It happens at least once a week. A well-meaning adult will come to the store looking for a gift for a kid– sometimes with the kid in tow, sometimes not. The adult will be wandering lost, clueless, picking up and dismissing book after book after book. If they’ve come in with a kid, the kid will have gravitated to the Activity books and be hanging out looking for Waldo or reading knock-knock jokes out loud or oohing and ahing over a Weird but True! or Ripley’s or Guinness title.
Eventually, the adult will get frustrated looking on their own and accept the offer of help you extended earlier. You start in with your handseller questions–How old is the kid? What does he or she enjoy doing? What kind of books do they like? The answer to the last question will inevitably be, “I don’t know, but I was thinking of a classic like <insert book from 100+ years ago that may eventually become the child’s favorite but that would make an awful gift>.” Internally, you roll your eyes. Externally, you smile and agree, “Yes, that’s definitely a classic and, you’re in luck, we have it right here.” (If you’re lucky, though, you don’t have it in stock and that makes the next part of the conversation easier.)
You take a deep breath.
You screw up your courage.
You counter: “However, even though that’s a great book, it’s not the kind of thing that kids really choose to read. From what you’ve told me, I think your niece/nephew/neighbor/grandchild/random child would really enjoy one of these,” and you hand over a stack of three or four good contemporary(-ish) titles. “Maybe just take a look and one of them will be an even better fit than <classic, but it looks like it’s ‘good for you’, so the kid’s just going to shove it in a corner and forget about it>.”
The customer will likely smile and take your recommendations to peruse, because the conversation has been longer and far more diplomatic than I’ve set down here. As they’re shuffling through the pile, though, they’ll get to the Graphic Novel you included. Immediately, the nose will wrinkle, the lip will sneer, and the book will be handed back to you with a statement along the lines of “I won’t buy a comic book. Those aren’t really reading.” If you’re me, internally you’ll be Losing. Your. $#!+. To the customer, though, you will begin your sales pitch.
“This,” you say, handing the shopper March: Book One, “is the first of three volumes of a graphic memoir written by Congressman John Lewis, in which he recounts his years with the Civil Rights movement. The third volume won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.”
“Gene Luen Yang is the current Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and his two-volume Boxers and Saints was a National Book Award finalist. He’s also written several other award-winning graphic stories and his Secret Coders series is all about teaching kids to write computer code, but disguised in stories about robots.”
“Craig Thompson’s Space Dumplins has a really great messages about respecting the environment and the importance of family and how to be a good friend. Plus, it’s got spaceships and a talking chicken.”
“Yes, I know the covers are all pastel colors and sparkles, but don’t let that fool you. The Phoebe and Her Unicorn books are incredibly smart and funny. If you don’t believe me, you should just read the spelling bee scene in Unicorn on a Roll. Go on. It’s really short. I can wait. I see you trying not to smile. Clever, right?”
“She’s into princesses? You should definitely give her Princeless. It looks like a typical princess book, but this princess befriends her dragon guard and rescues herself from her tower and sets out to rescue her sisters, too, with the help of her half-dwarf blacksmithing new best friend.”
Okay. Let’s go get that copy of Robinson Crusoe rung up and wrapped for you.
Billie Bloebaum is a bookseller at Third Street Books in McMinnville, OR, but she was once a nine-year-old girl who read Stephen King, so you should be glad she’s only recommending graphic novels for your young person.