Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Tuesday, October 30, 2001


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In light of last night's announcement that a new "terrorist action" is imminent, Fern Reiss's book, "Terrorism and Kids: Comforting Your Child" (160 pages; $14.95; Peanut Butter and Jelly Press; http://www.terrorismandkids.com) may be the only godsend to appear in these threatening times.

Fern is a frequent contributor of articles on parenting and psychology for such magazines as Parent and Child, Parade and Sesame Street. She lives in Boston with her husband and three kids and is the author of such books for parents as "The Infertility Diet" and "Homeschooling By Heart."

Her writing style in "Terrorism and Kids" has a conversational authority that makes the toughest questions easier to bear ("Will we all die?" "Is there going to be a war?" "Are there any terrorists here?") and the answers almost painless to consider.

I say "painless" because Fern suggests that adults respond to children's questions in a way that is reassuring, truthful and heartening all at once. Over and over she asks parents and other adults to stress the strength of the family (which the child has already experienced) especially when facing something fearful and unknown.

For example, if a young child asks, "Will any bombs fall on us?" Fern suggests:

"Tell your child that in the entire history of America, since your great, great, great, great, great grandfather was alive, no bombs have fallen on the United States mainland. (In talking to children old enough to know about Pearl Harbor, remind them that that was an attack on a military base; nobody's home was bombed.)

"Reiterate that you will keep your child and family safe.

"In the event that war actually erupts, tell your child that you have a safe place to go if it becomes necessary, where bombs cannot land (that is, a bomb shelter).

"You might want to tell your young child that going to the safe place will be like a camping trip, and you will bring food, sleeping bags and favorite toys with you. Remind her that your whole family will be together."

If the questions keep coming - "whether we are at danger of exposure to chemical or biological weapons; whether you are worried about water or air contamination; whether you think we are at risk of being the victims of germ warfare" - Fern advises parents to "reiterate the basic point:

"That you will do your best to keep your family safe, and how you are making plans to do so. If you have an older child, and are taking precautions with which he can help, by all means involve him in the preparations: Helping to organize bottled water (or emergency supplies, or whatever the situation warrants) will be empowering and make him feel better about what's going on."

The book is loaded with ideas to help children feel strong and prepared - and to put the adult mind at ease about how to help kids cope.

Thirty-seven short (1-page and 2-page) "Strategies" seem obvious enough at first - "Limit Television and Internet Viewing," "Don't Let Your Children Listen Alone," "Keep To Your Routine" - but as you get further into the book, more complicated tips need more explanation.

How, for example, does a parent "combat the helplessness that children often feel after a traumatic situation has ended"?

Fern writes, "this might be a good opportunity to pull out the old family photo albums and remind your child of how many things she has mastered over the years and how many skills she has learned. 'Look, here's a picture of you tying your shoes. You were so happy when you figured out how to do that. Here's one of you learning to whistle..."

This idea, to "talk about what they do well and all the problems and difficult situations they have solved in the past," lets children "feel some amount of control over themselves and their destinies, and the self esteem that goes along with it."

The book includes a section for "tailoring your approach to the age of your child" (infants, preschoolers, elementary school children, teenagers), and three chapters on practical therapy (writing, drawing and playing) that allow kids to vent feelings they may be bottling up ("Write about your most scary nightmare," "Draw a picture of the pain in your tummy").

I think the front matter (preface, introduction) is a bit overwritten and in the interests of full disclosure, the acknowledgments are tiny bit inflated - Fern Reiss called Holt Uncensored for advice about an agent, and that's all I contributed before she decided to rush the book into print.

The Road to Publication

So let's start there, with the book's timing. Fern, who has "witnessed firsthand the effects of terrorism and trauma on children in Israel, Africa and Asia," says she originally slated the book to appear in May 2002.

"I wrote it for a different audience - Americans-living-in-war-torn places, specifically with Israel in mind. I have a number of friends, and some family, who've picked up their raised-in-America kids and moved to Israel, and I wanted to explore how it's been on the kids, and what issues they've had to deal with.

"It never occurred to me that this book would be applicable to an Americans-in-America audience. With the events of September 11, I needed to deal with the questions and fears on a much more personal, immediate level -- and I needed to do it for my own kids, who are aged 8, 5, and almost 1."

Talking with parents, child psychologists and experts, Reiss learned about the sometimes invisible effects of terrorism on children. "For example, one expects that nightmares may occur afterward," she says, "but we should know, too, that a child's preoccupation with bruises and scabbed knees can also be a symptom."

See more about this in an eye-opening piece from the book called "Three Symptoms To Watch For" at http://www.terrorismandkids.com/media.html.

Fern also made a number of media connections during her research and says that when September 11 hit, she was flooded with queries.

"I got thousands of calls on September 12, 13, and 14th, and then it all died down," she recalls. "I had posted a note to Oprah Winfrey at her website, and one of her producers phoned several times. But then she got diverted to another show, and since then I haven't heard anything."

The thought among media personnel was that the terrorist acts of September 11 would probably not be repeated, that the atmosphere of threat and fear would eventually diffuse and that a return to normality would be the "project" of Americans, not a revisiting of past horrors.

To Fern, however, a key message of the book was that children react to trauma for a long time, that parents can learn to spot symptoms and deal with them however long it takes, and that an affordable, easy-to-handle (5.5" x 6.5") resource specifically on terrorism - not just trauma - and kids could be helpful.

So Reiss contacted literary agent Amy Rennert, who read the manuscript and was "instantly excited," she remembers. "Here was someone who writes well and had something very important to say. For 2 weeks 'Terrorism and Kids' became the one really relevant thing in my life. At a time when many of us were at a loss to do something, this - getting the book published, I kept thinking - is what I can do now. I thought any publisher would be proud to have the book on their list."

That was true: Publishers responded quickly and favorably ... but they all turned it down.

"Some publishers said that what seemed fresh after 9/11 wouldn't be months later," Rennert says. "Others believed publishing a book like this might be exploitive - that this kind of advice would be covered in women's magazines. And some had already published books on children and trauma that they thought would suffice."

So like the media, book publishers felt the threat of terrorism would die down. "You have to understand how hard it is for any publisher to crash a book like this," Rennert says. "I think they made a mistake - a book for parents specifically about helping kids deal with terrorism is very much needed - but nobody knew that a month ago."

Fern Reiss was baffled. "While New York is telling me the book is unmarketable, all the parents I know are saying their kids aren't eating, aren't sleeping, are playing 'hijacker' and 'terrorist.' They're scared to go on airplanes, scared to sleep in their own rooms, scared to go to school.

"And I'm wondering, is this only true of kids in Boston, not kids in New York City? Can traumatized kids just 'turn it off' a week later, as if what they saw and heard about terrorism were a scary movie? It's six weeks later now. My own kids, who never saw any of the television footage, are still obsessed with it. So as far as book publishers are concerned, I'm perplexed by the response we got."

Fern thus turned to a press with which she has been associated since its inception in 1997 and which had published her first book, "The Infertility Diet," now in its 5th printing. This is Peanut Butter and Jelly Press, which indeed "crashed" the book, getting it out in less than a week, "or about nine months earlier than I planned," she recalls.

"Peanut Butter and Jelly Press distributes through Ingram, Baker and Taylor, and Quality (to libraries). It was quite a struggle to get the book listed by all the wholesalers that quickly, and they did not buy heavily - nor have chain bookstores."

Independents, however, are another story. "BookSense has been great," Reiss says. "Thank God the book world hasn't been completely taken over by the chains yet. Peanut Butter and Jelly Press offered advance review copies through BookSense, and the response has been phenomenal - both in terms of stores requesting copies, and in feedback. Some bookstores have ordered 10-30 copies directly from the publisher (because the book, which was shipped to Ingram two weeks ago, hasn't shown up in their inventory yet)."

With a stunning cover illustration (a sepia-toned photo of a little girl standing in what might be rubble, holding a Raggedy Ann that happens to be in full-color, the somber yet optimistic "Terrorism and Kids" promises on the back cover to donate 10% of all profits to the Red Cross.

So the final question is this: Does Reiss wish a mainstream publisher could handle the rest of it - the huge publicity and merchandising campaign, including a call to that Oprah Winfrey producer who didn't think the climate of fear and confusion would last, particularly for children?

"I'm moving much faster than I would have with a large mainstream press, I believe," says Fern. "I had books off-press within a week. They're already in bookstores. I make decisions faster, and this way, you know, it's much more fun."



Dear Holt Uncensored,

Regarding the late-paying indie bookstore problem:

During each of the three years that I was the accounts payable department for a small bookstore, we enjoyed double-digit sales increases, yet there were plenty of times we were late enough with payments to be forced to endure credit holds, collection letters, and exasperated calls from (eventually quite familiar) receivables reps. The problem for us was partly tied to a seasonal cycle; while I could guarantee we'd be fat and happy and looking for 2% net-10 discounts in September after the tourist season had filled our coffers, I could just as surely promise that by April the holiday cushion would be gone and that until the trickle of summer tourists grew to a flow, I'd be paying no more attention to the "net 30" on my invoices than I do to predictions of an imminent e-book revolution.

And yes, when times were tight, it was generally the small publishers whose invoices got filed to the back, because we could ill afford to be on hold with the Ingrams and Random Houses of the world.

However, independent bookselling is a personal and idiosyncratic business, and there's no question that I also extended priority to small vendors with whom I or the buyer had a personal relationship: locals, publishers whose books we loved, and, yes, the publishers who bothered to call, particularly if they were at all personable while trying to pull money out of me.

I'd also like to point out that when confronted with predictably slow times of year, a small bookseller has a choice. S/he can respond by returning a lot of books, which helps cash flow, or by riding it out - perhaps with a little more inventory than is perfectly prudent in the short term - because s/he believes in that inventory and doesn't want to shortchange the customer who does wander in during the quiet months.

Michael Weaver

Dear Holt Uncensored:

In defense of some of us small bookstore owners - when I asked at a Feminist Booksellers meeting in 1987 how others determined how to pay bills, I was roundly advised by everyone to pay feminist presses first, general indies second, and the big companies last. 14 years later, I'm still in business, have never had an account put on hold, and *still* use this triage to decide who gets paid.

As with most other things in life, one cannot generalize about the masses based on the behavior of a few!

Mary Ellen Kavanaugh
My Sisters' Words

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I am a small, independent bookstore in a small tourist town. I have never received a call for non-payment....because I always pay my bills....especially the publishers, after all, I rely on them to receive my books. But, more and more I find it necessary to send my customers elsewhere, especially when it comes to a single order book.

It is impossible to have every book in the store that someone may want...so I do a lot of "special orders" for my customers...in the hopes that I will keep their business at other times. But, if I try to order a single book from publishers I am informed that I must have a minimum order...beginning at $100--$500. It is Ingram that I have never been able to order from because they demand a $550 initial order...

Or, a publisher will tell me that if I'm only ordering one book...then I will receive a 10% discount....plus S & H costs...which brings the book higher than the retail price of the book. So I either have to do it just as a convenience for the customer...and not make one dime on it...in fact, I'm losing money because of the time involved...or I have to tell the customer...and I have done this many times...sorry, I can't order it for you.

I have had the publishers tell me...just hold the one book order until I get a big enough order to cover the initial amount they want...but customers want their books as soon as possible...

Those few publishers that will give me a decent discount on one book...I really appreciate...but, more are going the other way...and when I do talk to someone higher up I hear the same thing..."that's company policy."

Well, I never have strived to be as big as B& N or Borders...and never will. I love my little store...and do the best I can...but, the big publishers make it very difficult...and certainly have no heart for the small independent stores. Also there are publishers that I could deal with...only to call them one day and find they are now merged with one of the companies I can't deal with...and lose another publisher.

What to do?

A Bookseller

Dear Holt Uncensored:

First let me thank you for your comments on "Trans-Sister Radio: A Novel" by Chris Bohjalian. It is a wonderful book and deserves a much wider audience that it has been getting.

Now for the "other side of the coin" in reference to Dorothy Bryant's comments about slow payments for independent bookstore and the idea of having them prepay. It is not uncommon for independent bookstores to prepay for books from a small publisher and not have the books delivered. Yes, the independent bookstores also have to make "those" phone calls to these publishers, send copies of the cancelled checks, listen to excuses on why they haven't shipped the books and threaten to turn the matter over to their state's Attorney General's Office (if they are out of state).

If my memory serves me correctly, the longest time we had to badger a publisher to ship prepaid books was over a year. Because of these "lessons" we have a policy of not prepaying for books, unless we have a special order from a customer for a particular title. We will not accept COD shipments because the COD costs, and the extra-unforeseen charges tacked on by the publisher to COD shipments often exceed the profits. We have also found that the publishers who have demanded prepayments are usually ones that are the slowest in shipping the orders and the ones that we have had biggest problems in getting the shipments.

Doing business has always relied on a degree of trust from both retailer and the suppliers. We are no different from most businesses in that some months our cash flow is better than other months, but we also understand that unexpected variations in cash flows is just a part of doing business and that includes making "those" phone calls, both to suppliers and to our customers. What did President Truman say? "If you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen."

Larry Bailey
The Open Book, Ltd.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Perhaps you can post this in your column. Adventures in Crime and Space, a science fiction bookstore in Texas has put a call out for help and is asking for people to order books to keep them in business:


"The basics are this. Sales have been rough. Many of you have been through Hell in the job sector. I went 6 months without a job. So did my wife. Others are in the same boat or worse. This has affected sales at the store. The World Trade Center blew up and Americans discovered terrorism up close. Sales have suffered worse . . .

"We have, as best as I can tell, TWO WEEKS to turn this around. If we don't find $6,000 by October 31, then the store may have to close. That's our time frame. If you like the store, we need you in there NOW buying something! I don't really care what you buy, but we need the funds NOW! If everyone on our email list buys just 2 paperbacks, we can cover past dues and order books for Christmas. I don't like to beg for your business but you guys are our extended family, the ones we chose rather than the one we were born into. We need your help, so we are asking for it."

G.J. Grant

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Regarding the "triage" the bookstores conduct every month to determine which bills must be paid:

A publisher told me once about a computer store he had dealings with that paid its bills like this:

* Invoice arrives, put in folder to age

* [ time passes ] Invoicer calls, complains: put in second folder for people who have called to complain

* [ more time passes ] Invoicer calls, complains loudly: write check, put in envelope, walk all over it and fold it, and send it out in 30 days

Glenn Fleishman

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I too, as a small press, am deeply grateful for independent bookstores. It is there that I get advice on what to publish, cover design, how to market. (One book I am publishing is based upon a suggestion from an independent bookstore owner as to what her customers might like; the cover design for an upcoming book is thanks to input from five independent book sellers - most of whom HATED and nixed my initial design!)

Independent booksellers sponsor author events and put up window displays. They treat my visiting authors like royalty. They request and read my galleys. In terms of getting paid on invoices, some are excellent when it comes to paying on time, and some are absolutely awful. One in particular takes about 9 months to pay (and pays only after about 5 phone calls and numerous "past due" faxes from me). But I indulge them because I know that they, like me, are struggling.

I appreciate the fact that they buy from me directly - the extra 15% may make up for the hassle. All in all, I have to say I could not be in business (and wouldn't want to be) without the help and support of independent bookstores in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Susan Vogel
Pince-Nez Press

Dear Holt Uncensored:

With all due sincerity and respect the Shakespearian phrase "Much Ado About Nothing" comes to mind in regard the item about military personnel writing messages on bombs that are about to be dropped on Afghanistan (see #275). With everything else we have to consider in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attack and the ongoing war are we really supposed to be upset and indignant about the antics of one ordnanceman? I think not.

David Isenberg

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Can we get a little sense of proportion here (re #275)? All this fuss over what it is or is not appropriate to scrawl on a bomb before dropping it on Afghanistan? Come on, folks!

The purpose of that bomb is to KILL PEOPLE.

I'm not saying that we should (or should not) be doing this. That's a whole other question. But as long as we are dropping bombs on people and killing them -- does it really matter what some GI scrawls on the outside of the bomb with a piece of chalk before it's dropped? Please!

Dick Lupoff

Holt responds: Isn't that the point? Of all the ways to send hate language, using a bomb on which to scrawl it would seem the most likely, except that the hate language ("FAGS") in this case is being recorded in photographs that are sent right back to the United States. You don't have to be a member of the great fag and dyke community to notice that the military still associates "FAGS" with the enemy, and this is not a good thing. We should also wonder if hatred is ever appropriate, even and especially in war, and if there are different ways of killing and hurting than dropping a bomb.

Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.

"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
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