Poetry Month Kid Lit Review of “Sylvia’s Bookshop” by Robert Burleigh

This rather unusual book in rhyming verse is narrated by a bookstore, specifically the historic Shakespeare and Company Bookstore that opened in Paris in 1919 by an American woman named Sylvia Beach.

This famous bookstore, facing the Seine and across from the Notre Dame Cathedral, functioned as a lending library as well as a shop, and was a home away from home for writers such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound.

Famously, in 1922 Beach helped publish James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses after it was rejected in Britain and America as obscene. [On December 6, 1933 Ulysses was found to be “not obscene” in a U.S. District Court because it was not “dirt for dirt’s sake,” written with the “leer of the sensualist,” but “a sincere and serious attempt to devise a new literary method for the observation and description of mankind.”]

Beach also encouraged the publication of Hemingway’s first book in 1923, Three Stories and Ten Poems. Only 300 copies were printed, some of which she sold at her store. [Alas, she did not get paid for any of the books a sum close to matching the $68,500 paid for one of them in 2012 at a rare books auction.]

The original Shakespeare and Company closed in December 1941 during the German occupation of France in World War II. Another American, George Whitman, re-opened the iconic store in 1951, and it again became a hangout for writers such as Allen Ginsberg, Langston Hughes, Anaïs Nin, Ray Bradbury, James Baldwin, and others. [The author only mentions the store’s second life in one sentence in her Afterword.]

“The store” tells us:

“On a cobblestoned street in the City of Lights,
My door is wide open long into the nights.”

Famous patrons are alluded to, even though young readers will probably have no idea about who they are before, and maybe even after, checking the Afterword:

“Look! Ernie’s waving. They’re all here today.
He saunters in, sporting a jaunty beret.

Here’s Gertrude and Janet. They loudly recite –
From sonnets and ballads. It’s a poetry fight!”

Some of the verses speak to the value of reading, as the store imagines Sylvia thinking:

“‘Books are like rivers that flow through my head.
Books are like roads,’ she just might have said.

Roads that connect my old self to my new,
Unlocking our hearts to what’s noble and true.”

On the last page we read:

“You’re near the end, now. This book that you hold
Is whispering ‘good night,’ its tale all told.
But maybe, dear friends, we’ll meet someday,
In magical Paris, in a time faraway.

Till then, you can travel through time (and through space)
By opening a book – anywhere, anyplace!”

Katy Wu’s bright illustrations employ an appealing cartoon style.

Discussion: When Sylvia Beach ran Shakespeare and Company, the store was the center of Anglo-American literary culture and modernism in Paris. The famous patrons frequented the shop for several reasons: Beach herself was a fascinating woman; she collected high-quality and innovative books; and her encouragement of struggling artists was notable.

Yet few stories about Beach mention the inspiration and model for her career. During the last years of WWI, Beach went to Paris to study contemporary French literature. It was then she met the proprietor of a French lending library and bookshop named Adrienne Monnier, one of the first women in France to found her own bookstore. The two became lovers and lived together for 36 years.

It was Monnier with her lending library, author readings, and promotion of writers that influenced Beach to open another bookstore and lending library nearby. It would be like Monnier’s except it would feature English books.

Author James Joyce (L) chatting with Sylvia Beach (C) & Adrienne Monnier (R) at Shakespeare & Company bookshop

Beach’s store become beloved by writers. In 1936 Beach thought that she would be forced to close her shop. In part her financial problems stemmed from the many loans she made to James Joyce for medical bills, rent, travel costs, etc. She herself had to take out loans to cover her loans to Joyce! [See “Reviewed Work: Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation: A History of Literary Paris in the Twenties and Thirties” by Noel Riley Fitch, Review by Shari Benstock, in James Joyce Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 4 (Summer, 1984), pp. 375-381]

James Joyce (left) and Sylvia Beach in front of Shakespeare and Company Bookshop, 1920s

To help her, André Gide, the French author and later winner of the 1947 Nobel Prize in Literature, organized a group of writers into a club called Friends of Shakespeare and Company who paid to attend the readings at the shop. The renown of the French and American authors participating in readings during those two years attracted considerable attention and business to the store.

Nevertheless, Beach was forced to close the store in 1941 by the Nazis – not for monetary reasons but ideological ones. She was sent to an internment camp for six months outside Paris. Tudor Wilkinson, an American art collector and amateur art dealer, managed to secure her release by writing to an official of the Vichy government who had been a member of Beach’s lending library. Beach kept her books hidden in a vacant apartment over the bookshop, but never re-opened. She remained in Paris until her death in 1962.

How much of this should have been included in the book? Admittedly the focus is on the joys of reading and of having access to a good bookshop, but I would have settled for more information in the text on who the writers were that were referenced. In addition, although the bookstore was a mecca for the African-Americans of the Harlem Renaissance, they get no mention whatsoever.

Evaluation: The poetry is a bit pedestrian, and background about why this store was famous is doled out rather sparely and unevenly. But the story of this legendary bookstore and its proprietor is worth knowing, and perhaps this book will inspire children to find out more. It also can get them thinking about how one person can, in fact, make a difference.

Rating: 3/5

Published by Paula Wiseman Books, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2018

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About rhapsodyinbooks

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1 Response to Poetry Month Kid Lit Review of “Sylvia’s Bookshop” by Robert Burleigh

  1. BermudaOnion says:

    I was excited about the book when I saw it was told by Shakespeare and Company but it doesn’t sound like it’s as special as I had hoped it would be. I may still check it out.

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