The Perils of Recommendations

Freedom to Read Week, February 22-28, 2015.

Entry #13: poet and bookseller Lynn Davies on keeping true to the bookseller’s code.

“Has a customer ever objected to a particular book on our shelves?” I ask my coworkers at Westminster Books, an independent bookstore in downtown Fredericton.

Silence around the back desk as everyone ponders.

“Hardly ever,” says Janet, one of the storeʼs co-owners, “except for Mein Kampf. A customer told me we should remove it from the store. But we carry everything. Itʼs not our business to censor.” Janet confesses that occasionally she is reluctant to order some books, like Fifty Shades of Grey (The Fifty Shades Trilogy), but thereʼs usually someone on the staff who is open to what she doesn’t like.

Todd remembers a customer taking offence at the rather grisly illustrations in the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales. “It wasnʼt our contemporary sanitized version,” he says, “and the customer felt it was too cruel to animals.” He left the book on the shelf.

Sometimes people need to know if there is a book they shouldn’t buy for a young reader. Norine, who orders the YA (young adult) and childrenʼs books, says, “We get asked for suggestions all the time. What should I get for my 12 year old? And the first thing I say — it all depends on the 12 year old.”

For me, thatʼs one of the best parts of the job, strolling over to the childrenʼs side to help a woman find a book for a niece she barely knows and is about to visit, and all she knows is that ten year old Donalda loves sloths, the colour purple, and hot burritos.

“We often get asked about YA books appropriate for certain age groups,” continues Norine, “and that gets dicey for the middle school grades. I want people to know what theyʼre getting — especially the teachers, parents, and grandparents. If they take it home and read it first and donʼt like what they find, we lose customers. ” Itʼs a trust issue. People trust us not to recommend a book with graphic sex scenes or the details of an axe-murder for a middle school kid — although privately I think that most kids just skim over the parts they find weird or donʼt understand.

Dilemmas abound though. Norine admits she had trouble recommending The Hunger Games for kids under grade eight. “They are good books but basically books about kids killing kids. I always suggested that kids under grade eight read it with an adult.”

The most recent quandary occurred with the award-winning YA novel When Everything Feels like the Movies. At last weekʼs book fair in Halifax, a number of book sellers were scratching their heads as to why the well-written book was aimed at a YA audience — the characters are middle grade but the graphic sexual content seems out of context. Norine moved the book from the YA section to the adult fiction shelves. “Weʼre not removing it,” she says, “simply changing where it can be found in the store.” And we do this all the time. If a publisher categorizes a book as “science” and we think it would sell better in “nature”, thatʼs where we put it.

Most controversial books sell well. As soon as people are told they shouldnʼt read something, thatʼs what they want to read. “Salman Rushdieʼs book (The Satanic Verses) was a difficult one,” says Janet. “We carried his book but kept it under the counter – we didnʼt want people breaking our windows. And a lot of people bought it. All that attention increased the sales.”

Lynn Davies is the author of three books of poetry, the latest how the gods pour tea published by Goose Lane Editions in Fredericton, NB. One of her favourite books for children is Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, banned from several U.S. schools in 1983 for being “a bad example to children” and challenged for teaching “children to lie, spy, talk back, and curse” — good survival skills in certain situations, thinks Lynn. Visit Lynn at