Saturday, December 10, 2011

Interview with children's book seller: Cerelle Woods

This is the first in occasional blog interviews with ‘people in the know’ in children’s writing. My first interview is with the Cerelle Woods who works in the children’s department at Barnes & Noble Books in Fort Worth. But this is the least of who this amazing woman is, including a dear friend to me. She herself has written and been published for children in magazines. She has a witty and charming voice and I hope to see more of her stories in the future.

Cerelle has worked in the children’s department at Barnes & Noble for the last seven years. She is one who talks and listens and reads and pays attention to what is going on with kids, parents, and teachers who come into the store.

How have things changed since you first started working with children’s books?

Cerelle: Mostly, we have fewer books and more toys. But that’s the way of things in the 21st century. What’s the same is that we still have kids coming in who LOVE to read. And for that, I am so grateful.

What do you notice most that parents want to buy for their kids and as gifts?

Cerelle: We always have people who want to know what the best sellers are for a particular age and gender. I respect that. But we also have people who are looking for ‘their’ favorite book from their own childhood or their children’s childhood, and I love that. Sometimes that book (sadly) is out of print, but I always reassure them that they can still find it online. And there are publishers who are bringing back those vintage (and overlooked) classics. My favorite example is Purple House Press. I am featuring their recent re-release of “The Christmas Cookie Springle Snitcher,” by Robert Kraus on our theme wall right now.

What about what teachers are looking for at the bookstore?

Cerelle: I love teachers because they keep good books current. A great example is “Thank You, Mr. Falker,” by Patricia Polacco. Teachers always request this one. Also, the Tacky the Penguin books by Helen Lester. Another thing I love about teachers is that they bring me reviews of new books. I might never have read the Newbery winner, “When You Reach Me” if a teacher hadn’t given me a glowing review.

What about kid buyers themselves?

Cerelle: Now you’re talking about my favorite part of my job! There’s just nothing better than seeing a kid come in with that light in their eyes, on FIRE about an author or a series. The truth is that it’s usually a series. I get that, because I was an avid reader of the Oz books, once upon a time (All 35 of them!). Kids love series, there’s no way around it. Whether it’s th Magic Tree House series or Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Percy Jackson or The Ranger’s Apprentice, children love to keep reading about their favorite characters. That’s something I’ve learned during these past seven years.

Do you see an area in books that is lacking? Topics or subjects or age groups that people want more of?

Cerelle: “First experiences” are a topic or genre that people can’t seem to find enough books about. First time on a plane, first time at the dentist, first time to move, first time to have a new sibling. You wouldn’t think these subjects would be so in request, but they are. There’s also a scarcity of kids’ books about math. They are out there, but they’re rare.

As far as age groups, I think there’s a real need for “tween” books—both for boys and girls. Parents really hesitate to buy teen books for their 12-14 year olds. They are worried about the content. Another thin genre is realistic fiction for young boys. I hear so many parents tell me that their sons simply don’t enjoy fantasy and want something more ‘true-to-life.’ Those books are out there, of course (the wonderful Okay for Now leaps to mind), but I think there could be many more.

What do you think about bookstores shaping an author’s career? Do they have that much influence on sales?

Cerelle: That’s a hard one. I try to keep my ear to the ground for books that may not get sent to me automatically, such as by Barnes and Noble corporate, but I’m often taken by surprise when the awards get announced (Newbery, National Book Awards for Young Readers, even the Caldecott). I would say that sometimes in spite of B&N’s best efforts to roll out a wonderful and worthy book (case in point: Gary D. Schmidt’s OKAY FOR NOW), the public just doesn’t always cotton to it. Maybe it’s the cover art. Maybe it’s the title. Who can say? I thought this was one of the best books of this past year, for any age, and I wasn’t alone. But, it really didn’t sell that well.

What kind of book signings work best at your store? Is it more about the name of the author, the subject of the books, or an author’s self-promotion for an event?

Cerelle: I asked our CRM about this, and he said, “One word: Cookies!” Ha! As for me, I think it’s all about the author’s own networking efforts. Twitter, Facebook, e-mail, community network, whatever—seems to me that the best signings we have at our store (other than HUGE name-brand authors) are a result of that author’s own elbow grease. Sad to say, but that’s my experience.

How can an author spend time productively in the children’s/YA section of a bookstore to research what’s there, what’s saleable, what’s needed, and where their ideas would fit?

Cerelle: That’s another hard question. I like talking to the kids themselves. One of my favorite questions (and I stole this from someone else) is, “If I only read one new kids’ book this year, what should it be?” In my experience, children really like that question and think hard to answer it seriously. But coming at it from a different angle, I agree with the advice to write the book you’d most like to read (assuming you’d like to read a kids’ book!). I always remember what Madeleine L’Engel said in her memoir—she was writing children’s fantasies in the wrong decade; no editor would touch them. But that was what she loved, and the time for them did finally arrive. Maybe realistic fiction for boys is the ‘Next Big Thing.” Who knows? If you’re out there writing that, and that’s what you love, keep the faith!

Anything else you’d like to say as both a writer and someone who loves/sells/promotes kids’ books?

Cerelle: First of all, please be advised that there are children out there who do love to read. LOVE to read! I see them every day. It’s extremely reassuring! Also, I would say that it’s impossible to predict what the next huge trend may be. Who could have predicted that Rick Riordan would introduce an entire generation to Greek mythology? Part of me wants to promote those books that get anti-readers reading. (i.e., Captain Underpants, Wimpy Kid, et al). Another part of me wants to promote books like Jeanine Birdsall’s – The Penderwicks series, which appeals to those children who already love to read. Let’s just say that I’m divided. Maybe the lesson here is that there’s a place and an audience for ever kind of writer.

Thank you Cerelle for your insight! I think I’ve learned some very important things from your answers.


Deborah J. Lightfoot said...

Fascinating insights, Cerelle and Kathy! Thank you for sharing this information. It's very heartening to know that many kids do still love to read. As a lifelong reader of fantasy, and now as a writer working in that genre, I treasure the advice "to write the book you’d most like to read." Those are the books that come from the heart. Happy book-selling, Cerelle! I hope you get hordes of customers this month, all of them "with that light in their eyes, on FIRE about an author or a series."

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Rod said...

GREAT INTERVIEW! Great questions, too. How refreshing to hear that, in this digital generation, there are still kids who LOVE to read! I'm half-way through the second draft on my junior novel, "Time To Shine!", so I needed that boost of encouragement. Write on!