Of Bears and Books

of bears and booksThese days, independently owned bookstores are an endangered species. And independently owned children’s bookstores? Those are as rare as unicorns (and some may argue, just as mythological). It is with great joy, then, that I share a very special children’s bookstore situated in the little town of Hopewell, New Jersey.

deskThe Bear and the Books is an utterly charming space bursting at the seams with books, imagination, and consideration for those journeying on the paths of early literature. At the store’s heart is owner Bobbie Fishman. Bobbie managed the children’s departments of two local bookstores for 14 years before opening the Bear and the Books in 2013.

Why did you decide to open the shop?

I love what I do, and I believe that children need to see good books, not necessarily the books that are being marketed heavily by the publishers and – therefore – press. Children are taught what they are supposed to want by the media, which I believe is all tangled up in marketers’ ideas of what will sell. Good books are not written to be “something that will sell.” I just want good books to have half a chance in children’s minds. I’ve often said that my job is reading children’s books in the bathtub and then getting out and talking to people about them. The conversations I have with customers about children’s books are what I’ve come to love – those conversations are what I think I have to offer. (Otherwise, I’m quite shy.)

A number of months after I left my previous job, when I was trying to figure out what was going to come next in my life and I had been thinking I would do something completely different, this space in my town was looking available. It was affordable enough for me to think about taking the risk of opening a shop. I’m afraid I was too attached to these books to leave them.

cozy cornerHow did you decide on the name of your shop?

The bear was the bear left in Micawber [a former local bookstore] by my friend Liz Flemer who worked there before me; she put it there for children to play with, along with a few other toys. It got dragged around and slobbered on and put to sleep in its sleeping basket again and again. When Micawber closed I took the bear home with me until Labyrinth [a current local bookstore] opened – where it continued its role. When I left Labyrinth, so did the bear. We’ve shared all our time in bookstores together, and when I knew I would open this shop I realized that the bear was a constant. What would be in the shop? The bear and the books.

the bearWhat do you love about children’s literature?

I don’t think my love of good children’s literature is much different from my love for any good literature: it has the power to surprise us and rattle us at the exact same moment it is reaching a deeply familiar place inside; it is words and art that work to show us that we are human – that we have sympathy for and interest in so much of what happens. I actually think books remind us that we are good people and that being a person can be fun sometimes. For even the youngest readers of the simplest picture books, I think this is true: They can feel “I am part of a world I can converse with and laugh with and have feelings for. This is being human, and this is very interesting.” And what you learn about yourself when a book makes you cry could be one of the most important lessons in your life.

Who designed the interior of your store?

Mostly me, but I wouldn’t call it designing; rather, it was “making it up as we went along,” and I had the best of help from three wonderful carpenters, who knew even better than I did how to make it up as we went along: Chris Thacher, Phil Rayner, and Walter Varhley.

large tableWhat’s your philosophy on bookselling?

I guess I just see it as matchmaking: trying to figure out what can please someone. With children, I want to know what they’ve been reading or hearing that they love and I take it from there. Oddly, although I do try to go close to something the child likes, I realize a goal is to move them a small bit away to something different; and it is often when I make what I think is an out-of-their-line suggestion, that is the book they will go for. Children are often more flexible and more widely interested than they want to admit – or perhaps than they know.

What is Bear Mail Books?

Bear Mail is a plan one can sign up for to have books chosen by me for a particular child and mailed to the child at regular intervals, usually one each month. Most Bear Mail customers sign up for a year’s worth of shipments, but I will do it for any span of time, and some customers have books sent every other month, or 2 books a month. I try to send books that not everybody knows.

How do you select the books for the recipient?

I find out what I can about the child: How old? What’s he or she been hearing or reading that she likes? Are there older siblings in the house? Do they want books that will be read to the child or that the child will read? I have to confess that after a while, I have made up a version of the child in my head and I will sometimes consider a book and think: “I’m not sure Helga will like this one,” and then I have to laugh because I’ve never met Helga.

front windowCan you name a few of your favorite books?

Amos and Boris by William Steig
An Episode of Sparrows by Rumer Godden
Gone Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright
Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
A collection of poems by Margaret Wise Brown called Nibble Nibble, illustrated by Leonard Weisgard, NOT the supposed reissue by Harper (illustrated with great stupidity by someone else and only being the illustration of one poem)
Many Moons by James Thurber
An Extraordinary Egg by Leo Lionni
Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell


Many thanks to Bobbie Fishman for letting us roam her shop, and for providing the photo of The Bear and the Books sign!

Aliisa the Artist

self portrait_artwork by aliisa leeFor the past four years, I have had the privilege of working with an extremely talented Princeton University student artist. Her name is Aliisa Lee, and she has loaned her tremendous abilities to a whole host of artistic endeavors at our library – project templates, event posters, logos, illustrations for children’s stories and poetry, and more.

summer announcement logo_artwork by aliisa lee

Summer announcement logo

hungry caterpillar food drive logo_artwork by aliisa lee

Very Hungry Caterpillar food drive logo. Food drive title and art inspired by the work of Eric Carle.

bad hair day_artwork by aliisa lee

Illustration for “Bad Hair Day”

the dragon princess_artwork by aliisa lee

Illustration for “The Dragon Princess”

Below you can see some steampunk templates she designed for a Journey to the Centre of the Earth event (later, I used the templates for a Rube Goldberg-esque mechanism and a fanciful steampunk airship story time).

steampunk hat

And how about these delightful vanilla-scented French pastry ornaments? Mmmm.

ornaments

Aliisa’s also worked on completely random (and sometimes rather strange) projects. She didn’t, for example, bat an eye when asked to make 80s paint splatter background.

welcome to the 80s

Or create a police line up of book damage perpetrators

lineup of book baddies

Or depict Hiccup and Toothless at the movies…?

hiccup and tootheless at the movies_artwork by aliisa lee

Last month, Aliisa graduated from Princeton University with a major in English and a minor in Visual Arts. I caught up with her to chat about her experience at Cotsen, her process for illustration, and what she’s going to do next (including – and this is important – continuing to freelance for us).


Tell us a little about yourself!

I grew up in the sunny state of Hawaii, but have since moved abroad several times. I am the fourth of six crazy kids, and all of our names start with A. It makes for some fun confusion when we are all together! In my free time, I love reading, writing, and (you guessed it), drawing. I especially enjoy drawing digitally by using my computer, Photoshop, and a Wacom pen and tablet.

Name a few of your favorite artists / inspirations.

I really look up to the artists of my favorite childrens’ books, like Clement Hurd, Mary Blair, Bill Peet, and Henry J. Ford. I am also a huge fan of Pixar and Studio Ghibli, with all their inspiring storytelling and fantasy elements. I follow many digital artists on tumblr, but I also just I love getting ideas from literature, dreams, and of course, my family and friends!

What have been some of your favorite projects for the Cotsen Children’s Library?

Hmmmm, that’s such a hard question. I’m a bit of a podcast nerd these days, so I loved doing the album art for the BiblioFiles.

bibliofiles artwork by aliisa lee

I am also a huge fan of Alice in Wonderland and The Phantom Tollbooth, so the Alice thaumatropes and the Digitopolis posters and logo were a great way to pay tribute to some of my beloved texts.

thaumatrope demo

digitopolis by aliisa lee

My favorite type of project is probably illustrating for our time’s new generation of writers and poets. If I have to choose one assignment that I especially treasure, it would be the art for “The Sun Lifted Me Away.” The young author’s father wrote to us later that his daughter loved the drawing for her poem; hearing that the young author was so happy with what I drew makes that illustration one of my favorite projects!

the sun lifted me away_artwork by aliisa lee

Illustration for “The Sun Lifted Me Away”

You’ve illustrated kids poems and stories. What’s your process for selecting and illustrating specific scenes or phrases?

It varies piece to piece! Sometimes Dr. Dana will have a fairly specific suggestion for a scene, which has trained my eye and always helps with the process. When the illustration is more up in the air, I often read for specific lines and imagery that stand out, and draw fairly literally from that. (For example, a line from “The Pit,” that says “He clasped the edge and began his ascent.” A very dramatic, specific scene gets a very dramatic drawing.)

the pit_artwork by aliisa lee

Illustration for “The Pit”

Or, if the piece has more atmosphere than narrative, I brainstorm for scenes or visuals that reflect that feeling. (For example, the poem “Autumn is a Color, Not a Season” is all about the feel of autumn. The drawing and colors reflects this.)

autumn is a color, not a season_artwork by aliisa lee

Illustration for “Autumn is a Color, Not a Season”

What surprised you the most about the process of developing, editing, and finalizing a drawing for Cotsen?

Before working for Cotsen, most of my art was just kept to myself or my personal site. When you are doodling in your notebook or drawing just to show your family and friends, you “finish” an art piece when you are satisfied or just get tired of it. One of the greatest things about working with Cotsen and an art director (Dr. Dana!) is having another pair of eyes to help look critically at a piece, then develop it with the ultimate goal of publication. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see how that process and push to make polished illustrations has just made me a better critical thinker and artist. Plus, it is a ton of fun to draw for Cotsen!

storm_artwork by aliisa lee

Illustration for “Storm”

In your opinion, what’s the most difficult thing about illustration?

This has probably happened to anyone who has tried to make art: you get a beautiful, inspiring image in your head and you just think, “I NEED to draw this.” But after you sit down and draw, you realize your art just doesn’t measure up to the image your mind conjured up.

This happens to me a lot, especially since the poems and stories I read have such beautiful and creative moments. But it makes we want to work hard to be a better illustrator, since I want to close that gap between what my mind can create and what my hand can draw.

Still, I know that even if I was the best illustrator in the world, I could never quite pin down exactly what my mind envisioned. That could seem frustrating, but it is also kind of beautiful! The imaginations we are given are actually the best artists we could ask for, you know?

the enchanted machine_artwork by aliisa lee

Illustration for “The Enchanted Machine”

Tell us a little about your senior show!

I would love to! My show was entitled “to wake” and included 80+ digital drawings, printed out in various sizes and placed around the space of the gallery. As you walked around left to right, the images sequentially told the story of a mother and daughter, plus a little bit of the fantastic as they traveled in the subway.

to wake 1_artwork by aliisa leeto wake 2_artwork by aliisa leeto wake 3_artwork by aliisa leeto wake 4_artwork by aliisa leeIt was very, very cool to have my own show, and to use the gallery space for both art and storytelling (two things I love!)

What are you going to do next?

I’m hitting the real world and getting a job. As a Princeton Project 55 Fellow, I’ll be working in communications at the non-profit International Schools Services, not that far from Princeton’s campus, actually. I can’t stop making art, so I will also be illustrating for Dana (and maybe a few other clients if I’m successful in expanding my freelance network). You haven’t seen the last of me yet! :)

poets_artwork by aliisa lee

Illustration for “Poets”


If you’d like to see Aliisa’s amazing portfolio, it’s online here. If you’d like to read a little more about her artistic process, she wrote a great post for Princeton University’s admissions blog here.

Thank you for 4 tremendous, tremendous years Aliisa! And here’s to many more!

The BiblioFiles Presents: Norton Juster

Norton Juster photo courtesy of Random House

Author photo courtesy of Random House

Just posted! It’s our first BiblioFiles webcast in front of a live audience, and our guest is Norton Juster, author of the legendary book, The Phantom Tollbooth.

Milo is a boy who doesn’t know what to do with himself, isn’t interested in much, and doesn’t see the point in anything. But when a mysterious package containing a toy tollbooth arrives in his room, everything changes.

Past the tollbooth are the Lands Beyond, which house places like Dictionopolis, the Valley of Sound, the Doldrums, Digitopolis, and the Mountains of Ignorance. Milo is soon joined by a pair of unusual travel companions, Tock and Humbug, as he attempts to bring Princesses Rhyme and Reason back to settle the warring kingdoms of Words and Numbers.

First published in 1961, The Phantom Tollbooth is wacky, smart, odd, fun, strange, and completely captivating. It is often compared to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in terms of its intelligence, word play, and impact on children’s literature. Now, in over 50 years of publication, The Phantom Tollbooth, with its iconic illustrations by Jules Feiffer, has been analyzed in scholarly papers, quoted in dissertations, included in graduate classes, documented on film, read aloud in elementary school classrooms, passed along through generations of families, and newly discovered by young readers. It is, and will always be, a seminal book in the history of children’s literature.

In addition to The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster has written The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics, Alberic The Wise and Other Journeys, As: A Surfeit of Similies, The Hello, Goodbye Window, Sourpuss and Sweetie Pie, The Odious Ogre, and Neville. In 2011, The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth, with introduction and notes by scholar Leonard Marcus, was released.

Follow this link to the BiblioFiles interview