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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

In Which My Bookseller Sister Explains The Boxcar Children to a Parent

I don’t work in retail because I generally dislike people. Or at least shoppers. No, probably just people.

My sister, on the other hand, is much nicer than I am. She manages a Barnes & Noble, and not once has she punched someone in the face for asking for “that book I saw here last time; the one with the red cover.” I think this says a lot about her character.

This isn’t a story about customer stupidity. I thought you should know that right now in case you were getting all excited about hearing about the woman who couldn’t find the shelves with the Nook books.*

No, this is about a mother searching for a good book for her young child. It’s also about how difficult it can be to pitch a book off the cuff.

This happened a while ago, but I was reminded of it recently when I was describing trying to describe my WIP.
The woman was in her late 30s, early 40s. She was on the hunt for a book series her elementary school–age kid would enjoy. “What did you read at that age?” 
My sister rattled off a list of chapter book series, like the The Babysitters Club, Ramona Quimby, and Encyclopedia Brown. “And The Boxcar Children,” she said. 
“I’ve never heard of that one.” 
“Oh. We used to get them from the library all the time when we were little.” 
Libraries are like bookstores, but instead of buying the books, you borrow them for a short time. When I was young, pretty much everything we read came from the library. (This was in the prehistoric era, when there was no such thing as Amazon Prime and free two-day delivery.) 
“What’s it about?” The woman was interested now. My sister didn’t mean the mention of the series as a recommendation, but for some reason, this customer was hooked on The Boxcar Children. “Well, in the first book it’s this family of homeless kids—” 
“Well, not really. The boxcar was their home. See, their parents died so they lived in empty train cars. They went on all these adventures. And I think they had to, like, steal food and bedding and stuff.** Or maybe they begged people for money to buy food. I can’t remember.” 
“So, hobo beggars?” 
“Yeah. They were real independent.” 
“And this is a children’s book?” 
By this point, my sister was wishing she never mentioned The Boxcar Children or at the very least had read it again at some point during the past two decades. “Yeah, but maybe there’s something else—” 
“That sounds horrible,” the customer said. 
“It’s really not. I just don’t remember it well.” 
“Child hobos.” 
“I think I explained it poorly. There are four kids and … Let me show you what else we have.”
The moral of this story is: Succinctly explaining the plot of a book is hard. Succinctly explaining the plot of a book you read 25 years ago is really, really hard.

This reminds me of those hilarious movie loglines that twist the plot but are surprisingly accurate. (Like this.) Leave yours in the comments.

* They’re on the Nook, in case you’re curious. Or online.

** As it turns out, this isn’t the case. Like the examples of moral excellence that they are, the children always ask before taking. (That knowledge thanks to this review.)

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