Julie Rowan-Zoch is an author/illustrator and also an apparently very svelte bookseller at Old Firehouse Books in Colorado. Julie debuted her illustrator skills in Louis by Tom Lichtenheld (Clarion Books, 2020) and her author/illustrator skills in I'm A Hare, So There! (Clarion Books, 2021), and there are more projects coming. I met Julie through The Soaring '20s Debut Picture Book Group and in person (when that still happened) at the New England SCBWI conference.
I asked Julie to share what she had gained as a writer and illustrator by working in a bookstore. But, Julie was also excited to share what she had lost!
Not what I expected, but it’s true - 14 pounds!
You can probably guess most of it fell off having to shift from a lot of sitting to standing 8 hours a day, and a bit from having to carry big boxes of books across the store and up and down stairs. The rest didn’t “melt” away either: there is a lot of deep knee-bending necessary in shelving books and shuffling whole rows to adjust for holes due to sales and adding new stock.
It’s a big plus for someone, like myself, writing and illustrating books for children. Getting to see the books the day they hit the market and before is a boon. Part of my job is looking over ARCs and F&Gs and giving recommendations to our buyers. Pre- COVID, Advanced Reader Copies (ARCs) and Folded & Gathered (F&Gs) advanced copies of picture books were sent by publishers with plenty of time for us to read and review. Now we read most of these in digital format (which at least saves a lot of money and trees!). Either way, reading current titles is vital to any writer, and being “forced” to read them for work is an extra push to read more.
Reviews need to be concise too, so I have to consider carefully what I’d like to say about each book. Excellent extra training for the picture book writer!
I hear what grandparents ask for, how parents nudge children to read higher, and I can watch kids pick up books based on the cover alone. Most of what I see happens at the register, because in the end that’s what I am there for, to sell books. It’s where we take orders too, though nowadays a lot more happens online. That’s a pity because making suggestions has been one of my favorite parts of the job.
One more task really makes ALL the difference: Storytime!
I have to be ready for a set of grandparents with a baby as well as a group of toddlers wound up on a windy day. Because we hold storytimes in the morning hours we can only expect children up to 3, maybe 4 years old. Everyone else is in school. I need books in my basket that will spark interest, but also pull their attention back when I’ve lost them! So pacing is equally important in writing for them as it is in reading to them! I generally choose a longer read first and follow with books with a decreasing amount of text, but I’ve got to be ready for every mood swing.
I add in finger play and songs as much as I can, because storytelling doesn’t only happen in books. I also like to add a craft or coloring sheet at the end, which allows me to find another way to tie in engagement with the books.
All of these parts are helpful in understanding the effect a book has on a child, what parts make them laugh, and which approaches work better with a 2-year-old over a 4-year-old (and then along comes a 1-year-old who proves all your theories wrong!). Storytimes have been the highlight of my week. One tip I’d like writers to take away, should you be so lucky to read to a group of children, is to read the books yourself first! Not every book will appeal to you or the kids!
And, a healthy diet of books might even offer the opportunity to drop a pant size or two! Who knew??!