Author Archives: Sue Cowing

Indie Spotlight: TreeHouse Books, Ashland OR

Sue Cowing for Mixed-Up Files: It’s always a pleasure to feature a true children’s book shop! We are talking today with Jane Almquist and Cynthia Salbato, shopkeepers and creators of the Secret Book Club at TreeHouse Books(www.TreeHouseAshland.com).

 MUF: Treehouse Books has made the Best Bookstores in Oregon list, and Ann Patchett recently named it in her list of 26 bookstore favorites nationally. Brag a little. What do you think has made your shop so successful?
Jane & Cynthia: We have a 39 year old history and deep connection to our community. TreeHouse was founded by teachers and then nurtured through a lineage of owners passionate about children’s literature. The secret to our success? We excel at filling up a very tiny bookstore with a wide selection of carefully curated books, we have strong relationships with the area schools and Oregon Shakespeare patrons, and we have our own line of story themed Art Kits and community events.

Jane & Cynthia, aka Owl and Raven

MUF: Visitors to Treehouse Books describe it as unique, magical, and full of color.What atmosphere have you tried to create and what do you want customers to experience?
Jane & Cynthia:
We are a bridge between the world of the imagination and ordinary reality.  Both Jane and Cynthia grew up in the backyard of Disneyland, and Disney’s ‘lands’ were hugely impactful. Instead of Fantasyland, we have the Wizard Apothecary. Instead of Tomorrowland, we have the Secret World Vault. It helps that so many authors have created such vivid worlds for us to borrow from. Our Wizard Supplies section owes much to JK Rowling, as does our Book Vault for Young Adult readers. The mythic and faery realms are also well represented. Each genre or reading level is the entrance into a different ‘land’.
We love to encourage our guests to be their most magical selves while they are in Ashland, and to take some of that enchantment with them into their everyday lives. We ourselves love to be in our personas of LadyJane Owl and Cynthia Ravenwich when we are at the shop!
MUF: A number of independent bookstores have book clubs for kids, but your Secret Book Club for middle readers has developed into something wonderful called the Wizard Academy that includes monthly story games and involves the community. Tell us about that. What games are planned for this spring? What are your plans to expand the program?
Jane & Cynthia:
Merging story genres with community games, we have created a story-based calendar of events featuring 12 themed story games, a game for each month of the year.   The year starts with Time Travel, our science fiction game that also doubles as a goal setting game. In February we read animal stories and play Care of Creatures, a community kindness game.  March is our Wizard Academy. April is mystery, May is fairy tales and so forth. We are working with Matthew Beers, a software developer to take these games online and to other communities.

MUF: Please tell us about your story-themed art kits.
Jane & Cynthia:
 TreeHouse celebrates reading, writing and creating. The Art Kits are the hands-on creating part of our mission. Reading is a wonderful pastime, expanding our hearts and minds. The kits take that expanded heart and mind and put it into action and activate a kid’s own creativity. As kids we loved to “create somethings out of nothings” as LadyJane likes to say.  We put together fun supplies and offer some possibilities with a story theme, and then leave it up to each creator to come up with their own personal creations.

MUF: You describe your collection as “curated.” How do you choose the books to carry in your shop?
Jane & Cynthia
:We read A LOT. We also research a lot (not as fun as reading but essential.) Our customers and community are also big readers and are always recommending titles. It takes a village to build a good bookstore! A lot of great books get missed… possibly a boring cover, or not enough publicity. There’s nothing more satisfying than discovering an undiscovered book and sharing it with readers!  We also have great book publisher reps that help us discover new gems.

MUF: As middle-grade authors, we’d love to know what titles, new or old, fiction or nonfiction, do you find yourself recommending these days to ages eight through twelve ?
Jane & Cynthia:It does depend on what the reader likes… it’s very fun to match up a reader with their next favorite book! But here are the books that we have found to have universal appeal this past year:  Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman, My Diary from the Edge of the World by Jody Lynn Anderson. When the Sea Turns to Silver, by Grace Lin, The Wild Robot by Peter Brown, and Winterfrost by Michelle Houts. Then there are those authors that we know will excite readers: Brandon Mull, Maile Meloy, Colin Meloy, Kelly Barnhill (yay! She won the Newbery award!), Kate DiCamillo, and of course JK Rowling.
One of the fun things with our book club is that we get to recommend books in different genres each month. In January it was science fiction to complement our Time Travel storygame. This month we switch to animal stories to complement our Care of Creatures Kindness storygame. And in March, when we go to Wizard School, we’ll be reading Fantasy.

MUF: If a family visits Treehouse from out of town, are there family friendly places nearby where they could get a snack or meal after shopping? And if they can stay longer, are there some sights and activities they shouldn’t miss?
Jane & Sylvia
:  Ashland is tiny but the Oregon Shakespeare Festival assures we have lots of visitors so good restaurants are easy to find. Standing Stone and Granite Tap House are two pubs that cater to families. Granite Tap House has just installed a game room and we may be collaborating with them in the future for story themed parties. Martolli’s is a family owned business that sells the best handmade pizza. There is always a big group of students in there and they offer ‘by the slice’ or full pies.
Just half a block from our store is the entrance to Lithia Park, one of our favorite places in Ashland.   The park features a couple of miles of trails along Ashland Creek which runs through the middle of the park.  There is also a playground, the Japanese Garden, some tennis courts, a bandshell, duck ponds, and ice skating in the winter months. For longer stays, OSF is actually very family friendly and student focused. At least one play every season is a rollicking comedy, and one is a big broadway style musical production. Last year we saw a family friendly production of The Wiz, and we’re looking forward to Beauty and the Beast this year. TreeHouse is right across the street from the theaters! Science Works Hands On Museum is a great family place. Don’t miss the Bubble Room!And Southern Oregon is famous for its outdoor activities. World class rafting  in summer and skiing and ice skating in winter are just a few of the outdoor activities for families. Emigrant Lake has a water slide and our neighboring town of Medford has a family fun center with mini golf, go carts, bumper boats and arcade.  The world famous Crater Lake is a great day trip which should include a stop at the Rogue River Gorge in Union Creek.

MUF:  Sounds like a great town for kids growing up, especially with such a dynamic bookstore at its heart!  Thanks for sharing some of the details.  Readers, have you visited this shop?

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

Indie Spotlight: Parnassus Books, Nashville TN

Ann Patchett, successful award-winning author and passionate promoter of independent bookstores all over the country,

Karen Hayes & Ann Patchett

has joined the growing number of authors who feel strongly about the value of independent bookstores so they open their own, in her case Parnassus Books in Nashville Tennessee (www.parnassusbooks.net), co-founded with publishing veteran Karen Hayes. We’re talking today with Mary Laura Philpott who writes the store’s lively blog “Musings” and has two middle-grade junior booksellers of her own.

Mixed-Up Files: What do you want people to experience at Parnassus? Describe an ideal day in the shop.
Mary Laura
: If you look around the store, you can see the experience that Ann Patchett and Karen Hayes, our owners, have in mind. It’s open and light and clean, but with plenty of interesting nooks and corners, and lots of comfy seating. There’s usually a shop dog or two lounging around, hoping for a reader to snuggle with. And depending on the day, we might set up chairs in front of our stage for a visiting author to come read and sign books. It’s meant to be more than just a store — a real hub for lovers of the written word of all ages.

MUF:With your owners’ experience in the publishing business, your store collection must be well curated. Do you and your community have some special areas of interest?
Mary Laura:
You’re right — curation is key, especially for a small store where there’s no room for filler. Our owners and buyers have gotten to know what local audience is interested in. Of course, new fiction and nonfiction are always popular. Nashville’s full of voracious readers, so customers tend to be aware of the latest literary buzz and come in looking for new titles they’ve read about. Not surprisingly, we have a well-stocked music section. And with the expansion of our shop in 2016, we were able to add not only more elbow room for browsing in all our sections, but also more space for children’s and YA titles.

MUFHow do you help kids select books? We’d like to know what titles, old or new, fiction or nonfiction, you find yourself recommending most often these days to readers aged 8-12.
Mary Laura:
Great question! Our manager of books for young readers is Stephanie Appell, who has a masters degree in library science with a focus on youth services and is a former teen librarian. She also just might be the most enthusiastic champion of children’s literature and YA literature I’ve ever met. She regularly meets with publishers to discuss what they’ve got coming up, but she also does a lot of her own research, via trade publications and blogs, to stay on top of the best and brightest new titles. All of our children’s booksellers are great at reading ahead so they can recommend the best new reads the minute the books come out.
You can follow along with our staff picks on Musing, our online magazine. Every month, there are some picks especially for young readers, chosen by our children’s booksellers as well as our junior booksellers — a few kids ranging from elementary to high school who help us out on weekends and holidays. (Two of them are my own kids, and they love choosing their staff picks!) https://parnassusmusing.net/category/staff-picks/

[Looking over these staff picks, we found lots of new or somehow overlooked titles to add to our teetering pile of books-to-read.  Fiction:  Breaking Stalin’s Nose by Eugene Yelchin, The Land of Forgotten Girls by Erin Entrada Kelly, Beautiful Blue World by Suzanne LeFleur,  The Girl Who Could Fly and The Boy Who Knew Everything by Victoria Foster, and Awkward  by Svetlana Chmkova.   Nonfiction: The Courage to Soar by Simone Biles, Maps by Aleksandra Mizielinska,  and March by John Lewis.]

MUF: Any events or activities coming up that would be of special interest to middle-graders?
Mary Laura: Yes! We are so excited about the launch of Andrew Maraniss’s Strong Inside: The True Story of How Perry Wallace Broke College Basketball’s Color Line. This is a middle grade adaptation of Andrew’s New York Times bestselling book of the same title, and it’s an incredible true story of courage and perseverance. Andrew is going to discuss the book with fellow New York Times bestselling author Ruta Sepetys at Parnassus on February 9th. You can check our online calendar for more upcoming events at http://www.parnassusbooks.net/event.

MUF: Many independent bookstores have store pets, but Parnassus has several wonderfully named dogs (Sparkman Vandevender or Sparky, Opie Breman, Belle Rock, Bear Gardner, Mary Todd Lincoln Coffman, and Eleanor Roosevelt Philpott), who not only greet customers but actually perform same-day delivery service?
Mary Laura
: Ha! Yes, that was their April Fool’s Day joke on us all last year. (https://parnassusmusing.net/2016/04/01/announcing-our-new-service-parnassus-on-paws/) Wouldn’t it be hilarious if the dogs could drive and they just showed up at people’s doorsteps? They actually serve a variety of functions in the store, from offering wet-nosed greetings to acting as furry footstools to snuggling anyone who looks like they need a little love. They also have their own blog, “Shop Dog Diaries,” where they share their bookstore adventures. (https://parnassusmusing.net/category/shop-dog-diaries/)

MUF:For those of us who can’t visit and enjoy Parnassus soon, tell us what we can experience online.
Mary Laura:
If you can’t be here in person, make sure you’re subscribed to Musing — it’s almost as good as visiting the store. You’ll get lots of exclusive, free bookish content delivered right to your inbox: author interviews, reading lists, staff reviews of new books, Ann’s blog, the shop dogs’ blog, and more. (www.ParnassusMusing.com) You can also shop directly from our store website, www.ParnassusBooks.net, and we’ll ship your books to you. One other thing far-away readers need to know about is our subscription programs. (http://www.parnassusbooks.net/first-edition-clubs) There are two, actually: the First Editions Club (a signed, hardcover, new adult book every month) and ParnassusNext (a new, signed YA book every month). And if you’re on FacebookTwitter, or Instagram, you can interact with us every day!

MUF: If a family visits your shop from out of town, would there be family-friendly places in the neighborhood where they could get a snack or meal? And if they can stay a little longer, are there some unique sites or activities nearby they shouldn’t miss?
Mary Laura
: Oh, Nashville is such a family-friendly town. Depending on the weather, there are lots of places right in the middle of the city to hike and enjoy the outdoors (check out Radnor Lake and Warner Parks). The Parthenon is pretty cool, as are the Nashville Zoo and Cheekwood Botanical Gardens. If you’re into science, the Adventure Science Center is worth checking out. There are some family-friendly activities at Opryland as well. As for food, well, we could go on forever . . . Andy Brennan, our store manager, strongly believes Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint is the best in town. There are several spots right here in our shopping center, too, including Fox’s Donut Den right around the corner. Donuts and books, does it get better than that?

MUF:  Amen!  Thanks for telling us about Parnassus Books.  Readers, have you visited this delightful shop?  If not, wouldn’t you love to go there?

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

Finding Home: Immigrants and Refugees in 7 Middle-grade Novels

No one gets into a story and identifies with its characters like middle graders, and since they are the growing tip of the human spirit, I thought I would talk about some books that encourage the kind of understanding of immigrant and refugee experience that seems sorely needed right now.
I’ll begin with Katherine Applegate’s lyrical free-verse novel, Home of the Brave. (Square Fish, 2008) Young Kele has escaped from civil war in the Sudan in which his father and brother were killed. His mother is missing and presumed dead (by everyone but Kele). Kele comes from a traditional cattle-raising village where cattle are valued as the basis of life and wealth. Suddenly he is relocated to another world in Minnesota, to live with an immigrant aunt and her family. He has had little education, and his English is limited to bits he has learned in refugee camps. Nevertheless Applegate has chosen to tell his story in first person, and she deftly unfolds it in spare free verse lines as he begins find language for what is happening to him. He arrives in Minnesota in the middle of winter and experiences cold and snow for the first time:
The man gives me a fat shirt
and soft things like hands.
“Coat,” he says. “Gloves.”. . .
His laughter makes little clouds.

Kele’s aunt works hard for low pay. His cousin has become bitter about their new status in America and mocks Kele for believing he will see his mother again. Kele finds his own way of reconciling his two worlds when he discovers a neglected old cow in a field and begins to care for her, drawing his friend Hannah from school and even his cynical cousin into the project.

Turtle of Oman by Naomi Shihab-Nye (Greenwillow Reprint 2016) Main character Aref Al-Amri is preparing to move to Michigan, where his parents will study for advanced degrees. He is not a refugee, because they are leaving voluntarily and are well off. Technically this is even not an immigrant story, because his move will only be for a few years, and because by the end of the book he still hasn’t left Oman! It’s about Aref saying a poignant goodbye to the places and people and ways he loves—his good friendships, his cat, rain sticks, fresh apricots and crispy fish and lemonade in clay cups, and most of all the outdoor adventures and rituals and games he enjoys with his beloved grandfather Sidi. Sidi assures Aref that he will return to Oman, like the turtles. I include this story because it fills in a missing piece in the way Americans often perceive immigrants, not considering that they come with a whole culture and life inside them about which most of the people in their new country have little knowledge or curiosity, that they have a language in which they are perfectly fluent, and that they still feel attachment to the place where they have always felt perfectly at home.

Julia Alvarez’s Return to Sender (Yearling, 2010) is a novel in two voices.  One is Tyler, a Vermont boy who shares his family’s deep love for the land they have farmed for generations. Now that his beloved grandfather has died, his brother is leaving, and his father has been partially disabled in a truck accident, there are not enough hands to do the work, and his parents are talking about selling. Tyler feels helpless. Then miraculously his parents hire a family of Mexican laborers who come to live on the farm with their three young daughters. They are good workers and the farm is saved, but Tyler’s parents are being awfully secretive about them, and he wonders why.
The other voice is of Mari, the oldest girl in the laborers’ family. Her two younger sisters were born in this country and so are citizens, but Mari and her parents crossed the border illegally, and they must all be careful not to draw attention to themselves. Worst of all, her mother went back to Mexico when her grandmother was ill, then tried to come back but has not been heard from for months. Mari writes diary entries and long letters to her mother which she can’t risk sending even to the last known address. Mari and Tyler become friends when he shares his telescope with her, and their families grow closer too. But Mari worries constantly about her mother’s safety and the possibility of a raid, and Tyler is increasingly torn and confused by the growing realization that his parents have broken the law by hiring illegals, even though they could not have managed the farm without them.   When the worst happens, though, and family members are treated harshly by the authorities, even some of the town’s hardliners on illegal immigration band together to protect and defend this family they have come to know. Mari’s selfless act, supported by Tyler, who must make a courageous decision of his own, brings the story to a realistic but hopeful end.

Save Me A Seat by Sarah Weeks (Scholastic, 2016) “Save me A Seat!” The the most friendly, affirming words a middle-schooler can hear. As long as you have someone to sit with at assembly or in the cafeteria, you belong, you’re okay. Ravi, one of the two voices in this novel , has just arrived from India. He is fluent in English and was a star student back home, so he and his parents expect that he will excel in his new school and probably find the work too easy. He soon discovers that his favorite subject, math, is taught differently in America, and he is humiliated when his teacher sends him out for special second-language help because no one can understand his Indian accent! They can’t pronounce his long last name or even get his first name right (it’s RaVEE, not RAH vee). Ravi is also slow to realize that Dillon Samreen, a super-cool Indian-American boy in the class, not only is not going to be saving him a seat in the cafeteria, but is determined to mock and steal from and play tricks on him.
The other voice is Joe, who is also being taken out of class for extra help, but for  learning problems. Ravi is furious to be treated like a baby and associated with Joe, and he treats Joe rudely. In the course of the story, however, the two boys realize the Dillon is their common enemy, and they work together to beat the bully at his own game. (They ultimately contrive to get Dillon to put leeches in his own underwear –you’ll have to read the book to see how that comes about about!). Gradually Ravi admits to himself that in his old school in India he was insufferably superior and mean to those he thought weren’t as smart, and that he has been unfair in prejudging Joe who is not only not dumb but a good and loyal friend.

It Ain’t So Awful Felafel by Firoozeh Dumas (Clarion, 2016) will give readers some good background on the Iranian hostage crisis and the involvement of the U.S. government with the Shah. It’s the 1970s, and Zomorod Yousefzadeh (or “Cindy” as she has renamed herself to fit in at school) has been moving back and forth between Iran and California because of her father’s work in the oil industry. The latest move is to Newport Beach, and it’s not going well. At first she meets a neighbor girl, also named Cindy, and tries hard to like and be like her so they can be friends. But they have little in common, and Cindy#2 eventually snubs her and gossips about her. Zomorod/Cindy’s mother isn’t adjusting well either, so she has the added burden of being mom’s translator and social director.

So far these are not untypical young immigrant’s challenges. But then the Shah is overthrown in Iran and the conservative Muslim government of the Ayatollah Khoumeni takes over the country. The family is stunned and confused by Iran’s new policies, especially the persecution of former Shah supporters and the restrictions on women’s dress and activities. It gets worse. Iran takes Americans hostage and the crisis goes on for months (“This is not Islam!” her father cries). Suddenly the family are targets of anti-Iranian sentiment. They receive threats at home and taunts at school. Her father loses his job and can’t find another. Fortunately for Cindy, she has one good friend, Carolyn, who is extraordinarily open minded, accepting of and curious about their cultural differences, and stands by her when she faces ugliness in town and at school. Readers will pull for the lively and determined main character and enjoy her wry observations on the contrast between Iranian and American culture.

Gaby, Lost and Found by Angela Cervantes (Scholastic, 2015) Gaby misses her mother, an undocumented immigrant who was caught in a raid at her job and deported to Honduras. Gaby hoped to move in with her friend Alma’s family while her mother struggles to return, but her estranged father insists on moving in instead. He is a clueless and indifferent  parent and mostly neglects her, leaving her to feed and fend for herself with Alma’s house as respite. Like her mom, Gaby has a feeling for animals, especially strays, and when her class volunteers at the local animal shelter, she becomes attached to a scrawny, abandoned cat named Feather she would like to adopt. But her father hates cats and she has no place to keep Feather. Gaby’s job at the shelter is to write enticing flyers about individual animals to encourage people to adopt them. But she hopes the shelter can hold onto Feather until her mother somehow comes back and they can all have a real home together, as it should be. Meanwhile the owners who abandoned Feather are now threatening to reclaim her. Gaby takes desperate action.

My last selection, Warren St. John’s Outcasts United: The Story of a Refugee Soccer Team That Changed a Town (Delacourte Press, 2012) is a true story, not a novel, though it reads like one. The original was an adult title, but the author has adapted it for young people. The heroine is the unlikely coach of a most unlikely suburban Georgia soccer club. Luma al-Mufleh grew up in a close, wealthy family in Amman, Jordan and went to the American School there, along with the children of King Hussein and Queen Noor. She loved competitive sports and her very demanding school soccer coach, but she was not allowed to play sports outside of school because she was a girl. Her parents sent her to college in the U.S., and when she graduated she decided to stay rather than go back to lead the restricted life of a woman in Jordan. Her father promptly disowned her and cut off her communication with her family. Luma struggled to support herself and eventually moved to Atlanta where she thought she would at least have better weather and lower expenses.
Out for a drive one day, she passed through the nearby town of Clarkston and was astonished to see people out on the streets in African and middle eastern dress and to find shops and stalls carrying the kinds of foods she was used to eating back in Jordan. On one of her many return trips, she saw some boys playing soccer in an apartment house parking lot and was struck by the passion with which they played. As she soon discovered, these were refugee kids from many different countries and conflicts—Ehthiopia, Syria, Sudan, Nigeria, Vietnam, the Philippines– and in some cases their only common language was soccer. She was determined to make something of this.
It took a while for her to convince African and Muslim boys that she knew a thing or two about the game and to get them to accept her leadership and her tough-love discipline (boys being coached by a girl?), but once the word got around, she was able to form a club called the Fugees with three teams for different age groups. It was even harder to get the town to help. Before it found itself becoming “the most diverse square mile in America,” Clarkston was a sleepy small railroad and farming town that had seen better days but was known for its hospitality. Now many residents had moved away seeking better opportunities, and many of those who remained were keeping to themselves, trying to ignore what was happening across the tracks where the refugees lived. Town officials were not interested in helping Luma with her efforts, either with funds or facilities, and while the Fugees played in rocky dirt parks, some ideal playing fields, originally designed for baseball or football, remained off-limits to the more “foreign” sport of soccer.
Yet Luma and her boys persisted. In her enormous task of forging a real team, she had to discourage “stars” and break down national sub-cliques by making English the only language spoken on the field. She arranged for and required afternoon tutoring for the boys so they could overcome their second-language problems and stay in school.
Outcasts United centers on one championship year, during which the Fugees played against mostly well-equipped private school soccer clubs from around the state. Despite many obstacles, including Luma getting arrested in front of the team and being sent to jail for a burnt-out signal light on her car, they prevailed.

I wish that anyone who has automatic thoughts on  what should or shouldn’t be done about immigrants and refugees could read this book. The portraits of these young Fugees and the detailed background of the crises their families have fled will help readers understand their challenges and their reactions upon coming to America. They would sympathize not only with Luma and the refugees, but with the townspeople they now live among, who are also dealing with the loss of a way of life they always thought they could count on, also trying to define home.


What makes the difference in so many immigrant stories is having a friend, that one person or small group who cares enough to get to know and accept the newcomer and help him or her face the indifference or intolerance of others. Maybe the readers of these and other books like them will see themselves as such a friend.

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