Author Archives: Sue Cowing

Indie Spotlight: Prairie Lights Books, Iowa City IA

Sue Cowing for Mixed-Up Files: Today we’re talking with Sarah and Barb of the children’s department of Prairie Lights (, an independent bookstore in the heart of the reading and writing university town of Iowa City Iowa, designated a UNESCO City of Literature.
MUF: Your location and your close relationship with  the Iowa Writing Workshop gives your store a unique readers-and-writers atmosphere and clientele, doesn’t it?
PRAIRIE LIGHTS: It does! Because we host readings a few times a week, it means that young readers and writers have access to some of the top writers working today. It also means the young readers who come in sometimes want the latest trendy book, but they are often eager to see something different, to read outside their usual comfort zones.prairie-lights-kid-browsing

MUF: When a middle school-age boy or girl comes into your store, how do you help them connect with their next good book?
PRAIRIE LIGHTS: We ask them, “what was the last awesome book that you read?” and go from there. We fearlessly pull lots of books off the shelf and have fun talking about each one. Sometimes kids are hesitant to read a book recommended by a grown up, but we’re pretty good at matching great books with intrepid readers.prairie-lights-ashprairie-lights-ray
We display local authors’ books on a special shelf, featuring local middle grade authors Sarah Prineas and Delia Ray.   We have a current display and we create a book list in May for summer reading and November for holiday gift giving. Link:

We also present titles on the Talk of Iowa show with Charity Nebbe on Iowa Public Radio.

MUF: I’m including here pictures of the covers of some titles on your lists.  You recently had a sellout appearance of Rick Riordan at Prairie Lights. Are there more readings, events or activities coming up over the holidays that would be of special interest to middle-graders?
PRAIRIE LIGHTS: Renowned author Lois Lowry is coming to the Englert prairie-lights-lowryTheater on November 16 , 2016. We are hosting a special evening on Wed. November 9 with Michelle Falkoff and Calla Devlin, who will read from their new YA novels.
In addition, because we are a UNESCO City of Literature we also have a Festival of Books for Children every year in February. Link:

MUF: How do you decide what titles to carry for ages eight to twelve?
PRAIRIE LIGHTS:Two people in the kids area prairie-lights-juando the ordering. They have good relationships with publisher’s reps and also read journals for reviews.

MUF: Prairie Lights’ collection is strong in poetry, and it’s good to see the increasing popularity of poetry and novels-in-verse with young readers. Do you and your customers have some favorites?
PRAIRIE LIGHTS: In our book lists/bibliographies we always include a poetry section, and we have a section of the kids are full of poetry books, both classics and new books. We think every family needs to read a poem aloud every day—like at the breakfast table, or before dinner.prairie-lights-poetry

MUF: What other titles, new and old, fiction and nonfiction do you find yourself recommending to middle-graders these days?prairie-lights-some-writer
PRAIRIE LIGHTS: Check out our booklist of new recommended titles, online:

MUF: If a family from out of town came to visit Prairie Lights, would there be family-friendly places in the neighborhood where the could get a meal or snack after shopping? And if they could stay beyond the day, are there some unique sights or family activities they shouldn’t miss?
PRAIRIE LIGHTS: We are just down the street from the Pedestrian Mall, where visitors will find unique little shops, frozen yogurt, an interactive water fountain, and a great playground, not to mention the Iowa City Public Library. In the other direction is the University of Iowa, featuring MacBride Hall and its natural history museum. There are lots of restaurants downtown, too, all easy walking distance.

Everyone shops at Prairie Lights!

Everyone shops at Prairie Lights!


Readers, whether you live nearby or are passing through, be sure to visit this great book store! And if you’re already a fan, please say hello in a comment.
Sue Cowing is the author of the puppet-and-boy novel, You Will Call Me Drog (Carolrhoda 2011, Usborne UK 2012)

Indie Spotlight: Booktenders’ Secret Garden, Doylestown PA

booktenders-logoS. C. for Mixed-Up Flies: It’s our pleasure this month to talk with hand selling award winner Ellen Mager, owner of Booktenders’ Secret Garden Children’s Bookstore and Gallery (  Recently Nicole Plyer Fisk published a book, The Booktenders’ Secret Garden,
through Lulu, to honor Ellen and raise funds for “extras” for the shop.

MUF: Ellen, children’s bookstores went through quite a rough patch a few years ago, but Booktenders’ has kept going over thirty years. What’s your secret?
Ellen: I love what I do, hand selling by book talking to kids “of all ages”.  I’m still here because I enjoy it. My customers know, and expect, me to find that perfect book and when I do, that’s the pleasure.booktenders-book-cover

MUF: Describe the atmosphere you have tried to create at Booktenders’. What do you want people to experience when they visit?
Ellen: I want people to have their expectations met, that I will find just what they need and go away with the present and a story about it. I’ve only had Infant to 7th grade since I had to move to a smaller store front. With some exceptions I do not do Young Adult. This limits the arguments of 4th graders who want a YA they have heard about, and I can share with them some of the fabulous Middle Grade authors and their books. A 10-year-old was asked why he loved Hunger Games so much to have read each one 3 times.  His answer was “Where else do you get to see kids killing kids?” When I heard it, it made me ill. A 7th or 8th grader, where that book should be, would not have answered that way.  My customers like that I am conservative and believe that some books can wait.booktenders-ellen

MUF: You carry original art and greeting cards by book illustrators in your store, and you have a gallery to display work by illustrators. Who are some of them? Who are some authors and illustrators who have signed your “Wall of Fame”
Ellen: I have over 200 signatures, messages and/or drawings Robert Sabuda, Marc Brown, Eric Carle, Uri Shulevitz, Don and Audrey Wood, Tomie DePaola, David Shannon, David Small, Paul O. Zelinsky, and so many more and special tiles by Brian Selznick, Jane Dyer, Patricia Polacco to name a few. I have original art work and prints from Ted & Betsy Lewin, Will Hillenbrand, Floyd Cooper, Valerie Gorbachev, Robert and Lisa Papp, John O’Brien, Barbara McClintock, Deborah Kogran Ray, S.D. Schindler, Gene Barretta, Chris Conover, Lee Harper.

booktenders-eye-to-eyeMUF: A small shop needs to be very selective about booktenders-who-wasbooks. How do you decide what titles to carry in your shop?
Ellen: After 33 years, I know many of my customers and their families, I know what I am good at selling, and more than anything, I know what I like, what makes me feel great to share. As I said I believe in giving kids a wide range of authors.  booktenders-peckAs Richard Peck said when a 5th grader asked him what you booketnders-survivalneed to be a good writer, “BE A GOOD READER.”

MUF: As middle-grade authors, we’re curious to know a few books, old or new, fiction or nonfiction, you find yourself recommending most often to ages 8 to 12 these days.booktenders-sis
Ellen: Science.  I absolutely worship Steve Jenkins. The booktenders-floccawonderful information, the fantastic illustrations, glosseries.  I LOVE what I have named “picture novellas” and I can handsell Robert Byrd, Brian Flocca, Peter Sis, and so many more that teach social science and science.  The kids love the Who Was series the Survival Series , by Tracey Ward, and more authors:  booktenders-nerdsMichael Buckley’s Sisters Grimm and Nerds. bookbinders-copernicusTony Abbott’s Copernicus Legacy (I can’t wait to read #4!)Adult writers writing for kids catch the adults eye & the kids really like them): booktenders-chompCarl Hiassen, John Grisham, Michael Scott’s Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel , booktenders-flammel
Richard Peck, Patricia Reilly Giff.booktenders-giff


Michael Buckley

booktenders-byrdMUF: What regular activities or upcoming events at Booktenders’ would be of special interest to middle-graders? Ellen: I will be having Michael Buckley in five schools as well as a session here the last wee
k in November (He’s like the Pied Piper to readers!)

MUF: If a family visited your store from out of town, would there be family-friendly places in the neighborhood where they could get a meal or a snack, and are there other unique sights or activities nearby that they shouldn’t miss?
Ellen: The Mercer Museum, Henry Mercer’s Homestead –Fonthill, and my favorite, the Moravian Tile Works –amazing. Bucks County is full of Historic Landmarks such as Pearl Buck’s Homestead, Washington Crossing.  Family, younger fun? Kids’ Castle. There are many restaurants right in downtown of many different food choices and prices.

MUF:  Thanks, Ellen, for telling sharing your thoughts about your shop and for adding some must-read titles to our lists.  Readers, have you visited  Secret Garden?  Next time you’re in the Philadelphia, be sure to drop in and pick up a new favorite book!

Sue Cowing is author of the middle-grade puppet-and-boy novel You Will Call Me Drog (Carllrhoda 2011, Usborne UK 2012).

Indie Spotlight: Second Star to the Right Children’s Books, Denver CO

second-star-ooks-logoHooray! A new and thriving all-children’s bookstore!  This month we’re talking with Dea Lavoie, Co-owner of Second Star to the Right Children’s Books in Denver.

MUF: We’re excited about your new store, a true children’s bookstore that includes both new and used books. What inspired you to set up shop, and how’s it going so far?second-star-front
Dea: Opening the bookstore has been a dream for a long time. I could see myself as the Meg Ryan character in the movie You’ve Got Mail! My husband and I had been teachers for around 12 years, and I knew I wanted to continue working with children. Children’s literature is amazing, and I wanted to share my love of it, and help children discover their love of it as well. It has been such a learning experience and we have been so grateful that people have embraced and encouraged us along the way. We just had our best month ever and keep continuing to grow!second-star-interior

MUF: In a small store like this, you must have room only for good books. How do you choose the titles you carry, both new and used?
Dea: Choosing the books for the shop is truly a joy. We make sure that we have the beloved favorites from way back, along with the most current titles. Fortunately we get to look at samples of new books before each order to help decide which ones we think our customers would love the most. Then you just have to decide which ones tug on your heart strings the most, or envision if you think a specific customer might enjoy the book. It ‘s a little tricky sometimes, but your intuition kicks in a lot.second-star-lilysecond-star-bfg

 MUF: As middle grade authors, we’re curious to know some titles– new and old, fiction and nonfiction– you find yourself recommending to readers ages 8-12 these days?
Dea: When I taught third grade, my students always seemed to love the Roald Dahl books, especially The BFG. The humor in the book really engaged the kids. So I do recommend those. secon-star-raymiesecond-star-wrinkleThe One and Only Ivan by Kathrine Applegate is such a poignant book about animals and friendship my students really enjoyed, and one I recommend.  Also, A Wrinkle in Time is an amazingly imaginative book that kids now appreciate as much as many years ago when it was written. Some of the newer books I recommend are Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo, whom I adore, Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart that tackles transgender and bipolar issues in a beautiful story, and The Girl who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill,second-star-girl-who-drank a magical middle grade fairy tale about a young girl with emerging magical powers that result from drinking moonlight.

MUF: Bug parties, dog adoptions, math tutoring, yoga lessons—tell us about some of the activities going on at Second Star on the Right. Any author visits or other events coming up that would be of special interest to middle-graders?second-star-banned-books
Dea: Our many events and activities keep us on our toes! We have such a creative staff that includes teachers, actors, and artists. Everyone is always thinking of something new to try. We do monthly read to a dog, read with a local police officer, local dentist, storytime in Spanish or French, Baby Storytime, Parent book clubs, and birthday parties! We also have a middle grader advisory group that get to read books before they’re released. They give us opinions on what they like which books they think will sell. (They also get to keep some of the books!) We’re always looking for new members.
We frequently have author appearances. Upcoming October events include a Pete the Cat and the Missing Cupcake Party at 4:00 on the 9th and  Kathleen Pelley and her new book Happy Mamas on October 15th, when we will have a Spanish translator present to translate the book into Spanish. Author Stan Yan who second-star-zombiewrote There’s a Zombie in the Basement is coming on the 16th. We also have a Pumpkin Party on the 21st and Trick or Treat Street on the 29th where Kids trick or treat through the neighborhood! We add new authors and events all the time.ssecond-star-best-bkstore

MUF: If a family from out of town visited your shop, would there be family-friendly places to get a snack or meal afterward? And if they could spend the day or more, are there some unique family activities or sights nearby that they shouldn’t miss?
Dea: We are located on Tennyson street, in northwest Denver, that features many boutiques, restaurants, and shops to explore. We are right next to Cozy Cottage, a tasty breakfast and lunch place, along with Parisi, a yummy Italian restaurant, and across from El Chingon, an authentic Mexican food restaurant. This area has many festivals going on that feature arts, crafts, and local food items, we’re also a hop, skip, and jump from the mountains which are always great for a picnic! Elitch’s is Denver’s big amusement park, and lots of fun, and so are the Aquarium, Denver Zoo, and Botanic Gardens. scond-str-welcome

MUF:  Thanks so much Dea for opening this store and for telling our readers about it.  Readers, next time you’re in Denver, be sure to visit this addition to the world of children’ books.

Sue Cowing is the author of the puppet-and-boy novel You Will Call Me Drog (Carolrhoda Books 2011, Usborne UK 2012)