Volunteering at my local middle school library has revolved around un-shelving books. It’s a lot like gardening. According to the librarian, kids stop checking out books when they’re overwhelmed by sheer numbers to select from, so we’ve been carefully weeding out titles, starting with fiction.
Assignment number one: judge books by their covers. Seriously. Kids rarely choose “ugly” ones. To remain impartial-ish, I was given parameters regarding what ugly entailed, but was also allowed to turn a blind eye on uglies that hid good stories. The librarian and her many student assistants had the final say on what titles got axed. Once in the groove, I began to notice stylistic patterns in ugly cover trends as the decades progressed, especially in contemporary works. The breakdown:
60’s – 70’s: BIG TITLES, plain backgrounds. Occasional psychedelic illustrations.
80’s: realistic scene illustrations. Perms! Mullets!
90’s: Fewer scene depictions, more photography.
00’s: Anything goes. Cartoon-y illustrations. Inanimate subject matter. Close-ups of body parts (hands/legs/faces). I kept expecting to find a nostril shot.
10’s: Crisp and minimal. Blacks, dark purples, dashes of red. And vampires. LOTS of vampires.
If ever I’m in charge of cover design, I’m going to my local school library to study which titles have withstood the winds of time before making a decision. There were well over 500 books I pulled off those shelves, all of them unsuspecting victims of the uglies … and even still, the purge wasn’t complete.
Assignment number two: With ugly covers off the shelf, it was time to roll up my sleeves and dig deeper. Titles published before 2000 that hadn’t been checked out at least once over the last five years were to be added to the doomsday pile. Nearly 400 books are on that list. It’s been depressing clearing off some of my favorite authors and titles—Avi, Judy Blume, Chris Crutcher … I even pulled five Newbery and Newbery Honor books, and this was just through the C’s!
Realizing what limited shelf life most books have—even ones whose check-out cards are filled with date stamps from yesteryear’s adoring fans—has been eye-opening. Libraries sometimes leave me feeling downhearted when I see all the books that aren’t mine cramming their shelves, but now that I understand the truth about a book’s life span, this also means that my stories are still in the seed stage, with time to mature before being born into the world, swaddled in some absolutely fabulous cover. Their clocks haven’t started ticking.
Assignment number three: Cuddle up with an ugly cover, even if the novel is gasping its last breath. During October, the librarian made a graveyard display with doomed books and RIP signs. For November, she had “blind dates with (ugly) books.” In December, uglies were disguised as presents. By January, several compost-bound books had been “re-potted” on the shelves, with brand new checkout dates to keep them rooted for a few more years.
The school library-garden still has weeding to be done (I’m only through the F’s), but if it means more kids are checking out books, I’m willing to dirty my knees. And while I thin out old growth to make room for other books to bloom, I’ll be dreaming up ideas for new novels, hoping that someday they, too, will be planted here, ready to be plucked off the shelf.