Independent Bookshop Week

Published on: 21 June 2015 Author: Sita Brahmachari

The brilliant award winning author and campaigner Sita Brahmachari, who's work includes the Zebra Crossing Soul Song and Artichoke Hearts, became our twelfth Writer in Residence back in 2015. In this blog Sita wrote about her love for independent book shops, and the great work they do supporting communities.

Sita Brahmachari invitation to celebrate your local independent children's bookshop!

Here's a peep into the people who make mine such a special place to visit... and an invitation for you to share pictures, stories and top recommendations from your own Independent Children's Bookshop this week.

Here are some of the hand-selling gems from Children's Bookshop Muswell Hill, London - an award winning bookshop serving young readers for 40 years. In this blog post specialist book sellers share advice on bringing children to books, and recommend just a few of the many books they love.

Kate AgnewKate Agnew

Owner, who first started working as a student in the book shop over 25 years ago.

One of our roles is bridging the gap between what parents and children want. We build trust by hand selling books.

Many parents think of reading like an escalator where the reader carries on developing upwards and upwards to more complex texts. But in fact most children see reading as more of a lift where they will stop on floors and explore then sometimes return to easier stories - they hop around. Sometimes going back to familiar ground is really important. Children are often quite good at knowing the right moment for them to tackle the right book.

We get quite a lot of parents who say their children don't like reading... We tend to think that our job is all about finding the right book at the right time to give them a way in to enjoying it. Sometimes of course there is a particular cause for reluctant readers. Perhaps a problem with eyesight that means finding a larger print (but still age appropriate) book might help, or a customer might have some degree of dyslexia which might mean they'd respond better to a book from the Barrington Stoke list.

We tend to start by asking what children like outside of reading as that can sometimes give a way in. We also go for fairly pacey, addictive books that are really good page turners, and we quite often suggest that parents read the first chapter aloud as it's often getting into a book that is the obstacle - once they're a chapter or two into a page turner they're usually hooked enough to read on happily for themselves!

When I first began in the shop author visits rarely happened. My first was with Cynthia Voigt in 1990. Since then we have had so many wonderful visiting authors including Jaqueline Wilson, Philip Pullman, Judith Kerr, Shirley Hughes, John Burningham, Helen Oxenbury, Michael Rosen - he even sparks up poetry in the middle of a signing! These, to name but a few authors.

There have been changes in children's publishing since I started but what never changes is that when we go away on holiday and return the bookshop smells the same way it has since the day I walked in here as a child.

It feels like home.

Kate picked off the shelf: London Eye Mystery because it is a wonderfully written book with such widespread appeal that it is one we do often end up suggesting when the buyer doesn't know what the child s/he is buying for likes to read, or even quite how old they are.

Themba MkhizeThemba Mkhize

'When I was a child I didn't read much. I am dyslexic, but I used to be obsessed with Asterix and Obelix. I only got into books around my GCSEs after a group reading of Lord of the Flies I was hooked, I then went on to read Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman which had a huge impact on me.

'Being of mixed heritage I thought how clever the role reversal was in the book. It's so great that Malorie Blackman, the last Children's Laureate, came to the shop to sign copies of Boys Don't Cry.'

'I think I gravitate more towards leading boys to books because I'd like to show them books that will blow their minds and possibly give them the same love for reading as I discovered but later on.'

Most memorable author visit: Andy Stanton because he had a joke and banter with everyone!

Themba picked off the shelf: It Might be an Apple by Shinsuke Yoshitake because of its humour in combination with thinking creatively about what an apple could be, a question which children love to explore and adults often forget.

Sanchita Basu De SarkarSanchita Basu De Sarkar

The highlight of my time at the bookshop are Jaqueline Wilson's visits. The first time she came it was October and the children in the queue outside were freezing but the buzz when they got inside the shop was tangible. As they wait the children go along the shelves and say - 'have you read this or that book?' Recommending titles to each other. It feels like a book party.

My favourite time of working in the shop is when all the books arrive from the publishers on the last week of the month it's like opening a treasure trove -It's a fight to get our hands on them first.

Sanchita picked off the shelf: We're All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen - it has come fresh into the shop, and the blend of warmth, humour, and genuinely touching characters means I can't wait to start recommending it to people.

'What would you recommend?'

I had the idea to write this post when I was browsing for a book for my daughter and a young man came in to the Children's Bookshop and began chatting to a member of staff. He carried his young child on his hip, a little boy of maybe two or three years old.

'The first time my Mum brought me here I was his age,' the man explained. 'I'm going to ask you the same question as she did...What would you recommend? He loves anything with wheels...'

That was it... Themba was off to the comfy cushioned young children's section, picking out titles.

The young Dad looked quite emotional as he sat in the story corner with his son and read picture books.

He told Themba 'We've moved out now. Just here visiting friends, but I had to bring my boy in to show him!'

I found this so touching as this bookshop holds a very special place in my heart too. Kate Agnew who first worked in the bookshop over 25 years ago, has guided my children into reading, not only in the bookshop but in their local school where she ran inspiring creative writing workshops.

When we first moved to the area about 12 years ago I first noticed the queues outside the shop. I don't know who was signing that day, but it impressed me that there were so many children snaking around the pavement waiting to have a book signed. It could have been one of the many wonderful authors who have visited the bookshop over the years. When I went to chat with Kate about writing this blog post she was kind enough to let me have a peek into her author visit book. It's a wonderful read in itself!

One day I went to have a browse around the shop, admired the beautiful window and chatted to the friendly staff. It has always been a lovely identification for me to be greeted by Meena wearing one of her beautiful saris. She has worked in the shop for 30 years (unfortunately she was not working the day I interviewed staff for this blog) and has a wonderful knowledge of the children's and young adult books, and how children's publishing has changed and developed over that period. As a parent what I was most impressed with was how knowledgeable all the book sellers were about their stock and the way in which they engaged with my children direct to lead them to a book that they might enjoy.

Since that day I have been to the bookshop for many different reasons, both as a parent, a reader and as a children's author. The flexibility and creativity of the work of a children's Independent Bookshop and the way it links so deeply into the community, never ceases to amaze me.

Here are a few of the questions recently asked of the book sellers

I want to buy a book for my cousin for her birthday. She's read all the Jaqueline Wilson's - even though they were too easy for her, she started reading them again because she can't find anything else! What would be good?

It depends a bit on the child and which aspects of JW they've liked, but we often go for Hilary McKay, The Penderwicks or Secret Hen House Theatre as a starting point... (Kate)

My partner and I are looking for books for our son where different models of families are represented. Can you suggest anything?

There are some general books that portray different types of families such as Hoffman's Great Big Book of Families; Tango Makes Three is also a lovely picture book about two same sex penguins that adopt a little chick. For slightly older children the Pea books by Susie Day are very good at depicting families and parents from all different walks of life, and at the top end Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking series has a protagonist whose idyllic childhood was shaped by his two adoptive fathers. (Sanchita)

I want to buy a book for my niece where the lead character comes from an African background.

We might suggest Atinuke's Anna Hibiscus books. They come as both picture and chapter books and feature a sparky heroine and her extended African family, sometimes contrasting life in Africa with her mother's tales of childhood in Canada. I (Kate) also really like the Carnegie shortlisted Fastest Boy in the World by Liz Laird and happily recommend that to both girls and boys.

So much more than selling books

Independent Children's Bookshops do so much more than sell books. They are a specialist community hub of spreading reading love in so many creative ways.

My local Independent Bookshop is a place where:

I have attended signings... the longest queue being for this wonderful writer. I shall never forget the look on my daughter's and her friend's face on meeting their literary heroine Jaqueline Wilson.

With Jacqueline Wilson

Discovered a book group held in the shop

'Four years ago we set up a children's reading group in the shop. We now have a waiting list. There are 12 places every school year. We had to impose the one year limit because children never wanted to leave. They would be happy to grow up in the bookshop! That's how I feel! I love the group and to see how children become so confident in talking about genres of books and interpretations is inspiring.'

-Kate Agnew

Myself and children have been given help with individual reading journeys.

I've had several book events in the shop including one recently on Red Leaves ( Macmillan Children's Books) that was followed by a walk in the local woods in which the book is set.

A guided walk in Queen's Wood where Red Leaves is set.

I understand why the young man with his toddler went out of his way to bring his young son back to the very bookshop where he had discovered his own love of reading. There are few sights more heartening than a tiny hand feeling turning a page and starting a life-long adventure in books.

The brilliant award winning author and campaigner Sita Brahmachari, who's work includes the Zebra Crossing Soul Song and Artichoke Hearts, became our twelfth Writer in Residence back in 2015. In this blog Sita wrote about meeting authors you love, being that author, and her daughter preferring other writers to herself.

Read more blogs from Sita

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