The Secret Lives of Booksellers
Jennifer Bell’s debut The Uncommoners: The Crooked Sixpence is a surreal and spectacular adventure tale for children, the first in a trilogy to feature plucky siblings Ivy and Seb.
When the children’s grandmother is suddenly taken to hospital, Ivy and her brother discover the doorway to a mysterious other world called Lundinor. This world exists beneath London; it is a kind of wonderland where even seemingly everyday objects are endowed with magical properties. As they explore this strange new world, the children realise their ordinary-seeming grandmother is in fact the keeper of many extraordinary secrets.
Booksellers have superpowers. I understand that you might not always feel like a superhero, especially at the end of a long shift when you just want to collapse on a sofa with a cup of tea – but it’s true.
Booksellers don’t recommend books by looking at charts to find out which titles are selling well; you look at the books in your hands – the ones you’re shelving or scanning or tidying up. You don’t need to read reviews or endorsements to gauge a book’s popularity; you read faces. You see eyes light up. You know the books that are argued over or whispered about, those that cause frowning or laughter – the ones that are hurriedly grabbed or excitedly photographed.
The whole adult colouring books thing? Most booksellers I know were predicting that in late 2012, when publication of Johanna Basford’s Secret Garden was just on the horizon. Booksellers have an unrivalled awareness of the market; you sense when something is special or different, when a fuse has been lit.
Another of your superpowers is a built-in book compass. Booksellers can plot a course for a reader’s next favourite book with just a few snippets of information. You can identify a reader’s taste, recognize which stories are similar and which authors might appeal. You’re able to see otherwise invisible connections between books and find the distant cousins to a reader’s best-loved characters that they never knew existed.
For children of course, booksellers are more than just useful; you’re often important in a child’s life.
I remember very clearly the first time I felt the responsibility of being a children’s bookseller. A little girl aged perhaps eight or nine years came in to the children’s section with her grandma, asking for adventure stories. I did a jump of joy because they’re my favourites too, and I spent a long while talking with the girl, recommending some that I thought she might enjoy. A week later, the grandma returned alone, wanting to buy the sequels. As I collected the required books, I commented that her granddaughter must be a very good reader to get through so many books in a week. The grandma smiled sadly – this broke my heart – and told me that her granddaughter had tragically lost both of her parents the month before and that reading together was the only thing that stopped the little girl from crying.
And, the thing is, books don’t just make children smile, or teach them new things – they actually help them to deal with life. Children have to put up with all kinds of issues without any of the coping skills that adults have developed. Books – whether they are serious, funny, scary or exciting – can help children to escape for a while, and booksellers (along with librarians, teachers and parents) are the ones who put those books into children’s hands.
As an author who knows just what it means to be a children’s bookseller, it is everything to me that my book The Crooked Sixpence is Children’s Book of the Month at Waterstones – and to be supported by an entire army of fantastic booksellers with all your secret superpowers.
And my message to young readers is this: when it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter who the supervillains are that you’re fighting in your life. They cannot beat a good bookseller.
Jennifer Bell, June 2016