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COVER STORY

Big plans for little readers

Parents who want their kids to love books have a friend in their neighborhood independent bookstore.

January 19, 2006|Susan Carpenter | Times Staff Writer

SARAH TILTON was having a difficult time finding age-appropriate reading material for her son. Four-year-old George was curious about stained-glass windows, church organs, grandfather clocks and violins, but each time Tilton attempted to buy books about these un-toddler-like subjects, she struck out.

"I have a shelf full of duds," says Tilton, a stay-at-home mom. "I pick out books that look good to me, and I get them home and we read them, and he never picks them out again."

Like a lot of parents who want to instill a love of reading in their children but know almost nothing about kid literature aside from the titles they read when they were young, Tilton has made a lot of $15 mistakes venturing beyond the classics and bestsellers into the vast and ever-expanding landscape of unfamiliar titles.

Thanks to the magic of a boy named Harry, the number of children's books released each year has increased dramatically, from about 9,000 in 2000 to 22,000 in 2004, according to bibliographic information provider R.R. Bowker. That's a lot of books for time-strapped parents to wade through in their pursuit of the good stuff. But there is help, and lots of it, at independent children's bookstores. In the Los Angeles area, there's a wealth of kid-specific booksellers dotting various neighborhoods -- stores with tens of thousands of titles and well-read staff members who can redirect shoppers' aimless wandering to specific titles based on a child's age, interests or difficulties, whether it be snails, tornadoes, Hinduism or same-sex parents. And the perks don't stop at selection and guidance.

On the kid side, there are the usual author and illustrator meet-and-greets, but there are also dress-up parties, craft workshops, singalongs and story times. For adults with children in tow, there's the calm that comes from being in a child-friendly environment, where the clerks won't glare when little Blake or Katrina melts down. There's also gift wrapping, as well as customized book baskets and book-of-the-month plans. Some stores even have recycling and donation programs, so shoppers can bring back whatever books their kids haven't mangled and know they'll land in the hands of other children who'll enjoy them.

JADE JAMIESON has been sitting on a well-worn couch at Children's Book World for more than an hour, making her way through piles of picture books precariously stacked at her feet. There are hardcovers about the lost boys of Sudan, AIDS in Africa, Anne Frank and more than a dozen other titles dealing with social justice and multicultural issues for the elementary school crowd.

A student teacher whose third-grade pupils are predominantly Latino, Jamieson was "specifically picking books that are speaking to their struggles and to their families. What's really neat about this bookstore is they have that. Most bookstores, it's really for the middle-class white kid," says Jamieson, 28, who researched the area's independent bookstores and visited many of them before landing at the West L.A. shop.

Diversity is key at Children's Book World, a store with 80,000-plus titles shelved in niches that include world folklore, comparative religion, chapter fiction and "issues," such as death, divorce and emerging sexuality.

"We live in a multicultural society and we're enriched by it, especially in a town like Los Angeles," says Sharon Hearn, a former teacher who retired her red pen to open up shop almost 20 years ago. "We want the store to reflect our values and what we think will serve the community."

It's a philosophy that's made the children's bookstore one of the most popular in the city, frequented not only by parents and teachers but some of the biggest names in kid lit. J.K. Rowling, Judy Blume and Eoin Colfer are just a few of the heavyweights who've swung through the store for signings. Later this month, author Louis Sachar will stop in for a talk and autograph session in support of his "Holes" sequel, "Small Steps." In March, the store will host an off-site event with "Magic Tree House" author Mary Pope Osborne.

Considering each author's stature and the hundreds-strong crowds they are likely to draw, you'd think some backroom deal had been struck between the authors' publisher and the chains, preventing them from appearing at an independent store such as Children's Book World.

Not so, says Melanie Chang, director of publicity for Random House children's books, which publishes both writers.

"What we look for in a bookstore when we're thinking about where we're going to put an author for an event is fabulous connections with the schools and the educators and the libraries and the librarians in the community," she says. "It's spreading the word of mouth in the school community that really, really makes a difference."

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