Jenny Milchman is a new writer, and yet she has already influenced not only the mystery field but the wider bookselling world. Her first paid professional publication, the short story “The Closet,” will appear in EQMM’s November issue (on sale the end of August) and in January her first novel, Cover of Snow, will be published by Ballantine Books. But the New Jersey author is already chair of the International Thriller Writers Debut Authors Program, and she is the founder of Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day. Her guest post reflects on childhood reading (especially mysteries) and bookstores.—Janet Hutchings
Once upon a time, there was a little girl, and all her friends turned on her.
On Monday, she was secure and well-liked, laughing at the helm of her sixth-grade ship. The next day she went into class, smile already mounted on her face, and nobody would talk to her. The kids moved closer together on the lunchroom benches, blocking her from taking a seat. When she looked at them, their eyes slid away, unblinking.
Are you chilled yet, as you are by a good mystery? I am. The cruelty children can wield is as frightening to me as any Stephen King story, and in fact has been put to good use by many writers—William Golding, the King himself, and others from time immemorial on.
That little girl found respite, as many children do, in a book. Do unhappy children read more than happy ones? I wouldn’t say that. But I do think that books provide an escape from the everyday, whether that everyday is noxious and needs leaving, or the child simply has an imagination that draws him or her out of the confines of the contained world of childhood.
How many lifelong loves of mystery have been kindled—to use a phrase—in a bookstore? Scores, I would say. Legions. I remember seeing the whole row of Trixie Beldens spread out along a shelf and being staggered by the riches of it all. I would never be able to finish that series! The reading could go on and on forever.
But finish I did, and was only saved from despair by the bright yellow Nancy Drews that awaited, and as my tastes grew more adult, works by Lois Duncan and Sandra Scoppettone and Katherine Paterson and others whose names I’ve forgotten, but whose books I never will.
In 2010 I floated an idea on the listserv DorothyL. What if there were a celebration called Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day? Christmas was only two weeks away. Wouldn’t it be great, I mused on the List, if we could get parents to take their kids into a bookshop to do their holiday shopping?
There’s nothing like mystery readers for word of mouth. Within an afternoon, news of Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day had gone viral across the web. It was blogged about and covered in industry publications. My IT husband quick-worked up a website and art. We mailed bookmarks, and eighty bookstores celebrated that year.
The second year, preceded by a cross-country drive we took to visit bookstores, the number had climbed to three hundred and fifty, and Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day had gone international.
Everyone pretty much agrees that children should read, and some of the mystery world’s heaviest heavyweights are targeting that goal. James Patterson. David Baldacci. Suspense great Karin Slaughter has recognized the need to support libraries, spearheading a now quarter-million-dollar campaign.
But bookstores are lesser sung, although, to my mind, they play a significant societal role. A bookstore enables children to read, but it also enables other things, which are threatened in the world our kids are set to inhabit.
In a bookstore a child can discover a portal to a whole new world—in the books, but also in the store itself. A bookstore is a unique reflection of the neighborhood in which it stands. From its physical appearance, to the staff that selects books for purchase, to the customers that wander in, no two bookstores are exactly alike.
During an age in which you can have the same dish of pasta, and purchase the same bedroom set, in Topeka and New York, that sense of individuality is worth preserving and bequeathing to our children.
So is the notion that a man or woman can dedicate his or her livelihood to an occupation with roots in the community, which goes on to feed and nourish that community. Main Street. The mom-and-pop shop. Sure, sometimes it’s necessary to one-stop shop, click a button for speed and convenience and economy. But at other times we want to physically experience a place, talk to another human being, and find something we didn’t expect. A treasure that calls to us with color and shape and tactile sensation.
We want to be in a bookstore.
Whose dim, dusty recesses or shining new ones allow a child to get lost if he or she wants to.
We all understand why children might need to get lost. We all know that child who was turned on by her friends.
She was you once upon a time, perhaps.
She was me.