Tales. That book will be a mix of four stories that he wrote for Free Comic Book Day, plus two new tales.

One of Peterson's models for the Mouse Guard books.
Petersen has done other things besides the Mouse Guard books, including doing illustrations for the popular Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics. But it's in the Mouse Guard books that he really can show his prodigious artistic talents, as well as his attention to detail. Petersen wowed the library crowd when he showed slides of the models that he builds -- from cardboard, mainly -- of buildings, ships and other locations that are featured in the books.

 Overall, Petersen's talk was a hit with our library audience, which included both kids and adults.  One young reader asked Petersen during the Q&A why the mice often wear cloaks in his books. The audience loved Petersen's answer: "I had no idea what mice anatomy would look like if mice stood on their hind legs. So I just wrapped a bunch of fabric around them."

Next year is the 10th anniversary of the Mouse Guard books, and Petersen's publisher, Archaia Comics, will be putting out what Petersen calls an "over-sized" collection of his art from the books. Petersen also plans to begin working on a fourth Mouse Guard book about the Weasel War of 1149, something referenced in the other volumes. Clearly, Petersen has plenty more Mouse Guard stories to tell -- good news for all of his fans!

Note: thanks to Dave Burbank, a library assistant and the graphic novel guru at my library. You can read more about Petersen's work on Dave's Comics blog. Also thanks to Esther Kim of Fantom Comics in Washington, D.C. who brought copies of Petersen's books to sell to eager fans.






Sunday, August 31, 2014

Holy Bagumba! It's Kate DiCamillo!

The kids, towing their grown-ups, began arriving at 6 p.m., determined to nab a good seat for the 7:30 p.m. program starring kid lit star Kate DiCamillo in the Takoma Park Community Center auditorium. By 7 p.m., most of the seats in the 150-seat auditorium were taken, and the room was humming with excitement. (To accommodate the crowd, we even opened an overflow room, with a live feed, down the hall). So, when Kate herself walked down the aisle at 7:30 p.m. last Friday night and took her seat on the auditorium stage, it was no surprise that the audience -- now overflowing into aisles and any open carpet space -- burst into applause.

Posing with Kate - note my "Holy Bagumba" button
 I had the honor and privilege of sharing the stage with Kate, who didn't want to do a formal presentation but instead had asked me to lead a conversation with her before taking questions from the audience. As she told me before we went onstage: "Karen, you're in charge. That's why I'm so relaxed!" Admittedly, I was less relaxed, having never before led a program attended by 200-plus people.  But I love Kate's books, and I had immersed myself in them and in her two Newbery acceptance speeches, for the past couple of weeks. Between this immersion method and the interview experience garnered in my previous life as a newspaper reporter, the onstage conversation between us flowed smoothly. I had a blast, and Kate told me later that she'd like to take me on the road with her!

Because I was on the stage and couldn't take notes, I don't have any direct quotes from the program. It was televised by the city of Takoma Park TV, however, and I'll update this post with a link to the televised version as soon as it is posted. Suffice to say that our conversation ranged from Kate talking about how she moved from Minnesota to Florida with no socks (and quickly went out and purchased some in the first cold snap) to what it's like to get "the call" about winning the Newbery Medal (in 2004 for The Tale of Despereaux and earlier this year for Flora & Ulysses) to her hilarious new book, Leroy Ninker Saddles Up.

Meanwhile, here are just a few "snapshots" from the memorable evening:

Snapshot No. 1: (courtesy of friend/neighbor Suzanna Banwell). Kids holding copies of their favorite books by Kate running down the hill outside the Community Center to get to the auditorium. As Suzanna said: "It gave me chills to see these kids so excited about books and an author!"

Snapshot No. 2: Kids thrilled to ask Kate questions, some of them so excited that they didn't listen to previous questions and answers, which meant that Kate answered the same question three times: "What inspired you to write Because of Winn-Dixie?" A veteran of kid Q&A sessions, Kate patiently responded each time, and in fact reworked her answer each time so that it didn't sound repetitive. (Short answer: During one of the coldest winters in Minneapolis, Kate was homesick for Florida. She also was without a dog, for the longest time ever in her life. So she decided to write a book set in Florida starring a dog.)

Snapshot No. 3: Kids asking questions I'd never thought to ask, helping us all to learn more about Kate and her writing. One example: "Why does Mercy Watson (star of the Mercy Watson beginning reader series) love buttered toast so much?" Kate responded by noting that, one day,  she was giving a ride to a friend, who decided to eat slices of liberally-buttered toast in Kate's brand-new (and much-prized) Mini Cooper. Irritated about crumbs and butter on the new upholstery, Kate asked her friend if she could put away her food until she was out of the car. Instead, her friend responded with a lecture on the merits of buttered toast. Kate, who had been struggling to bring Mercy Watson alive on the page, took that lecture and gave Mercy what is now her most famous characteristic: her passion for buttered toast.

Jon Scieszka, take note!
 Snapshot No. 4: A young library patron named Paulette asking Kate to sign a short story that Kate had written with Jon Scieszka, another kid lit star and the first National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. (Kate was named the fourth ambassador in January). The story is included in one of the Guys Read books edited by Scieszka. Kate signed the page on which the story began, and then gleefully crossed out co-author Scieszka's name. Paulette is now determined to come to our Nov. 21 event featuring Scieszka to see if he decides to take revenge by crossing out Kate's name.

Snapshot No. 5: Kate staying after the program to sign books until everyone in the line, which snaked around the auditorium, had their books signed. One of the last people to have their books signed was Frank, a custodian at the community center. Because he was working, Frank couldn't hang out in the line, but instead popped in at the last minute in hopes that Kate would still sign his book. Of course she did!

 Huge thanks go to Politics & Prose Bookstore, especially Kerri Poore, for having the idea to ask Kate to do a program on Friday, Aug. 29 before her headliner appearance at the Aug. 30 National Book Festival. Thanks also to the unflappable Jennifer Roberts, executive director of marketing and publicity at Candlewick Press, Kate's publisher. Jennifer made sure everyone could hear Kate speak and kept the book-signing line moving. Lots of "Yippie-i-ohs" to Kate the Great for coming to share herself and her stories, and for teaching us all the heart-touching new word of "capacious." Finally, thanks to all of the kids and their grown-ups who comprised our overflow crowd and made the evening so fun!

Friday, August 29, 2014

Fun Times With Peter Brown

Caldecott Honor-winning illustrator Peter Brown came, saw and conquered a crowd of kids and adults last night at my library, the Takoma Park Maryland Library. Peter read us his first-ever book (created at the age of six): The Adventures of Me and My Dog "Buffy". He told us how he's loved creating art since he can remember, and how he also loves to write -- a perfect combination for a picture book creator. He got us all to quack together (more about that later in this post). And he talked about the real-life inspiration behind his newest book, My Teacher Is a Monster! (No, I Am Not).

Photo by Jeff MacMillan
"When I was a kid, I was a pretty sensitive little guy.... With my big imagination and the fact that I was a kind of sensitive little person, I had the feeling sometimes that some of my teachers were actually monsters disguised as people," Peter said. But it turns out, Peter added, that one of those "monster teachers" helped set him on the road to becoming an artist when she praised one of his drawings one day.

"She said to me, 'Peter, that is an excellent drawing," he said, adding that he was surprised but obviously pleased by her praise for his picture. The teacher was particularly taken by the fact that Peter had drawn in "one-point perspective," showing a road going off in a "vanishing point." It's a pretty complex artistic concept for a young artist, but Peter said that "I was doing it without even thinking about it."

Basking in the teacher's praise, Peter then was jolted when she told him that "this drawing is so good, I need to show it to the principal." As Peter noted last night, he was momentarily worried that he was going to be in trouble. Instead, once the principal saw the drawing, he agreed with the teacher that Peter should immediately be put in advanced art classes, jumpstarting his career as an artist. Added Peter: "Maybe that wouldn't have happened without my grumpy teacher."

Putting those two things together -- the fact that he saw some teachers as monsters and that one of them actually was nice and helped him get his start in art -- Brown was inspired to write My Teacher Is a Monster! (No, I Am Not). The book begins with a young boy named Bobby attracting the ire of his teacher, Mrs. Kirby, for throwing a paper airplane. Bobby thinks of Mrs. Kirby as a monster because she "stomped" and she "roared" and she says: "No recess for children who throw paper airplanes in class."

So Bobby is aghast one day to find Mrs. Kirby sitting on a bench in his favorite park. As Brown writes: "Bobby wanted to run! He wanted to hide! But he knew that would only make things worse." So he sits down on the bench next to Mrs. Kirby. It's awkward for both of them at first -- one of my favorite moments is when Bobby raises his hand to talk to Mrs. Kirby, who tells "Robert, you don't need to raise your hand out here." But the ice is broken when a gust of wind blows Mrs. Kirby's prized hat off her head and Bobby is able to rescue it.

From that point on, the two become more at home with each other. Mrs. Kirby tells Bobby about how fun it is to quack along with the ducks in park's pond (that's when Brown led us all in quacking last night -- a highlight for the kids). Bobby, meanwhile, leads Mrs. Kirby up to his special spot high in the park's the hills. Their out-of-school friendship seems secure, but at school, they are still teacher and student, as Brown shows in the book's hilarious finale.

Clearly, the story is one that will particularly resonate with kids, as it did when Brown read it -- via the big screen -- at last night's program. And the kids got it right away, as Brown's illustrations, which initially show Mrs. Kirby as a green hippo-sized monster, soften into showing her in a more human shape as the connection grows between her and Bobby. As one young participant eagerly shouted: "She's not a monster anymore!"

Photo by Jeff MacMillan
The audience particularly loved the book's conclusion, where Bobby is once again in trouble with Mrs. Kirby for -- you guessed it -- throwing a paper airplane in class. As Brown said: "I love stories where the hero doesn't learn lessons. To be fair, though, Bobby learned a lot in this story. But he still can't sit still sometimes and just has to throw paper airplanes."

Brown's illustrations for the book were done in India ink, watercolor, gouache and pencil on paper, then digitally composited and colored. Some pages show two-page spreads, while others show numerous smaller illustrations where Brown uses speech bubbles, as in comics. It's a great combination of approaches that works just perfectly for the book, as does the fact that Brown leaves lots of white space, which further highlights the changing relationship between Bobby and Mrs. Kirby.

After reading the book, Brown then headed over to an easel, where he showed everyone how he drew Mrs. Kirby. Everyone was fascinated to see how Brown took some simple shapes (and a few not so simple ones) and put them together to create a truly memorable character.

Overall, Brown's presentation was a huge hit. As folks lined up to have him sign their books, one adult told me, "That was awesome!" And so it was.

A perk of my job is introducing talented folks like Peter Brown.
 Note: Big thanks to Politics & Prose Bookstore for arranging Brown's program. Thanks also to Lisa Moraleda of Little, Brown, for sending lots of goodies for last night's crowd, including My Teacher Is a Monster! (No, I Am Not) buttons and stickers. (For more fun with the book, head to this activity kit on Peter's beautiful website, where you can also find out more about Peter, including interviews that he's done).


Thanks to my friend, neighbor and professional photographer, Jeff MacMillan, who came to see Peter, a fellow alumus of the Art Center College of Design, and took the wonderful photos you see on this blog. Finally, thanks to Peter for such an inspiring and entertaining evening!



Thursday, August 28, 2014

Kate DiCamillo, Peter Brown and ... Jon Scieszka!

My library -- the Takoma Park Maryland Library -- is tiny but we're now pretty mighty, thanks to our great partnership with Politics & Prose Bookstore in nearby Washington, D.C. Because of that partnership, we've got a whole slate of amazing authors who will be coming to my library in the next couple of months.



First up -- tonight, in fact! -- is picture book creator Peter Brown, who will be here at 7 p.m. talking about his latest book, My Teacher Is a Monster! (No, I Am Not). Stay tuned for a report on Peter's talk in my next blogpost.


Tomorrow, Friday August 29, Kate the Great -- Kate DiCamillo -- will be speaking in our auditorium (in the Takoma Park Community Center) at 7:30. Kate is one of the headliners at the National Book Festival on Saturday (August 30) at the Washington Convention Center. But we got her for Friday night, and she'll be talking about her newest book, LeRoy Ninker Saddles Up as well as her two Newbery Medal-winning books, The Tale of Despereaux and Flora & Ulysses.



We've then got a raft of other authors coming, including Dork Diaries author Rachel Renee Russell, who will unveil Book No. 8 in the best-selling series on Sept. 30 at 7:30 p.m., and many many more. I'll post the entire schedule soon for those who live nearby.




Finally, mark your calendars for the fourth weekend in November -- just before Thanksgiving. On Friday, Nov. 21 at 7:30 p.m., we've got a triple threat: Jon Scieszka, Tom Angleberger, and Cece Bell. And to cap off that magical weekend, Caldecott Medalist Jon Klassen will speak on Sunday, Nov. 23 at 1 p.m. about his newest book (written by Mac Barnett), Sam & Dave Dig a Hole.




Monday, August 25, 2014

Booking It In Savannah

I'm just home from a vacation in Savannah, Ga. a city with a stunningly beautiful historic district and a booming tourism business that's based on one of the best-selling American books of all time, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. Folks flock to Savannah to see the locales where events in the book take place; it seems that you can get a tour -- including an evening jaunt in a specially-outfitted hearse -- anytime, day or night.

"The Book," as it's known in Savannah.
I wasn't there for the tours, as I prefer to do my own exploring. So, instead of jumping on the hearse or taking a nighttime ghost tour, my husband and I spent our week doing our own walking tours of each of Savannah's 23 squares, eating some great meals, and checking out the city's two great museums.

Jepson Center for the Arts, part of the Telfair Museum.
We visited the Jepson Center for the Arts, part of the Telfair Museum, which is situated in the midst of Savannah's historic district. One night while we were in Savannah, the Telfair hosted a reception -- open to the public -- to mark the opening at the Jepson Center of Deep River, an incredibly thought-provoking exhibit on the nature of freedom by artist/MacArthur Fellow Whitfield Lovell.

The other museum we visited was the Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD) Museum. Interestingly, the SCAD Museum was featuring an exhibit of the photographs of Savannah native Jack Leigh, including the one for which he became internationally famous: the cover photo of Berendt's book. But the exhibit focused much more broadly on Leigh's work, and contained many memorable photographs of the people living and working in the "low country," the coastal areas near Savannah.
SCAD Museum

This was all well and good, and I can unhesitatingly recommend a visit to Savannah, a quite sophisticated city that a friend recently called "the San Francisco of the South." In this blogpost, however, I want to focus on what a bookish city Savannah is. It begins, of course, with the fact that the city's tourism boom (going strongly for a couple of decades) is based on a book (as well as the movie made from Berendt's book). But Savannah also has several interesting independent bookstores and of our visit, my husband and I visited four of them.

The Book Lady Bookstore


The first bookstore, The Book Lady Bookstore, was just steps from where we were staying. It's a treasure trove of used books, as well as those specifically focusing on Savannah and Georgia history.  Here, I found a used copy of The Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebovitz, a book that I had been wanting to read because I am a huge Francophile. It was a bargain at $10, especially because Lebovitz included a number of recipes that I plan to ask my husband, the family chef, to try out. I also found a book, The Law's Delay, by one of my all-time favorite mystery writers, Sara Woods. She wrote more than 40 books featuring a character named Antony Maitland, an English barrister who is constantly "going beyond his brief" in the search for justice. I have read most of Woods' book,s but never this one, which was published in 1977.

A small taste of the Books on Bay series collection.
Next (bookstore) stop was Books on Bay, a "must-visit" bookstore for anyone who is a collector, or just a love, of children's series books like the Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys. The bookstore is close to the popular (and heavily touristed) River Walk, but is enough off the beaten path that I would have missed it except that my friend Tom Swift -- his real name! -- had recommended it. I was so glad to find it and thrilled to spend time with the knowledgeable proprietor, Betsy Holt-Thetford.

Betsy Holt-Thetford
We talked about the Nancy Drew books, and I mentioned that because the books weren't considered appropriate reading for children by librarians when I was a kid in the 1960's, libraries didn't stock them. That meant that I had to use my allowance each week to buy the latest Nancy Drew. Betsy loves to talk with -- and take pictures -- of customers, so I found myself later that week on the Books on Bay Facebook page, with Betsy telling the story of how I had to buy all my own Nancy Drew books. I was then able to chime in with a link to a story that I wrote some years ago on the 75th anniversary of the Nancy Drew books. When I'm next in Savannah (our son is a SCAD student and so I'll be back!), I definitely plan to head back to Books on Bay.

E. Shaver, Bookseller
E. Shaver, Bookseller is a Savannah tradition. Located just behind the Savannah (DeSoto) Hilton, Shaver has an enviable location. Years ago, before I even had kids, my husband and I visited Shaver's and purchased mint-condition copies of Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne. At that point, we were starting to think about having children; I had never read the Milne books, and my husband insisted that we needed to purchase and read them -- together. Two years ago, visiting Savannah as my son was considering SCAD, I returned to Shaver's and purchased Bruno, Chief of Police, the first book in a series by Martin Walker and set in the Dordogne region of France. The series has since become a real favorite series for my husband and me. On this most recent visit, I bought Letters from Yellowstone, an epistolary novel about a woman scientist working in the national park in the days when woman weren't allow to pursue such careers. In addition, I bought Woman in the Dark by Dashiell Hammet for my husband, a true Hammett fan.

Our final Savannah bookstore destination meant leaving the historic district and traveling to a strip mall along the main drag (Victory Drive). But Wiley's Book Exchange was definitely worth the brief drive.
 I bought a number of books, including a $3 copy of The Tale of Despereaux, the Newbery Medal-winning book by Kate DiCamillo. Kate is coming to speak at our library (in partnership with Politics & Prose Bookstore) this coming Friday evening, and I plan to ask her to sign my newly-purchased copy of The Tale of Despereaux.

One last literary note for Savannah: if you go, you must have a coffee or glass of wine at the Gallery Espresso, an atmospheric cafe located on one corner of Chippewa Square. Besides its great, central location in Savannah's historic district, Gallery Expresso features an array of delicious sandwiches and pastry. It's the perfect place to sit with a book.

You also might meet Chris Berinato, a friendly manager-type at the cafe whose passion is working on something called Seersucker Live in his spare time. The tag line for Seersucker Live is a real come on: "Part literary reading. Part talk show. Part cocktail party." Also, we weren't there for the latest Seersucker Live program, but Chris told us about a program he did a while ago with Daniel Handler, also known as Lemony Snicket. It's definitely worth checking out the YouTube video of that program, and it's just one more demonstration that Savannah is indeed a great destination for book lovers.