Last June, just as school was coming to an end, I bought a book called Garmann’s Summer at my local Barnes & Noble. It was one of a stack of books I pulled off the shelves for no better reason than maybe the cover looks kind of cool, or maybe my son says What about this? and I say No - flipping through the pages, because the written word still means relatively little to him, and when I am flipping through pages, very little to me as well – I say it’s not as good as it looks, he says Please, I say No, he says Try? Please? Can we try? I say I’m not optimistic.
So it was one in such a pile, some promising, some not. Like a lot of people probably, I treat the superstores like libraries, checking in for an hour at a time, and occasionally checking out with a book that I have every expectation of returning within whatever window of opportunity – one week or two - is currently being stipulated. Sure, this feels kind of sneaky sometimes, and opportunistic, and impoverished, my rationalization deriving from nothing less dimly imagined than whatever corporate windfalls result from Hannah Montana biographies and Dora & Diego tie-ins and those books by Madonna where none of the characters have noses - what the heck happened to their noses? Does that sound peevish? Disingenuous maybe? I’m sorry, what I really meant to sound like was mad.
I don’t remember what else was in the pile that day. There might have been some decent little books, but I ended up dropping seventeen bucks on Garmann’s Summer with no intention of returning it, because I wanted to find it on my bookshelf twenty years from now, because I wanted my grandchildren to see it, because there’s so much going on between the covers that is surprising and defies categorization, and I did not want to run the risk of ever forgetting a single page. Because I knew it would disappear, I’d forget the kid’s name (German? Jarman?) and the name of the author and illustrator, Stian Hole (like Stan? like Olay?), and never be able to find it again. The store had three copies, and it was the sort of oddball, even creepy looking cover that wouldn’t get stocked in any prominent displays. So then or never, I figured: the curious, the enterprising parent would either stumble upon this story of a boy whose summer – with ladybugs, aunts and the fruits of his madcap imagination – is coming to an end, the copies would vanish into somebody else’s grandchildren’s future; or nobody would find it, wedged as it was between popular titles, and it would vanish into the shredder of somebody’s impatience - but whose?
Who gets to decide these things?
As consumers, we are removed by so many layers of accountability, it’s hard to imagine these decisions are not the inevitable product of some superior wisdom looking down from a corner office, but rather the necessary consequence of lots of smaller, often timid ideas. There’s plenty of blame to pass round in the book-making business when a big thing goes wrong, but would we even know a small mistake if we saw it? Will anyone miss Garmann when he’s gone? As Garmann himself muses about one of his aunties who is losing her marbles: “If you can’t remember anything, you have nothing to be scared of.”
Yes, what’s to be scared of? Apart from those wrinkly old ladies collaged to Garmann’s summer. Apart from the twins next door with missing teeth who can swim and ride bicycles and spell “rhubarb” backwards and forward. Apart from his mother fretting about him crossing the street on the way to school.
It’s no good moralizing: the end of the summer is a funny and terrifying time. Six-year-olds are specially poised to experience every contradiction, between the end of early childhood and the beginning of some deeper and dramatic awareness – of death, responsibility, and the passage of years - that will continue to puzzle them through adulthood. Garmann, with his exotic pedigree (the author and original publisher are Norwegian), and dreamy realities pasted on and around him, is about the most convincing six-year-old I have ever seen in two dimensions. He is human. Conflicted. Alive.
I was picking around the store the other day when I came across him again, looking equally puckish and melancholy in his water wings, two copies remaining; he still caught me by surprise, even though he has been living on my bookshelf for months. I asked a sales-person how he was doing. She is generally well-informed about inventory, she admitted she’d never seen the book before, and when she checked, it was apparent nobody else had either. One person bought a copy back in June – that was me – yet here were still two, with autumn rushing in all around them. Was this a reprieve? Was there somebody out there smiling down?
I’m not so sure. Or anyway, I’m not counting on it. Garmann’s Summer will probably never amount to a blockbuster. Perhaps it’s too difficult – to summarize, to talk about, to sell. In this collection we are listing it under seven different categories – from Laugh Aloud to Living & Dying – so if you look hard enough, chances are you will probably find something not to like about it. We pick books for many good reasons, but the process wherein we don’t pick books is often mysterious, and, I think, mutable. My six-year-old made me read the The Paper Bag Princess the other day. I don’t much care for princesses. The illustrations looked a little cartoonish for my taste. Still he wheedled, I submitted, then halfway through reading, a girl, maybe ten, thoughtful, well-spoken, stopped by for a listen. When we were finished, she remarked that it was her “favorite ever” book when she was younger. She mentioned that a pretty important word on the second-to-last page had been changed from “bum” to “toad” in England where she grew up and “bum” had other, more distracting definitions. She was thorough. Impassioned. And here we bring you The Paper Bag Princess.
We bring you Michael Rosen’s Sad Book about – heads up – the death of a child. The grief in this book is completely unfiltered, and most people will not, should not, touch this, still there are some that might want to, and they should be given that chance. Life - plus death - can leave you standing in a minority sometimes.
And, of course we bring you Garmann - because someone apparently needs to. Does that sound mad? I’m sorry, what I really meant to sound like was impassioned. We are One Potato.