Kidsbooks' Owner Phyllis Simon on Matching Children Up With the Right Books

Visiting a good children’s bookstore, especially but not only when you have kids of your own, is an instant mood booster and occasion for awe. A combination of impressive stock, ingenious store layout including play/explore areas for kids, and friendly, knowledgeable staff can make such a bookstore a favourite family destination for years—a local and cultural institution.

Vancouver is lucky enough to have Kidsbooks, which former librarian Phyllis Simon opened in 1983 in Kitsilano, and which now includes three locations, an online storefront, and a co-partner, Kelly McKinnon.

storecouch

Kidsbooks' lounge area (Kitsilano location)

Kidsbooks is famous for its incredible, elaborate window displays (people still talk about their “Hogwarts” storefront façade that celebrated the release of the fourth HP book) and insightful staff experts who specialize in tracking down exactly the right book for a particular child. This discovery and selection service is an amazingly important service when you consider how one book—or a suite of books—can turn a child onto reading forever, and conversely, how not finding the right reading materials can convince them that they’d rather sleep in an outhouse than curl up with a book.

Canadian Bookshelf asked Kidsbooks’ Phyllis Simon a little about what it takes to choose the right book for a child, especially when it comes to a particular age category—9 to 12—that vulnerable, exciting, in-between phase straddling childhood and adolescence:

CB: Would you say 9 to 12 is a difficult category in terms of adults trying to buy books for kids?

PS: I would say all age groups can be a challenge when buying for kids. There are many factors to consider: reading level, interest, attitude, etc. Teachers tell us all the time that when they are hunting for books for lit circles, they need at least three levels of material: below, at, and above grade reading level. Re: the 9 to 12 category, it can be challenging because by then many kids will have made up their minds about what kinds of books they like and are not necessarily willing to try something that doesn't sound interesting to them. (This of course is a generalization: some kids are totally open to new ideas.)

CB: How do you and your staff try to guide people when they're searching in this category?

The first thing to ask is “What did the child read recently?” This gives us a sense of where to start in suggesting new books. That said, we always make sure to have a large repertoire of titles to recommend.

CB: Has the category changed a lot in the last few years? Say, for example, the influence of YA titles that even adults are reading—titles with darker, more complicated themes?

PS: I would say that the big change in the 9 to 12 category has been in the “Wimpy Kid” variety of books that have been published, more so than in the dark dystopian, vampire genres (which has appealed to a slightly older demographic). The 9 to 12 age group enjoys humour and whimsical illustration—as well as stories that are about kids like themselves.

CB: Who are some of your favourite Canadian authors writing for this age?

PS: Susan Juby, Kenneth Oppel, Deborah Ellis, Kevin Sylvester, Kevin Bolger, Alan Silberberg, Gordon Korman, Arthur Slade … just some of the wonderful Canadian authors that we love to recommend.

CB: Do you have any advice for parents trying to instill a love of books in their children if they are reluctant readers? For example, can graphic novels be a good bet here?

PS: First and foremost, if parents want their kids to be book lovers, they themselves need to embrace that attribute and be "caught" reading a lot! Most children are willing to be read to even after they are proficient readers themselves, so parents should be willing to spend some time reading aloud as another way to bring good stories to life. And parents need to be open-minded (and many are) about their children's preferences and do what they can to nurture the love of reading, however odd they might think the choices are. For some children, the introduction to reading for pleasure will come via graphic novels, movie tie-in books, and series: go with it! Once you have their attention, you can recommend other kinds of books, too. As for graphic novels, there are many to choose from for all ages. Just a few examples: Toon Books for beginning readers, Binky the Space Cat for primary grades, and Smile for intermediate grades.

Thanks to Phyllis Simon for the interview, and for the helpful tweeps who responded to our Twitter question about the great kids bookstores (or bookstores with great kids’ sections) in their cities:

Ottawa: Kaleidescope Books

Toronto: Mabel’s Fables

Montreal: Babar Books

Vancouver: Kidsbooks

Victoria: Bolen Books

Winnipeg and Saskatoon: McNally Robinson

Halifax: Woozles Bookstore

If you have one to recommend, send it our way on Twitter @cdnbookshelf and we’ll add it to the list!

February 21, 2011
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