Indie Spotlight: blue manatee children’s books and decafé

   Last month we featured Green Bean Books, a small new neighborhood bookstore in Portland, Oregon.  This month we’re visiting the largest independent children’s bookstore in the country, blue manatee children’s bookstore and decafé in Cincinnati, Ohio.  Back in 2001, pediatrician Dr. John Hutton and his wife, Sandra Gross, refused to accept the death of their favorite children’s bookstore, The Blue Marble, bought it, and created blue manatee in its place.  Five years later, they added decafé, a child-friendly coffee shop. Now, more than ten years later, their store, unlike its mammal namesake, is anything but endangered!

MUF: What a challenge! John, what was the vision that kept you going in those first years?

John:   Memories of the importance of books and reading from my own childhood.  The value of reading with my own children.  And a commitment to the precious and irreplaceable ritual of parents and kids reading together from the youngest age possible, creating lifelong memories and a love of reading.  The process of going to an actual store creates opportunity for parents and kids to slow down and spend time together in these rushed times.  And mostly to preserve a little magic and whimsy in the world in the face of increasing homogenization and chain store overgrowth.

MUF: Although yours is a large store, I get the sense that it’s still important to you to stay tuned to the neighborhood.

John:  Absolutely.  We live or die for our local customers.  We tailor our inventory, albeit a large one of over 20,000 titles, just for them.  We also partner with community non-profits, parent, and school groups.

MUF:  I’m especially struck by two unique features of your store, one you preserved and one you created.  Tell us about “The Wall.”

John: Starting on 1989, illustrator Jim Borgman drew a picture of a child with a balloon on the wall during a store visit.  That expanded into a tradition of having visiting authors an illustrators autograph and/or draw pictures on the wall – now pretty much all of our walls, counters, and even shelves–during visits.  This include such luminaries as Katherine Paterson, Sandra Boynton, Gary Paulsen, and Robert Sabuda.  Customers love to discover their favorites.

Lois Lowry visits and adds to "the Wall"








: Since we encourage families to make a children’s bookstore their family day-trip destination, we ask bookstore owners to recommend family-friendly places to eat nearby.  In your case that’s easy–at blue manatee, you’ve created your own!  Tell us about decafé and how it relates to your store.

John: Blue manatee decafé is a truly child-friendly coffee shop, turning the traditional model on its head.  Its decor is designed with kids in mind, with small chairs, custom I Spy tables (we do have one for grownups with the molecular structure of caffeine) lots of color, and an adjacent party room with a dreamy manatee mural created by a local not-profit, ArtWorks, employing teens in the arts.  We focus on healthier fare, all local pastries, organic and Fair Trade. We feature custom blended smoothies named for some of our favorite books–the Blueberries for Sal, The Big Orange Splot, But Not th Hippopotamus–as well as a full suite of hot chocolate (our neighbor is a 100 year-old ice cream store and we use their bittersweet syrup) and coffee drinks also book-themed: Matilda’s Mocha, Chocolate Fever, Lorax Latte, and the The Little Engine That Could (espresso).  It’s a magical place for children and their oft-sleepy grownups.

MUF: What kind of atmosphere do you try to create in the store, and how?

John:  Magical, inspiring, and welcoming.  A sanctuary of color and imagination.  We want customers to know exactly where they are–at the one and only blue manatee in Cincinnati.  We want ours to be a place children fondly recall visiting and feeling welcome and loved.  Also a great place to sit and read–lots of fun nooks for that, including a handmade tree.

MUF:  Apparently you’ve succeeded, and not just with children.  Here’s what author Lois Lowry said about a recent visit: It was just about a year ago that I was at the Blue Manatee. Not my first visit; I’d been there before over the years. But I remember it being near the time of my birthday, last year, and I can’t think of any better place to celebrate getting OLD than in a bookstore designed for the YOUNG!  So much color and laughter, always.

MUF: Does running a bookstore mean you get to do the things you enjoy and believe in, at least part of the day?

John: Absolutely.  Our commitment is to creating sanctuary for families and children and promoting the critical mission of shared reading and creative play, both healthy and vital for optimal development.  This synchs very well with my work and focus as a pediatrician, where I advocate for reducing screen time and promoting parent-child bonding.  Books are among the best catalysts for this.  The characters and stories are cool, too.

"Whoa, Toto! I don't think we're in Barnes & Noble anymore!"

MUF: How do you decide what books to order for the store?

John: It’s based on experience with our customers as well as discriminating eyes among our staff to choose only books worth taking home, reading over and over, and keeping forever.  We are book snobs, and do not carry mass-marketed books or products that were cartoons first or promote mostly movies or TV.  We also listen to our customers and take lots of suggestions.

MUF: As Middle-Grade authors, we’re curious– what is your favorite fiction title– classic or recent–for this age?  Nonfiction?

John: Anything by Roald Dahl, though my favorite is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  He was an absolute genius, capturing the inherent playful subversiveness of children and the need to questions grownup rules.  For nonfiction I am partial to books inviting children to explore nature and make up games.

MUF:  Have some well-known Middle-Grade authors appeared at blue manatee?  What upcoming events or activities are you excited about?

John:  Yes: Katherine Paterson, Gary Paulsen, Meg Cabot, Brian Jacques, Lois Lowry.  We are thrilled to be hosting the Magic Tree House Live Reading Bus Tour partnering with our local soo on Wednesday April 4, at 11 AM.  Ivy and Bean’s April Fool, A Grownup Day, is Saturday April 7.  Public Radio’s “90 Second Naturalist”, Thane Maynard, is bringing an animal show to the store April 7, as well.  Our new house rock band, “the blue manatees,” is performing a concert Friday, April 13.  Author Kelly DiPucchio is coming for a signing of Crafty Chloe, Saturday April 28, along with a craft workshop.

MUF: For people who live at a distance and visit your store, can you suggest some other nearby family activities they might enjoy while they’re in Cincinnati, maybe one outdoors for good weather, and one inside in case of cold or rain?

John: The Cincinnati Zoo is one of the best zoos in the nation, with a fantastic manatee house, as well.  In the Summer, King’s Island theme park is amazing and fun.  The Newport Aquarium across the river in Kentucky is excellent.  The Cincinnati Nature Center has wonderful trails and a new Nature Playscape where kids can romp.  And our Contemporary Art Center has a special Un-Museum on the top floor for kids.  Just up the road from us is a fabulous glass studio, Brazee Street Studios and School of Glass, which has lots of kids’ programs making bowls, ornaments, and more. 

MUF:  Thanks, so much, John,  for taking time out to answer our questions. Readers, if you’ve seen blue manatee in person, or if reading about it here makes you want to head for Cincinnati, please leave a comment here.  And if you know another wonderful children’s bookstore that deserves the Indie Spotlight, tell us that, too.   Next month we’ ll be in Falmouth, Massachusetts, browsing among the books and puppets in The Eight Cousins Children’s Bookstore.


Heads-up to teachers, librarians and book club leaders:  The Mixed-Up Middle-Grade Skype Tour Bus is still on the road! To find out how you could win a Skype visit from a Middle-Grade author, go to:

Author Sue Cowing, with her weakness for whimsey,  wishes she could take a long trip across the country just to visit one children’s bookstore after another. Drog, her talking hand-puppet, adds: “My sentiments, exactly.”

Discovering your Quirky Character: An Interview and Giveaway with Award-winning Author Donna Gephart


Want to know about funny? Ask Donna Gephart, she knows all about it. She’s been writing stories about funny characters for over 20 years. Her first book, As if Being 12 ¾ Isn’t Bad Enough, My Mother is Running for President, even won the Sid Fleischman Award!

Her latest book, Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen released yesterday and is already getting rave reviews.

     From Indie Bound:  Olivia Bean knows trivia. She watches Jeopardy! every night and usually beats at least one of the contestants. If she were better at geography, she would try out for the show’s kids’ week. Not only could she win bundles of money, she’d get to go to the taping in California, where her dad, who left two years ago and who Olivia misses like crazy, lives with his new family. One day Olivia’s friend-turned-nemesis, Tucker, offers to help her bulk up her geography knowledge. Before Olivia knows it, she’s getting help from all sorts of unexpected sources: her almost-stepdad, superannoying Neil; her genius little brother, Charlie; even her stressed-out mom. Soon she has breezed through the audition rounds and is headed for Hollywood! But will the one person she wants to impress more than anyone else show up to support her?

Starred Review, Kirkus Reviews, January 15, 2012: “This tale will have readers cheering for the resilient, resourceful Olivia.”


I had the pleasure of first meeting Donna in 2009 at the SCBWI Miami conference. I attended her workshop on “How to Create Quirky Characters”. For 90 wonderful minutes, Donna kept us in stitches. We laughed. We cried. We learned. She taught us how to find the quirkiness inside ourselves and put it into our characters.  I still have those fantastic notes and have referred to them many times while writing my own fiction.

So let’s meet this incredible author and teacher. First of all Donna,

Why did you decide to make this story for middle grade readers?

I love writing middle grade fiction.  It such a crazy time of ups and downs, both physically and emotionally for kids that age, so it’s an ideal landscape for dramatic (and funny) fiction.


What was your favorite part about writing this book?

Reading books of trivia was entertaining.  Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen has more than 100 bits of fun (and sometimes gross) trivia woven through the story.

It was also fun to learn about the behind-the-scenes workings of the TV quiz show Jeopardy! and write those tense, competitive scenes.


Your books seem to show kids that are longing to be popular, but yet their nerdiness or intelligence keeps them out of the group. Did you feel that way as a kid? Do you have any advice for kids who feel this way?

Of course I felt that way!  Didn’t every children’s book author feel that way?

There’s a moment in this book where Olivia’s little “bother” Charlie says, “It’s fun to be smart, Livi.”  And she wants here brother to hang onto that feeling because Olivia’s learned it’s not so much fun to be the smartest one in your class when you’re in middle school.  It can make you the target of unwanted attention.  Olivia always feels like an outcast . . . until, through Jeopardy!, she meets other kids who are smart like her.

My advice to young people who find great pleasure in things of the mind:  While it may not be popular in middle school to be smart, it provides a lifetime of joy and entertainment.  You will meet fascinating people and never be bored.


Do you have any interesting stories to share about how this book came about or things you encountered while writing it?

I had sent an advanced reader’s copy of Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen to Ken Jennings — Jeopardy! champ and author of the best-selling Maphead:  Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks.  He’s such a funny, generous guy.  (If you like trivia, check out his Tuesday Trivia and read his blog; it’s highly entertaining.)  I was over-the-moon excited when Ken wrote a lovely blurb that appears on the back cover of Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen.


For those aspiring authors out there, can you give us an idea of your process? How long was it from the first glimmer of a story idea to your book launch day?

As usual, I had trouble coming up with my next book.  I kept trying new ideas that didn’t work out.  So, when I read about NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), I knew this was just the motivation I needed.

The title came to me during a writing/scribbling session at my local library two days before NaNoWriMo began.

The day before, I figured out that Olivia loved trivia . . . and someone who loved trivia might want to get on Kids’ Week on Jeopardy!

Then, by some miracle, I wrote Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen in 29 days.  I blogged daily about the experience here.

My agent, Tina Wexler at International Creative Management, reminds me to mention how long it took me to revise the book – months and months!  Even though I revised quite a bit during the month of writing, the book still needed much revision afterward.  Books are pesky like that!

I was thrilled to learn that the book sold about three months after I finished it.

Then, of course, it was two long years until the book launched.


Any piece of advice for writers wishing to create a quirky, funny character?

Look for the one thing that makes your character unusual and use that as your starting point to create a fully-developed character with complex relationships with friends, family, teachers, etc.  In each of my books, my characters had one thing that made him/her unique:


1. As If Being 12 ¾ Isn’t Bad Enough, My Mother is Running for President – Vanessa Rothrock is a klutzy, awkward spelling bee champ.  (She reads the dictionary for fun and loves playing Scrabble with her mother.)


2.  How to Survive Middle School  — David Greenberg fancies himself the next Jon Stewart as he creates funny YouTube videos, starring his hamster, Hammy and his hilarious 6-1/2 lists.




3.  Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen —  Olivia is a trivia whiz, like her father, who abandoned the family two years earlier.  She never misses an episode of Jeopardy!

“Find the quirk through observation, memory or imagination and you will have the foundation for a unique, memorable character.”


And there you have it. How to find your own quirkiness and use it to create a wonderful character. Thanks for stopping by, Donna. It’s been delightful!

To learn more about Donna and her books, be sure to visit her website.  And don’t forget to leave a comment to be entered to win an autographed copy of Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen!  The winner will be announced on Saturday, March 17th.


* * *

Jennifer Swanson is a self-professed science geek and knows all about carrying bits of trivia around in her head. At one time, she could recite the entire periodic table from memory. She would have been happy to help Olivia prep for her Jeopardy appearance.

Favorite Middle-Grade Novels

There are so many middle-grade novels, it’s hard to know what to read next.  If I love a book, I usually rush to pick up future novels from that author.  But how do you find great new authors in the first place?

I often seek out books that friends rave about, plus anything that catches my eye on the Mixed-Up Files book lists (you can browse categories like reluctant readers, books for boys, fantasy/paranormal, etc. and if you scroll toward the bottom you’ll see all our past new release posts).

Since we love helping our readers discover great new books, I’m going to list some of my favorite middle-grade novels that came out in the past couple of years by new authors (or authors who are new to this genre).  Below each reason why the book is a favorite is a blurb from Indiebound.

 * Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes by Jonathan Auxier.  Keep your eyes open for an upcoming interview with Jonathan!  When I first heard the title of this book, an editor was talking about it in a crowded room.  I had her repeat it at least three times, thinking I heard her wrong.  Nope!  When I came home and Googled it, I discovered that my ears were correct.  After reading this fantastic book, I can’t imagine a better title for it.  The characters in this wacky adventure jump off the page, and the voice grabbed me right away—it’s so unique.  Check out this free first chapter, and you’ll see what I mean!

Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes is the utterly beguiling tale of a ten-year-old blind orphan who has been schooled in a life of thievery. One fateful afternoon, he steals a box from a mysterious traveling haberdasher—a box that contains three pairs of magical eyes. When he tries the first pair, he is instantly transported to a hidden island where he is presented with a special quest: to travel to the dangerous Vanished Kingdom and rescue a people in need. Along with his loyal sidekick—a knight who has been turned into an unfortunate combination of horse and cat—and the magic eyes, he embarks on an unforgettable, swashbuckling adventure to discover his true destiny.


* My Very UnFairy Tale Life by Anna Staniszewski.  This is another one with a great voice that sucked me in the second I read the free first chapter online.  And if you love this unique action-packed novel as much as I do, we’ll all be adding My Way Too Fairy Tale Life to our must-read lists.  Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait until this sequel is released in Spring, 2013.

“You know all those stories that claim fairies cry sparkle tears and elves travel by rainbow? They’re lies. All lies.” Twelve-year-old Jenny has spent the last two years as an adventurer helping magical kingdoms around the universe. But it’s a thankless job, leaving her no time for school or friends. She’d almost rather take a math test than rescue yet another magical creature! When Jenny is sent on yet another mission, she has a tough choice to make: quit and have her normal life back, or fulfill her promise and go into a battle she doesn’t think she can win.


Water Balloon by Audrey Vernick.  This has a wonderful voice that made me want to leap into Marley’s story.  Plus, I love writing and reading books that have adorable animals, spunky children, and cute crushes—and this book has the perfect mix of humor and heart.

Marley’s life is as precarious as an overfull water balloon—one false move and everything will burst. Her best friends are pulling away from her, and her parents, newly separated, have decided she should spend the summer with her dad in his new house, with a job she didn’t ask for and certainly doesn’t want. On the upside is a cute boy who loves dogs as much as Marley does . . . but young love has lots of opportunity for humiliation and misinterpreted signals. Luckily Marley is a girl who trusts her instincts and knows the truth when she sees it, making her an immensely appealing character and her story funny, heartfelt, and emotionally true.


How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy by Crystal Allen. Like the others, the voice really jumped at me from the very first line.  This book had me cheering Lamar on through his heartbreaking yet humorous journey.

Thirteen-year-old Lamar Washington is the maddest, baddest, most spectacular bowler at Striker’s Bowling Paradise. But while Lamar’s a whiz at rolling strikes, he always strikes out with girls. And his brother, Xavier the Basketball Savior, is no help. Xavier earns trophy after trophy on the basketball court and soaks up Dad’s attention, leaving no room for Lamar’s problems.

Until bad boy Billy Jenks convinces Lamar that hustling at the alley will help him win his dream girl, plus earn him enough money to buy an expensive pro ball and impress celebrity bowler Bubba Sanders. But when Billy’s scheme goes awry, Lamar ends up ruining his brother’s shot at college and every relationship in his life. Can Lamar figure out how to mend his broken ties, no matter what the cost?


I asked my writing friends on Verla Kay’s Blueboards to share some of their favorite middle-grade novels.  They named so many books that I love, too—plus some that I can’t wait to add to my must-read list.


Marcia Hoehne first heard about these wonderful novels online.

The Aviary by Kathleen O’Dell has a historical, mystery, timeless feel.

Twelve-year-old Clara Dooley has spent her whole life in the Glendoveer mansion, where her mother is a servant to the kind and elderly matron of the house. Once old Mrs. Glendoveer passes away, Clara comes to learn many dark secrets about the family. The Glendoveers suffered a horrific tragedy: their children were kidnapped, then drowned. And their father George Glendoveer, a famous magician and illusionist, stood accused until his death. As Clara digs deeper and deeper into the terrifying events, the five birds in the aviary seem to be trying to tell her something. And Clara comes to wonder: what is their true identity? Clara sets out to solve a decades-old murder mystery—and in doing so, unlocks a secret in her own life, too.


May B by Caroline Starr Rose has historical, lovely language.

May is helping out on a neighbor’s Kansas prairie homestead—just until Christmas, says Pa. She wants to contribute, but it’s hard to be separated from her family by 15 long, unfamiliar miles. Then the unthinkable happens: May is abandoned. Trapped in a tiny snow-covered sod house, isolated from family and neighbors, May must prepare for the oncoming winter. While fighting to survive, May’s memories of her struggles with reading at school come back to haunt her. But she’s determined to find her way home again. Caroline Starr Rose’s fast-paced novel, written in beautiful and riveting verse, gives readers a strong new heroine to love.


Sparrow Road by Sheila O’Connor is about artists, mysterious, warmhearted, quirky characters that are likeable instead of merely weird.

It’s the summer before seventh grade, and twelve-year- old Raine O’Rourke’s mother suddenly takes a job hours from home at mysterious Sparrow Road- a creepy, dilapidated mansion that houses an eccentric group of artists. As Raine tries to make sense of her new surroundings, she forges friendships with a cast of quirky characters including the outrageous and funky Josie.  Together, Raine and Josie decide to solve the mysteries of Sparrow Road-from its haunting history as an orphanage to the secrets of its silent, brooding owner, Viktor. But it’s an unexpected secret from Raine’s own life that changes her forever.


Karen Schwartz loves The Boy Project by Kami Kinard because it’s both funny and tender.  It really captures that yearning for a boyfriend at the awkward age of seventh grade.

Wildly creative seventh grader Kara McAllister just had her best idea yet. She’s going to take notes on all of the boys in her grade (and a few elsewhere) in order to answer a seemingly simple question: How can she get a boyfriend?

But Kara’s project turns out to be a lot more complicated than she imagined. Soon there are secrets, lies, and an embarrassing incident in the boy’s bathroom. Plus, Kara has to deal with mean girls, her slightly spacey BFF, and some surprising uses for duct tape. Still, if Kara’s research leads her to the right boy, everything may just be worth it. . . .


Vonna Carter says that Circle of Secrets and the prequel/companion The Healing Spell by Kimberley Griffiths Little, both are beautiful, haunting and sweet with fantastic voice.  Here’s the blurb for The Healing Spell.

Twelve-year-old Livie is living with a secret and it’s crushing her. She knows she is responsible for her mother’s coma, but she can’t tell anyone. It’s up to her to find a way to wake her mamma up.

Stuck in the middle of three sisters, hiding a forbidden pet alligator, and afraid to disappoint her daddy, whom she loves more than anyone else, Livie struggles to find her place within her own family as she learns about the powers of faith and redemption. Livie’s powerful, emotional, and sometimes humorous story will stay with readers long after the last line is read.


Mike Jung and Natalie Lorenzi both raved about Nowhere Girl by A.J. Paquette.  Natalie loved the gorgeous language, exotic setting, and page-turning plot.

Luchi Ann only knows a few things about herself: she was born in a prison in Thailand. Her American mother was an inmate there. And now that her mother has died, Luchi must leave the only place she’s ever known and set out into the world. Neither at home as a Thai, because of her fair skin and blond hair, nor as a foreigner, because of her knowledge of Thai life and traditions, Luchi feels as though she belongs nowhere. But as she embarks on an amazing adventure-a journey spanning continents and customs, harrowing danger and exhilarating experiences-she will find the family, and the home, she’s always dreamed of. Weaving intricate elements of traditional Thailand into a modern-day fairy tale unique unto itself, Nowhere Girl is a beautifully rendered story of courage, resilience, and finding the one place where you truly belong.


Mike and Natalie also adore the books in the Underworld Chronicle series by Jennifer Nielsen–Elliot and The Goblin War, and Elliot and the Pixie Plot.  Natalie says it has a fabulous voice and a quick plot full of adventure.  It has lots of funny lines, and is sprinkled with illustrations that appeal to reluctant (and non-reluctant!) readers.  Here’s the blurb for Elliot and The Goblin War.

WARNING! As of today, there are only 7 CHILDREN who have ever read this book and lived to tell about it. 95 CHILDREN successfully read the first chapter, but upon beginning chapter 2, they started BLABBERING in some language known only as “flibberish.” 38 CHILDREN made it halfway through this wretched book before they began SUCKING THEIR THUMBS THROUGH THEIR NOSES.

If you’re VERY BRAVE, perhaps you are willing to TAKE YOUR CHANCES. Be sure that you have told your family who gets your favorite toys if you DO NOT SURVIVE this book. Read it now, IF YOU DARE. But don’t say you haven’t been warned, for this is the story that unfolds the MYSTERIES OF THE UNDERWORLD.


These are two novels that Mystery Robin raved about.

Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu—I loved it so, so much. Just gorgeous, evocative writing from start to finish. My 11 year old loved it, too.

Once upon a time, Hazel and Jack were best friends. But that was before he stopped talking to her and disappeared into a forest with a mysterious woman made of ice. Now it’s up to Hazel to go in after him. Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” Breadcrumbs is a story of the struggle to hold on, and the things we leave behind.


A Drowned Maiden’s Hair: A Melodrama by Laura Amy Schlitz–it’s such a fun, gothic story about a girl who gets adopted by some spinster sisters who use her to help them fool people in séances.

Maud Flynn is known at the orphanage for her impertinence. So when the charming Miss Hyacinth chooses her to take home, the girl is pleased but baffled, until it becomes clear that she’s needed to help stage elaborate séances for bereaved patrons. As Maud is drawn deeper into the deception, playing her role as a “secret child,” she is torn between her need to please and her growing conscience —- until a shocking betrayal shows just how heartless her so-called guardians are. Filled with fascinating details of turn-of-the-century spiritualism and page-turning suspense, this lively novel features a feisty heroine whom readers will not soon forget.


Rose Green shared so many wonderful favorites that have been hits in her house for the past couple years.  Click on the covers to read their Indiebound blurbs!



More favorites for Rose and her family include: Circus Galacticus! by Deva Fagan, Jasper Dash and the Flame-Pits of Delaware by M.T. Anderson, The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall, The Doom Machine by Mark Teague, Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians series by Brandon Sanderson, The Tanglewood Terror by Kurtis Scaletta, Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy, The Only Ones by Aaron Starmer

Here are some other great novels that are receiving raves:


Huge thanks to my Blueboard friends for sharing their favorites with us.  I’d love to know what your favorite middle-grade novels are, and why you love them so much.

Mindy Alyse Weiss writes humorous middle-grade novels and is constantly inspired by her eleven and fourteen year-old daughters, adventurous sock and underwear munching puppy, and two stinky but adorable ferrets. Visit her blog or Twitter to read more about her writing life, conference experiences, and writing tips.