Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Sum it up

As a bookseller, I spend a lot of time answering this question:

"What's this book about?"

Sometimes this is easy to do, and sometimes it isn't. Let me give you an example of a book that you're probably familiar with... Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel.

What's it about? Well, we can take the easy route and say it's about a guy named Mike who has a steam shovel. But, that's obvious from the front cover and it doesn't really answer the question. More importantly, it doesn't make anyone want to read the book.

Here's a better answer: "It's about a man and his steam shovel who try to dig the cellar of a town hall in just one day. It's a classic and it was one of my favorite books when I was younger."

Why would my answer be so short? Why didn't I go into what else Mike and Mary Ann did, and talk about digging four corners nice and square, and how much I love Virgina Lee Burton's books? Because, time is of the essence. Most people want a quick summary, not a review. And usually we're discussing two, three or ten other books.

If I have good feelings or memories about the book, I'll usually mention that. It helps give a frame of reference. In this case, the fact that I read it when I was younger points out that the book has stayed in print for a while. And with Mike Mulligan, I usually say that loved it when I was a little girl, because people are often hesitant to buy a book for a girl with construction equipment on the front cover. (For more about Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, which really is a terrific book, see this post.)

Picture books are pretty easy because people can sit down and read them right in the store. But try summing up Good Night Moon. "It's about a bunny who says good night to every object in his room before falling asleep." Doesn't exactly grab you, does it?

Chapter books are even harder to describe quickly and effectively. Plus, you want to introduce the plot without giving any of it away. Here's a question I was asked a few months ago that I had a surprisingly hard time with:

"What's the Lord of the Rings trilogy about? I don't want a lot of detail, just give me the general idea in two sentences."

Wow. Um, okay. Summarize hundreds of papers and complex writing in two sentences? What would you say? I think I said something to this effect:

"It's about a small, insignificant creature (a hobbit) who has come to possess a magic ring, which is the most powerful object in the world. He has to travel to the other end of his universe to destroy it, and the books are about his amazing journey."

Remember, you've got to do these summaries on the spot... and you want to do the books justice. It's not enough to use the summary on the back of the book or the dust jacket or the Library of Congress notation... people can read those for themselves. They want to hear someone talk about the book.

Can you describe Charlotte's Web in a few sentences that would make me want to read it? How about Mr. Popper's Penguins? Harry Potter? Anne of Green Gables? Pride and Prejudice? The Wizard of Oz? Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? I've been asked the "what is this book about" question for all of the books mentioned above... usually from a person who hasn't heard of the book before. And I recently got asked what Mother Goose rhymes were. It can sometimes be difficult to put aside the history and reputation of the book or poems, and just state the basic plot in an intriguing way.

Try the book I've been asked about all week: The Invention of Hugo Cabret. (I wonder why I've been asked about it so much. Could it be the fact that I've displayed it in every available space in the store?) For Hugo, I usually show people the first page... and it's pretty hard to put down after the fantastic introduction. But I don't have a really good short summary of it yet. Currently, I've been saying something along these lines (while flipping through the book to show off the pictures):

"It's about an orphan boy who lives in the walls of a train station in Paris and makes a tremendous discovery. The book is a unique combination of pictures and words and when you read it, you feel as though you're watching a movie."

Needs work. Got any suggestions?


  1. What's this book about? How I answer this question depends on the customer. If I know they are actually going to listen,I will give a few. Though if I am in the middle of giving a summary, and customer is already jumping around asking about 3 or 4 other books I am done. (What about this?, what this about?, what about this one?, or this one, do you like this?, this looks good what do you think?) I think I would like it if you left, and when you come back I'll be sure to hide. With the Invention of Hugo Cabret. I show the illus. as well. I also like to mention his father. Though if I think the customer will be impressed that the book was featured on NPR, or top ten NYT childrens pick for 2007 I'll say.
    that, I use whatever works. If your feeling fancy or your customers are, try throwing the word medium into your summary. The author blends two mediums beautifully, creating an almost movie going experience in a book.


  2. When we were discribing it to folks we said... One of the best books that we could all read together. We were so captivated by the pictures and story that we read it in 2 days outloud. It incorporates illustration and storytelling in a very unique way that keeps you intrigued, kid and adults. What is it about? A young boy who uncovers a mysterious mechanical 'toy' and how he attempts to fix it.

    I can tell you that I picked it up after I saw it online featured by the Today show as their kid book club books.

  3. BTW, I love Mike Mulligan as a kid and I share all those favorites with my little ones. I like the fact that after all the work is done Maryanne gets 'recycled' in the end and keeps the whole town happy. We have the London Orchestra version and the descriptions help create a new dimension to reading the book, again and again.

  4. Earthiegirl- you're absolutely right... my answers vary quite a bit from customer to customer. It really depends on the person. I hadn't thought to mention Hugo's father or the word "medium." Thanks for the suggestions.

    Quinn- That's a great description of Hugo. Thanks! And isn't Mike Mulligan wonderful? I love that Mary Anne is recycled too.

  5. I feel your pain in trying to accurately describe the plot of a book you love in only a few seconds. It's a hard thing to do in school libraries as well. Usually students are pretty receptive when all else fails (which I hope doesn't happen to much) and I say "I love it, I think you might like it too". I'm always trying to get better at this, since it's one of the times where what you say can affect what someone reads. Thanks for posting about this fun and sometimes tricky part of our jobs.

  6. Let's hear it for six word short stories! For example, Charlotte's Web:
    "Some pig! Some spider! No bacon."

    Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel... well,the title itself is six words. Hmmm. How about, "We dig all day.... We're done." Nah, it doesn't quite have the zing.

    I haven't actually spouted off six word stories with patrons. It's tempting, though.

  7. P.S. I once witnessed a young patron giving away the whole plot to another patron (WITH GLEE) despite admonitions. I think she had a bee in her bonnet and couldn't help herself, but it was still stinky. Then again, I had a friend who was so funny about those sorts of things that if I said anything more than the title, she'd get mad at me.

  8. I feel your pain. We "sell" books to kids in our classroom all.the.time.

  9. Scope Notes- I love that you say to your students that you enjoyed the book and think they might like it. I'll have to remember that.

    It's a bit tricky sometimes as a booksller, because I'm not always talking to the potential reader of the book. Sometimes I'm talking with their parent, grandparent, etc.

    Alkelda- Your six word story for Charlotte's Web is perfect! Don't know if I'd have the guts either to use it with a customer or patron, but I love it!

    And, I agree, it's just mean to purposefully spoil a book for someone else.

    Mary Lee- exactly. I think I'll have to "sell" books just as much when I become a librarian.