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by Kirsten Hess, Bookseller

14440841_1348278475191245_8005145897934685266_n-1It has been wonderful to read the posts in Storystorm this month, to get a peek into the creative processes that go into the many wonderful books that we carry in our shop, Let’s Play Books! Bookstore. We opened our doors three years ago in Emmaus, PA, in a one-room shop. This past September, we relocated down the street to a three-level building that more than triples our space.

Just as a number of writers and illustrators have been inspired by their own children, I became involved in children’s books through our daughter. Let’s Play Books! began as a non-profit in Delaware, Ohio, in 2010. I wanted to instill a love of stories in young children through books and theatre. As our daughter grew older and our family moved, Let’s Play Books! adapted and changed, culminating in the opening of the Emmaus shop in 2013.


We try to set a fun and creative mood in the store—the kind of place children might perhaps find themselves in one of the books from our shelves. Because that’s what it’s all about—the story. Whether through pictures or words or the two combined. Stories of bugs or bunnies. Stories of discovery and mystery. Stories that make us laugh or cry. But in some way they all encourage a young reader to engage with herself and the world around her. We work to find books that stir the imagination and touch the soul.

This year's Newbery Medalist visiting the shop, pictured with Let's Play Books patron Annette.

This year’s Newbery Medalist Kelly Barnhill visiting the shop, pictured with book club participant Annette.

When a child visits our shop, we try to learn what type of story excites and interests him. Of course, tales of fantasy and adventure often rank high, as well as mystery and suspense, with young characters that kids can identify with on some level. We are also seeing an ever-increasing demand for titles, from picture and board books through young adult, that introduce children to issues our society is dealing with. Many parents want to introduce their children to subjects such as racial and cultural diversity, bullying, and getting along with others quite early. In the middle-grade years, LGBTQ and gender identity are topics not widely discussed until recent years, but are now accepted and sought out by young readers and their parents. At Let’s Play Books!, we strive to contribute to a culture of acceptance and inclusion through the books we stock and the authors that visit our shop. For us, a bookstore is a place of exploration and preparation as young readers grow into roles in the local community, as well as national and global society.


Book clubs have become a big part of the Let’s Play Books! community. We have four levels of ARC (Advance Reader’s Copy) Clubs, in which children read, review, share and discuss books prior to their publication. We also have middle-grade Sci-fi/Fantasy, YA Grab-Bag, and four adult book clubs. The move to our new location enabled us to expand our adult offerings, now a growing share of our business.


The new shop includes a Community Room, places to sit and read, play chess, build a puzzle or color and draw. The third-floor “Cattic” has become a popular space for events or to hang out with bookshop cats Garfield and Bernie. We also encourage writers and illustrators to settle in and work in the shop!

Thanks for including us in Storystorm!

Kirsten Hess
Founder and Owner, Let’s Play Books!
Facebook & Twitter @letsplaybooks

This doesn’t require commentary. Just watch.

(I know, aren’t you amazed that I can be quiet for once?)

Editor and author Ken Geist recently spoke at the New England Children’s Booksellers Advisory Council, asking  independent booksellers to get behind picture books, as reported by Publishers Weekly.

Why the impassioned plea? While picture books aren’t disappearing from the market, they have been a tough sell lately. Jacketed picture books are $16.99–not an inexpensive purchase–and customers seem unwilling to buy unjacketed titles. Lower-cost paperbacks aren’t usually produced until the hardcover has proven sales. And big retailer Barnes & Noble is removing its picture book wall and instead showcasing higher-margin activity books. (Say it isn’t so!)

The most interesting tidbit from the article–one that contradicts the word count guidelines heard lately (500 to 700 words, the less, the better)–is that “many [consumers] don’t know what a picture book is, and those who do are looking for more text.”

More text?

Can it be that picture book consumers feel slighted by the $16.99 price tag when they only get 400 words? Does this mean picture book word counts might be on the rise? This is difficult to tell, considering the article also mentioned that 4- and 5-year-olds are being pushed toward chapter books. Lower word counts serve the younger audience this suggests. But do we believe that 4-, 5- and even 6-year-olds are going to give up on picture books completely? Are teachers going to stop using them in their Kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grade classrooms?

And could picture book series be turning off some parents? Once there’s a hit book, publishers release new titles with the same character. Is this strategy a sure money maker, or are parents getting tired of the same premise repeated a half dozen times?

On one hand, familiarity is a strong selling point. Think of the popularity of chain restaurants–customers know the menu is the same in Boston or Boise, so they are assured an enjoyable meal. So a picture book with a character they and their children already know is appetizing, but when do they get full? Editors have been asking for character-driven manuscripts to take advantage of sequel potential, but will this trend level off?

I’m curious to see if publishers will change their acquisitions strategies in light of bookseller changes. What do you think?

One of the booksellers at the event suggested a grass-roots effort to make 2011 “The Year of the Picture Book.” I’m all for that! Who’s with me? What can we do to help a sagging picture book market? (Besides the obvious–write awesome books!)

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