The Melting Shelf: An Introduction

26 Aug

A souvenir, a physical reminder of a person, place, or event, can be a mere obligatory purchase or a smile enducing heart felt gift. For traveling Americans, the former consists of magnets, spoons, or obnoxious T-shirts all appropriately made in China. While for Asians, it’s something edible, preferabbly a local sweet or snack. Now I may be an American living in Asia, but when it comes to savoring my travels, I listen to the writer within. A bookstore may not appear as the ideal souvenir store, but for an aspiring children’s book writer, it’s cultural paradise.

One morning, while eradicating the orange juice hiding in my glass, my awakening eyes perused the parade of magnets. Colorful, tacky, and bizarre, yet they lacked personality. I was unable to re-place myself within the ancient Wats in Bangkok, or immerse myself in the sterile silence of the de-militirized zone in Korea. Sure I purchased these knick-knacks there, but I can’t recall doing so. Even worse, were the magnets of places I had never been. What business did I have owning a magnet or shot glass from someone else’s vacation? If anything, these items are more or less the traveler bragging about their trip which you didn’t take.

To respectfully connect myself or others to a vacation I leave it to photos. While  a custom made photo book could invite others into your memories, I personally would be lacking a commercialized physical memory. I needed a solution.

During the winter holidays of 2009, the answer roared at the Honolulu Zoo gift shop. A children’s book! Specficially a picture book, but what made it special was that it was undeniably Hawaiin. “Okazu at the Zoo,” was about Hawaiian food, written and illustrated by Hawaiians and published by a Hawaiian company.

I now possessed the perfect souvenir. Not only was it 100% Hawaiian (minus being printed in Korea), it added an international touch to my growing collection of picture books. A writer reads, and a reader collects: books.

Later in my trip, I realized that I didn’t need to venture into the gift shop to find souvenirs. For Barnes & Nobles had my back. Dozens, and if I had the patience to count, perhaps hundreds of books about and from the tropical island chain. Though, children’s picture books were the main event. There was quite a selection. While I only purchased a few for family and friends, I enjoyed reading them all.

Don’t be afraid to pickup a picture book for a friend. Even if they’re a sterile grump, everyone encounters youth at somepoint in their lives. You never know when holding onto that treasured picture book from a culture far far away will come in handy. You can even personalize it by writing a heartfelt message at the front of the book, much like you would a postcard. But a book won’t get lost in a pile of papers, and it certainly speaks more to the individual receiving the gift then the name ‘Marge’ stamped on a coffee mug.

Sure this strategy isn’t only limited to picture books, but it should be. Though I’m a writer, I find a 500 page novel to bea rude way to deliver a heavy hand of pressure to someone you’re supposed to respect. A picture books is lively, fun, and colorful. It requires little time committment, can look sexy on a mantle, but more importantly it’s universal. What if you visit China? Do you expect your cubicle residing friend to be able to decipher the parade of complex characters? With a picture book, they won’t have too. The pictures will tell the tale, and while some of the meaning will be lost, who cares! If anything, a picture book in a foreign language can be a wonderful ice breaker for a mixer filled with foreign guests, or even be the springboard towards learning another language.

You may be wondering, but how do I choose the right one? Truthfully, it doesn’t matter. You can search through thousands of shelves for the ‘Where the Wild Things Are” of India, or stumble upon a dusty self-published gem. The book only needs to be from the imagination and culture of the local people.

But the best part is this book doesn’t have to be well-written. For example, one Christmas, my parents gave me a locally published book about the snowy weather in Buffalo. While the illustrations and inside lingo spoke to me as a Buffalonian, the book was atrocious! If a writer only surrounds themselves with the best, they will end up feeling inferior. Instead, a sampling of terrible books build a wonderful foundation for improving his/her writing by realizing what not to do. I’m not telling you to spend money on bad books, unless of course there is some redeeming quality to them. In this case, a souvenir from a place you traveled to.

Finding souvenir books can be a prolonged adventure, an impromptu discovery, or a well-calculated endeavor. In Taiwan, I chanced on a picture book store with an entire wall exclusively featuring Taiwanese creations. In Australia, I struggled to find authentic Australian books in many a commercial bookstore, but ultimately found a healthy children’s section in a tiny shop. For my trip to China, I will have a list of bookstores, and potential titles on hand just in case the language barrier proves to be covered in barbed wire.

Consequently, I encourage all travelers to,  for yourself, a friend, or a writer, make the bookstore your gift shop. Please consider posting reviews of such books or experiences in the comment section or by providing a link to your own blog entry.

Happy global reading everyone!

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One Response to “The Melting Shelf: An Introduction”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. A Store Full of Pictures « Crave Writing - November 28, 2010

    […] butchered English steering me to the local authors section so I can add a Taiwan book to my ‘Melting Shelf.’ Too Many Titles To Choose From Beautifully Organized […]

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