Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Service of Children’s Books

Monday, May 10th, 2010


Mary Nethery, [Left], Mary Ellen Robinson,

VP The Christophers & Kirby Larson. Nethery &

Larson co-authored Nubs.

I love buying book gifts, especially for children. But if I don’t have time to read or skim the hard or paperback, I won’t make the purchase. I spent far too much time, one Christmas, rejecting book after book, leaving the store empty-handed and frustrated by not being able to judge a book by its cover.

A failsafe shortcut is to find out if the book has won a Christopher Award. For a full list of this year’s winning books for young people–and the age appropriateness of each–visit the site. 

First presented in 1949, the Christopher Awards were established by Christopher founder Father James Keller to salute media that “affirm the highest values of the human spirit.” According to the Christophers, award winners encourage audiences to see the better side of human nature and motivate artists and the general public to use their best instincts on behalf of others.

I was lucky to promote the Christopher Award winners in both adult and children book categories and took advantage of the opportunity to ask some children book authors questions I’ve had for eons.

Following are the responses:

How do you get into the head of a child or young adult reader and how do you know how to write for a certain age and reading/listening-comprehension level?

Kirby Larson, Nubs: The True Story of a Mutt, a Marine & a Miracle (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers/Hachette Book Group, Inc.): I don’t! My job is to tell the story at hand as fully and honestly as possible. I find if I keep my focus on that task, I can engage my readers, no matter what their ages.

Mary Nethery, Nubs: With the exception of “early readers” or “hi-low” books [designed for children who are not reading at their level], there really are no age or reading/listening-comprehension level restrictions. Eve Bunting, a renowned author of children’s books, has said there’s no subject that can’t be dealt with for young children if handled in a developmentally appropriate way-she’s explored topics such as death, war, and homelessness.

The one restriction I impose on my own writing is always to offer hope to children. Anything less seems to me to be an abdication of creative and adult responsibility to our community of children.

How do books compete with the electronic gadgets and gizmos, TV and DVD distractions that fascinate children?

Kirby Larson: Until scientists invent time machines and teleporters, electronic gadgets and gizmos don’t stand a chance against books! What other media can fully transport a child to King Arthur’s court, to the moon, to a place where Wild Things rule?

I think adults may be the biggest hindrances to kids’ reading. We have a huge responsibility to let kids catch us reading, and to let them see how much we love and value it ourselves. And just think about the message that gets sent if adults actually read the same books – and chat about them – that the important kids in their lives are reading. Talk about powerful!

Mary Nethery: An even field of competition requires parents to introduce books to children early on, to gift them with that unforgettable pleasure of sitting in a lap as a book, another universe, is unveiled before their very eyes. But first things first: A great story that captures the heart must exist for each and every child and their particular taste. Diversity is a critical piece of the puzzle.

Do you hear from your readers?

Kirby Larson: I’ve heard from hundreds of readers – with my novel, Hattie Big Sky, fan mail has come from places as far away as Qatar and Lebanon, and from readers ranging in age from 11 to 94!

One of the emails that made me really smile was about my book, Two Bobbies: A True Story of Hurricane Katrina, Friendship and Survival. A first grade teacher wrote to say that her students were now “playing” the Bobbies at recess: One would be Bobbie Dog, one Bob Cat and one Bobbie’s chain!

An email about Nubs that brought me to tears came from the wife of a military officer. She wrote, “Countless times, my husband stood on the ramp in the cold, dark hours before the sun came up, waiting for a body to be put on an airplane and flown out of the country. When he got home last spring, he couldn’t watch a movie where anyone died. Nubs is more than a dog; he’s hope and life and healing. But you knew that.”

This last email, especially, reminds me of a favorite C.S. Lewis quote: “A children’s book that is only enjoyed by children is not a very good children’s book.”

Mary Nethery: Both Two Bobbies and Nubs sell to boys and girls, men and women. They’re great examples of “cross over” books.

From fans, we receive the most thoughtful, heart-tugging emails about our books, such as this one about Two Bobbies: “I wanted to write and thank you for your wonderful book . . . When my beloved pet dog, Bear, passed away unexpectedly earlier this week, my wife handed me your book and asked me to read it. I was so touched by the story, and by the kindness that those two showed to each other. Your book has helped me greatly through my grief over my pet’s death. I never thought that I-a 30 year old man-would find so much comfort and joy in a children’s book.”

That’s the secret of books for children- they’re not really just for children after all! All books are tasked with needing a plot, great characters, and something that speaks to the human condition.

tonyahegamin1Tonya Hegamin, [Photo, Center] Most Loved in All the World (Houghton Mifflin Company), illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera [left] with Monsignor Peter Flinn. Hegamin:  Yes, I have actually had mixed feedback about the book from parents and caregivers. I had a father tell me that I was wrong to have the mother “abandoning” her child. I explained that the mother is doing the most nurturing thing she can do in her circumstance–she treasures her child’s freedom above all else and is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to give her a chance. I’ve had kids love it and some who get very upset about the story and tell me they don’t want to read it again! I’m happy that it’s sparking all kinds of discussions.

How do you suggest we keep alive a reading tradition for children?

Kirby Larson: I touched on this with an earlier answer, and I second Mary’s comments. It boggles my mind that parents are letting pass away those magic moments of sitting with child-in-lap, paging through a book. Get those 3 year olds off the computer and cuddle up with them and a good book!

Mary Nethery: Ideally, every adult would embrace the concept of childhood and maintain that moment in time for each child, providing books galore at home (if they can) and liberal access to the public library which offers open arms to everyone. What we don’t value dies a natural death.

Tonya Hegamin: With my writing I try to really reach the heart of the reader.  The emotional connection between reader and writer can be very palpable and the page conveys that in a tactile manner.  I continue to write emotion-evoking books because it engages young readers to reach the heart of their other issues.  Reading those types of books keeps kids wanting more. 

What are a few of your favorite children’s books?

Kirby Larson: The book that made me want to write for children was Ming Lo Moves the Mountain, written and illustrated by Arnold Lobel, which I discovered as an adult. A Larson family favorite when our kids were small was How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen, by Russell Hoban and illustrated by Quentin Blake.

Mary Nethery: I loved any book with animals that talked-didn’t care that much for reading about other kids, just animals! And, a little later on, I couldn’t get enough of Nancy Drew-I wanted to live her life, have a sports car and be a very important person!

Tonya Hegamin: I’ve always been a romantic.  One of my favorite books as a kid was Julie (Edwards) Andrews’ Mandy.  It’s about an orphan who makes herself a home.  I also loved L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle and her other books, although I never got into Green Gables.  Of course I’ve always been a fan of Virginia Hamilton– really all of her books.  I used to read a lot of Christopher Pike and Edgar Allen Poe, too.  I started reading serious poetry at 12– Rilke mostly.  I also read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye in the 6th grade.  Again, anything that evoked strong emotions.

Yumi Heo, Ten Days and Nine Nights: An Adoption Story (Schwartz & Wade Books/Random House): My favorite children’s books are Across Town by Sara, The Bomb and The General by Umberto Eco and Eugenio Carmi, and all the titles by Ezra Jack Keats.

What are your favorite children’s books? Do you have a comment or question for the authors?


Service of Specialists

Monday, March 22nd, 2010


Some people are handy and clever. They think that they need never hire anyone else to do a thing for them either at work or at home. From online, inexpensive tax businesses and discount Internet travel agencies or one-size-fits-all press releases in templates, there’s always someone introducing a quick ‘n easy technique or innovation that’s touted to get the same results as a specialist with the promise: The money you save by doing it yourself will be astronomical!

I visited a moderate sized company where the owner invested in a topnotch computer loaded with top-of-the line graphics programs. He handed it all to the most computer-savvy person in the place to design advertisements. The adverts looked like loving hands at home and were frankly pathetic. While the designated computer specialist may have been brilliant at figuring out how to get the equipment and programs to work, he had no clue about graphics. In my opinion, while the boss thought he saved money, his company’s image suffered and he actually lost lots.

houseforsaleSome feel they don’t need a real estate agent because Craig’s List or some other venue will find them likely suspects and save them a substantial fee. In New York City, if you are trying to sell some co-op apartments with stringent standards and requirements, this could create a huge time pit. While a seller might pull in a brace of prospects on his own, if none meet a co-op board’s rigorous requirements, you’ve wasted time. Further, are you comfortable asking personal questions about a stranger’s net worth?

Whether selling any property–condo, co-op or home–a good real estate agent will weed out the bulk of inappropriate candidates and help protect your property. In addition, they see enough bottom fishers to recognize most. They drag themselves ragged taking real estate voyeurs around before they come up with a serious contender.

antiqueGriping about paying a real estate agent’s fee is like grumbling about paying the premium on antiques or paintings purchased from a dealer who has sleuthed and vetted hundreds of items in private homes and at auction so that someone can walk in and leave with something special. The cost includes expertise and [saved] time.

I knew a woman with a high profile job who shopped a book proposal on her own and immediately sparked interest from a major publisher. When she subsequently introduced the publisher to her [new] agent, she was dropped as fast as a vat of boiling fat. She didn’t know the ins and outs, and alone, would have been sorely taken advantage of.

I’ve met marketers who go it alone without the counsel of specialists whether advertising, public relations, social networking, video, web design and on and on. Anyone can buy a flip video camcorder to post images on YouTube, their blog or on Facebook or open a Twitter account to tweet messages galore, but it doesn’t mean that anyone but the wife and kids will see or appreciate any of it.

And don’t get me started on the value of hiring writers and what happens when a company doesn’t. I finally tossed the file I kept for ages filled with copy that would make grown people weep with laughter. Who would want to see it?

housenutsRe. the more obvious nuts and bolts of DIY, I admit I’ve fallen for miracle products that are “easy to apply,” thereby enriching countless manufacturers while achieving lackluster results. What I’ve bought to clean grout, remove rust from heating elements and then paint them or to achieve the effect of an elegant drapery treatment [I don’t sew] would fill a small store. Is it different from pills people swallow so they can eat all they want and still lose weight?

But my business is another matter. I seek the counsel of and pay for specialists for myself and my clients.

Given the assistance of technology, how many corners do you feel safe in cutting and still achieve your goal and the results you require?


Service of Hidden Charges

Thursday, October 1st, 2009

I’m not sure anyone wins when a company hits its customers with hidden charges. Seems crazy to go to the trouble to make a sale and then either turn away or annoy the customer when there are so many better, legitimate, straightforward ways to get the money you need to make a profit.

I’ve known PR agencies that cheat on out of pocket expenses rather than charge the fee that they should.

I have a favorite place to buy tops and sweaters, a manufacturer that also sells directly to the public. I dove at the opportunity to buy a $60 summer tee shirt reduced to $20 at season’s end, until at checkout I saw a $10 charge for shipping and handling.

The shirts are sold in protective plastic bags and it takes one second to toss one in an envelope. It can’t break and it weighs less than a pound. I cancelled the order–I felt taken. Yet, I might have bought the shirt priced at $25, with a $5 shipping and handling charge.

A friend picked up the phone to buy a gadget advertised on TV for $19.95–a second one would only cost the price of shipping and handling. The order-taker wouldn’t let him request the car-conference-calling-gizmo he wanted. The operator kept trying to divert him to buy this, that and the other, wasting his time and irritating him. When he was emphatic that he only wanted the one item, he was told to expect it to take a few months to arrive.

Many airlines charge a fee for checked or overweight luggage and one, I heard on a weekend radio travel talk show, charges passengers who use the lavatory. Meanwhile, a friend’s airfare increased only $15 by adding a detour to New York City on her way to San Diego. Starting point: Minneapolis! So why not charge a proper amount for the travel and stop the nickel-and-diming?

There is an exception. Some books in the secondary market on are priced at almost nothing. The rock-bottom book charge is almost ridiculous so I don’t mind paying twice the cost of the book for postage and packaging, even if I know that shipping Media Mail is inexpensive.

What hidden costs exasperate you? Do people think that their customers are stupid?

Service of Substitutions

Monday, September 28th, 2009

I love to shop, so much so that a visit to a favorite store or boutique used to pull me out of most slumps. But my 2009/2010 budget doesn’t stretch to cover this antidepressant. So what do I do instead? I now enjoy shopping for groceries. I turn what used to be a drudge into a treat.

I’m not alone. A woman I met on the Metro North train upstate said it was the same with her and added, “I splurge at the grocery store and don’t feel guilty. It’s the only place that I do.”  It’s important, though, that the store have appealing, well-displayed products, enticing produce, and in certain categories–such as chips–lots of choice.

Another place to gorge, where the price is right, is the public library where treasures range from books on CD to entertain during long drives as well as newly reviewed temptations and best-sellers. Our library has a shelf filled with $4 almost-new books–paperbacks for $2. Some have intact spines and may end up under the Christmas tree again this year.

Going to the movies is a well-known pick-me-up in tough times. Flicks saved the day for millions during the depression. At one mall multiplex, a matinee ticket costs $9 with neither a student nor senior discount option. And parking is a pain. A fine older movie house nearby charges $4 at midday for anyone to see the same newly introduced films. The popcorn and soda costs much less and there’s plenty of stress-free parking to boot.

What substitutes cheer and work for you?


Customer Service—The Essence

Friday, May 29th, 2009

My agency represented a manufacturer whose marketing director was one of the best I’ve worked for. He knew the products, the industry and the brand inside out and was an expert marketer. He would not let me promote the company’s toll-free telephone number in publicity or marketing materials because he said that the customer service department he was forced to use was so bad. Operators picked up the calls at the headquarters of a corporate behemoth. He didn’t say what the problem was but I suspect the staff was overwhelmed.

This marketing director would relish Emily Yellin’s new book, Your Call Is (not that) Important to Us [Free Press, 2009]. Ms. Yellin covers the latest in customer service techniques and challenges. The promo copy on the book cover says it’s funny but I’m not sure I agree. It’s fascinating, well-written, absorbing and at times suspenseful [i.e. how in the dickens are they going to get out from under this situation?] but after I laughed at the great title and some of the chapter headings, I didn’t chuckle again. I was in awe of the enormity of the challenges that Ms. Yellin describes convincingly and clearly.


She traveled the US and the world to listen in on customer service agents and interview their bosses in call centers as close as her hometown, Memphis, across country to Salt Lake City and as far afield as Argentina, Egypt and beyond. She shares the philosophies of chairmen of corporations such as FedEx and who are famous for understanding that they don’t just ship packages or sell shoes, clothing and fashion accessories. Without exemplary customer service they realize that they will soon be out of business.

In the book, you’ll learn mounds of information such as:

—The name of the website with the codes you need to bypass an automated voice to reach a human one at many companies. [I’m not telling!]

—Along with patience, how sharp customer service agents must be. One, who works for an independent service in Egypt, observed the difference between the way he responds to his American and British callers with questions for his client, Microsoft. “Americans want options, and then they will think about the alternatives. British people are more serious. They are not looking for options. They just want you to tell them a solution.”

—Responding to customers by live e-mail is the most expensive way to answer questions and fix problems.

—That business process outsourcing-BDO-covers a range of work in addition to contact centers such as computer programming, accounting and other back office and tech work.

—  “The way companies view their call centers within their whole corporate infrastructure,” Yellin writes, “is what many point to as the greater culprit. The status of the call centers within a company, or the lack of status, is widely seen as one of the best barometers of how a company truly regards and values its customers-and therefore of how good its customer service turns out to be.”

—How big the customer service business is. Take FedEx, alone. It ships 6.5 million packages a day. A glitch in only a half of one percent of their shipments translates to 32,500 issues to fix, Yellin points out.

— “This call may be recorded.” When you hear that, you may think the purpose is solely for a supervisor to see how you’ve been treated during your call. Through speech analytics, computers help track customer concerns for much farther flung uses–by sales, marketing, product development and strategic planning staff.

—  “Good customer service seems kind of like performance art,” Yellin wrote after observing a superb agent at work.

—Thoughts of an actress whose voice you might hear when you dial into an automated system.

—In today’s business climate, there’s the transparency issue that social networking brings to the table and creates angst for some corporations used to communicating through traditional techniques.

After reading the book, I bet you’ll feel empathy for agents. Imagine speaking with as many as 200 people with problems on a single shift? Some may be crazies with issues unrelated to service or product problems. They call to fiercely abuse agents. No surprise that turnover is huge in this business.

Here’s what Kevin Gatens, the head of EDF Energy’s call center in Sunderland, England said in the book’s sixth chapter, “The Next Available Agent: John, Juan, Sean or Sanjay.” Gatens is responsible for 1,200 agents. “If you have bad service it is down to one of two things. It is either the individual person you’re dealing with, in which case it is a coaching issue. Or it is the process, in which case the system is breaking down, and that is a management issue.” Yellin concludes the chapter: “Because once all is said and done on the front lines, good or bad customer service always is a direct reflection of the management.”

Emily Yellin’s book is of great service to customers and companies alike. Why not keep a copy by the phone and read a chapter every time someone or something puts you on hold?

The Service of Awards

Friday, May 1st, 2009

Doesn’t everyone have a favorite children’s book? Mine is “Madeline” written and illustrated by Ludwig Bemelmans; my friend Judy’s: “Make Way for Ducklings.” Robert McCloskey wrote and illustrated it.


I love buying books for children and wonder if any I’ve chosen will become their favorites.


If you can’t consult a child or parents whose children are the right age and you don’t have a reliable, convenient bookstore with knowledgeable staff, it can be tricky to be sure you’re selecting an appropriate book—especially if you’re looking for newly published ones to help ensure that the child doesn’t already own a copy.


One great solution is to choose among the winners of an awards program such as the one The Christophers has conducted for 60 years. The organization recently honored the 2009 winners not only of children’s books, but adult books as well as feature films, broadcast and cable TV programs. Over six decades, they’ve tapped 1,436 authors, illustrators, screenwriters, producers and directors. It’s a relief to know that a responsible organization has vetted and praised the book you’re planning to give.


Judith Trojan directed this year’s gala. She explained, The Christophers recognize media that remind audiences and readers of all ages and faiths, and of no particular faith, of their power to make a difference in their communities and the world-at-large.” The Christophers, guided by the ancient Chinese proverb—“It’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness” —is rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition of service to God and humanity.


This year’s children book winners are: Preschool, Close to You:  How Animals Bond (Henry Holt Books for Young Readers/Henry Holt and Company, LLC) by Kimiko Kajikawa. Ages 6-8 That Book Woman (Atheneum Books for Young Readers/Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing) by Heather Henson, illustrated by David Small. Ages 8-10, Clementine’s Letter (Disney-Hyperion/Disney Book Group) by Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Marla Frazee. Ages 10-12 Shooting the Moon (Atheneum Books for Young Readers/Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing) by Frances O’Roark Dowell and Young Adult Sunrise Over Fallujah (Scholastic Press/Scholastic Inc.) by Walter Dean Myers. To check out all the other winners, visit


By the way: What was your favorite children’s book?

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