Indie Spotlight: Square Books Jr., Oxford MS

Independent Book Store Day is coming up this Saturday, May 2, so it’s delightful to be talking with Paul Fyke of Square Books Jr. in Oxford , Mississippi ( and to be reminded of what we love about independent bookstores!
Mixed-Up Files: Paul, how did Square Books Jr. come to be? How does it relate to Square Books “senior”?  

Square books jr.  exteriorPaul: Square Books Jr. was born out of a mixture of desire and necessity. For a long time Square Books had wanted to expand its children’s area. When it became apparent that it would be impossible to do that in the existing space, a plan was set into motion. Once the right location became available it was quietly leased. Then, the windows were covered in paper leaving the locals to wonder what new business to expect. Once the stock was ordered and the space renovated, it was time for the final step. At the release of “Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix,” it was announced Square Books would host a release party at 6am in celebration. What followed was a scavenger hunt around the town square that eventually led people to the mysterious new space with the paper over the windows. It was then that Square Books, Jr. was unveiled. Now, twelve years later, it seems like the secret is out.

MUF: Please describe the atmosphere you have created in your shop.
Paul: At a staff function, our owner once described Square Books, Jr. as “an independent among independents.” This statement has always stuck with me because I think it very much encapsulates what makes Square Books, Jr. different. We try to cultivate an atmosphere that is welcoming, not just in a tidy, commercial way, but in a human way. When children come into our store we want them to feel like this is their store. There are toys scattered between a play table and a play kitchen in the back, with a couch in between for parents to enjoy a well-earned moment of rest. Rarely is there a time where there’s not at least one child imagining some grand fantasy in the play castle in the back or at the very least dancing to the eclectic musical lineup we play over the stores sound system. Square Books Jr.  Interior #3

MUF: How do you choose the books and other items you carry in Square Books Jr.? What is your collection especially strong in?
Paul: Our greatest strengths are probably our Middle Grade collection and our picture book selection. We are fortunate in that we have a very dedicated staff, each with their own specialties. Leita, who has worked here for going on twelve years now, is the curator of our picture books collection. Jill, our buyer and other twelve year veteran, makes sure that Middle Grade is always filled with exciting new series for children to explore. I’ve been here seven years now, and I spend most of my time in the YA section looking for hidden gems and trying to make sure we don’t end up with a shelf of exclusively NY Times bestsellers. Lyn, our general manager and non-book item buyer, makes sure we never lack for exciting educational toys (many of which are provided by Melissa and Doug). All of this comes together to make a store filled with merchandise that we can all be confident in.

MUF: How do you go about helping readers find “their” books and vice-versa?
Paul: The most important part of helping a child find his or her perfect book is taking the time to talk to the child and discover their interests. It’s more than just “Did you like the Hunger Games/Maze Runner/Percy Jackson?” You have to engage the child. If they like sports do they like to play sports or do they just like to watch sports with their family? Do they like to play Minecraft? Do they like Survival or Creative mode if they do play? What kind of TV shows are they watching?

Children's Book Week bookmark by Raúl Cólón

Children’s Book Week bookmark by Raúl Cólón

Finding out what the child does when they are not reading is one of the best ways to help them find a book that is not only engaging, but also something that can help them fall in love with reading.

MUF: How is Square Books Jr. planning to celebrate National Children’s Book Week, May 4-10?
Children’s Book Week has always been an exciting time for us. This year we are kicking things off a little bit early with a signing by local authors Kat and Margaret King for their new book The Backyard Campout on Independent Bookstore Day, May 2. Square Books Backyard Campout As the week continues we will have story times aplenty and a special meeting of the SBJ Book Society, our 8-12 year old readers book club. We are going to close the week out with a “Dress as your favorite book character” special story time on Saturday, May 9th.

MUF: Since we’re middle-grade authors, we’re eager to know some titles new and old, fiction and nonfiction, that you find yourself recommending to eight- to twelve-year-olds these days?
I love to recommend The Name of this Book is Secret by Pseudonymous Bosch. I don’t know that I’ve ever met a child that doesn’t love it in some way; whether it’s for the characters, the humor, or the mystery there’s something in there for everyone. Some of my other favorite recommendations include TheSquare Books, Name of this Book is Secret Lost Years of Merlin by TA Barron, Matilda by Roald Dahl, Inkheart by Cornelia Funke, and  lately The League of Seven by Alan Gratz. My favsquare books league of sevenSquare Books-Lost Years of Merlinorite nonfiction recommendations are Bomb by Steve Sheinken and How They Croaked by Georgia Bragg.Square Books  How they croakedSquare Books Matilda

Square Books Where's Waldo?

He’s everywhere!

MUF: Do you have some special events planned that are geared to middle-graders?
Our biggest upcoming event will be the Where’s Waldo event in July. Waldo (or at least a small cardboard cut-out of Waldo) will be hidden in 26 stores around the town square. Kids who find Waldo in at least 20 stores are entered into a drawing for free books and other gifts from around the square. Children of all ages participate in this event, but it is especially fun for middle-graders who are spending their aimless afternoons on the town square. While we don’t have any signings firmly planned at the moment, we will most certainly have a few in the coming months. Information on these can always be found on our Facebook page or on our website,

MUF: If a family makes a day trip to Square Books Jr. from out of town, would there be family-friendly places nearby where they could get a snack or meal after browsing?
Paul: With restaurants lining every side of the courthouse square where our store is located, it’s almost difficult to get off the square without having a meal. There’s Ajax, which is where everyone will tell you to go if you ask for recommendations (yes it’s that good). There’s also Proud Larry’s, which is a personal favorite of mine. Ajax serves amazing seemingly-homemade southern food, while Proud Larry’s serves a greater variety with everything from pizza and pasta to burgers and sandwiches. If you’ve got a bit of a sweet tooth Holli’s Sweet Tooth is the perfect destination. They have a wide assortment of ice cream flavors, incredible milkshakes, and every type of candy you can possibly imagine.square books logo

MUF: And if they can stay a little longer, can you recommend some unique places or activities in Oxford they shouldn’t miss?
One activity I encourage everyone to squeeze into their travel schedules is a trip to Rowan Oak, the historic home of William Faulkner. Tours are available Tuesday through Saturday, but the grounds can be visited during any day time hours as long as nothing is disturbed. In addition to that, we have a University Museum with constantly changing exhibits that I personally spent a good deal of time in as a child. Past that, my biggest advice is to ask people on the square if there are any events happening soon. There’s almost always something interesting going on if you’re not afraid ask around.

MUF: Readers, don’t you love to hear a bookseller say that his collection is strongest in middle-grade? This Saturday, Independent Book Store Day,  be sure to visit Square Books Jr. to meet the authors of The Backyard Campout. Or visit your nearest independent book shop and buy a book or two.  Thanks to real-book people like us, indies are not only not going away, they’re thriving!

Sue Cowing is the author of the puppet-and-boy novel  You Will Call Me Drog (Carolrhoda 2011, Usborne UK 2012, HarperCollins UK 2014)

A Chat (& a Giveaway!) with Tracey Baptiste about her new book, The Jumbies

Tracey Baptiste has written numerous nonfiction books for children and the YA novel Angel’s Grace. The Jumbies, a creepy tale that captures the spirit and folklore of Baptiste’s native Trinidad, is her first middle-grade novel. Tracy took time out to chat with us about telling the stories from her childhood, writing for the middle-grade audience, and books from her childhood that inspired her.

JA: Tracey, you’ve written for both middle-grade and the young- adult audiences. Can you tell us a little bit about how the process differs between middle-grade and YA? Do you prefer writing for one audience over the other?

TB: My first novel, Angel’s Grace, was billed as YA, but the protagonist, Grace, was only thirteen, just two years older than Corinne in The Jumbies. I actually think my wheelhouse is in younger teens and tweens, and the process of writing for both is the same for me: hard. But I do think about the difference in age for one reading audience over another. For instance, there is a scene in The Jumbies where Severine eats a creature in the forest. My editor and I had some back and forth over making sure this wasn’t too scary, but I thought there were scarier bits, like the centipedes that run all over Severine’s body. Crawly bugs seem much more frightening to me than a wriggly snack. But maybe it’s just me. I’m working on something now that seems like it should be for an older audience because of the themes, but I like the protagonist as a twelve year old. I’ll have to see how this one shakes out and what my editor and agent have to say when it’s in good enough shape to show them.

A photo of Tracey Baptiste

Photo credit: Latifah Abdur Photography

JA: You’ve written a lot of non-fiction. How does that research process differ from the research process for fiction?

TB: Nonfiction is definitely a different approach. First of all, it’s a relief to have all or most of the facts before I start. With fiction there’s a lot of groping around in the dark trying to figure it out. It’s exciting to get my hands on facts and then turn them into a narrative, and researching can be exhilarating when you find a piece of information that makes the rest of the pieces you found click together. The trick with nonfiction, though, is choosing how to shape the narrative while still presenting a balanced and unbiased viewpoint. When I research for fiction, usually the entire story is written, and there are these holes with weird notes to myself like: find out if tuba players have any slang they use among themselves.

JA: I read another interview in which you said you’d worked on The Jumbies for more than ten years. Can you talk about how you persevered through rewriting (to make it “more epic”), receiving rejections by the first few editors who saw it, and making an agency change? You never gave up, and I know I’m not the only one who is so glad you didn’t!

TB: Well thanks!

I’ve come to realize that part of my process is working on something for a while and then putting it away for a longer while, and then coming back to it. I am not a fast writer and I tend to work on multiple projects at a time. But getting The Jumbies into the hands of the right editor really was a long slog. I wish I could say I handled all the uncertainty with bravery and grace, but alas, I was pretty miserable for long periods and it definitely extended the length of time that I wasn’t writing. I think at one point I quit writing for over a year. But this story kept pulling me back in. I also have to credit my husband and my mom for their unwavering support. After a rejection, I would turn them for encouragement, and then I’d look at the story again and think about what didn’t work, and what could be bigger and better. As far the direction I was given to make it more epic, I just kept thinking about how far I could push things. How hard could I make this on Corinne? How far could she go to save everyone?

When I made the decision to leave my previous agency, it was just about the working relationship. I learned a lot of things about my needs as a writer between my first novel and my second. And what I needed was an agent who was also a writer, and understood what I was dealing with. I found that in Marie Lamba, and it’s a great working relationship with the added bonus that we like each other outside of work as well.

A photo of Tracey Baptiste's book, The Jumbies

JA: What advice do you have for teachers and librarians who want to tie The Jumbies in to a larger unit on folk tales or Caribbean culture?

TB: It’s important to know more about the culture of jumbies, and for that I’ve made a “field guide” which is available on the Algonquin YR site. Jumbie stories were part of everyday conversations when I was growing up. I still don’t answer when I hear my name called at night. I ask if someone is calling me even though I’m too old now to be snatched up by a jumbie. It’s just habit. The other thing to realize is the Caribbean, and Trinidad in particular, has a very rich literary history. I grew up reading novels written by people in my own culture, so teachers and librarians may also want to offer some titles like Herbert de Lisser’s The White Witch of Rosehall or Jean D’Costa’s Escape to Last Man Peak, or my favorite, V. S. Naipaul’s Miguel Street. All of these were required reading when I was at school.

JA: Have your children been to Trinidad? Have you shared the stories of your childhood with them and what do they think? Do they like scary stories?

TB: Yes! They go to Trinidad often and they complain when they don’t get a chance to go (like last summer when they complained EVERY SINGLE DAY). Both my husband and I are from Trinidad so there is plenty of family for them to visit over the summer. I am sure the family keeps them well entertained with stories from when their dad and I were kids. I hope they do like scary stories because The Jumbies is now required reading at my house.

JA: What are you working on next?

TB: I’m working on a story about a future society that has too much technology for their own good. I’m also working on two picture books, one about an unlikely superhero and another about a kid visiting with her grandfather.

JA: What other middle-grade books are on your bookshelf at present? Any recent favorites that you can recommend?

I have Kat Yeh’s The Truth About Twinkie Pie, which my daughter read and loved but I haven’t had a chance to read yet. I also have C. Taylor Butler’s The Lost Tribes, which I’m planning to read aloud to both of the kids, and Ramin Ganeshram’s Stir It Up, which was released back in 2011, but I haven’t gotten to it yet. (I’m also a slow reader, it seems!)

MG books on a shelf

A peek at Tracey’s bookshelf!

Thank you for spending time with From the Mixed-Up Files, Tracey, and best of luck with The Jumbies!

Readers, leave a comment below with your favorite spooky story to win a copy of The Jumbies!

Movies Inspired by Middle Grade Novels

I kept seeing commercials for Home and thought it looked cute, but didn’t really think about seeing it in the theater…until I read that it was adapted from The True Meaning of Smekday, by Adam Rex. I LOVE that book! Now, I can’t wait to see the movie.

This made me think about other middle grade novels that inspired movies. I think it’s fun to read a book then see how the movie compares to it. I often enjoy books way more than the movies and feel like people are missing some important things that didn’t transfer into the film version. But there are times when I like the movie better, or love both the book and the movie about the same amount.

Check out these middle grade novels that were turned into movies:


Smekday coverWhen twelve-year-old Gratuity (“Tip”) Tucci is assigned to write five pages on “The True Meaning of Smekday” for the National Time Capsule contest, she’s not sure where to begin. When her mom started telling everyone about the messages aliens were sending through a mole on the back of her neck? Maybe on Christmas Eve, when huge, bizarre spaceships descended on the Earth and the aliens-called Boov-abducted her mother? Or when the Boov declared Earth a colony, renamed it “Smekland” (in honor of glorious Captain Smek), and forced all Americans to relocate to Florida via rocketpod?

In any case, Gratuity’s story is much, much bigger than the assignment. It involves her unlikely friendship with a renegade Boov mechanic named J.Lo.; a futile journey south to find Gratuity’s mother at the Happy Mouse Kingdom; a cross-country road trip in a hovercar called Slushious; and an outrageous plan to save the Earth from yet another alien invasion.


Jeremy Fink coverIn one month Jeremy Fink will turn thirteen. But does he have what it takes to be a teenager? He collects mutant candy, he won’t venture more than four blocks from his apartment if he can help it, and he definitely doesn’t like surprises. On the other hand, his best friend, Lizzy, isn’t afraid of anything, even if that might get her into trouble now and then.

Jeremy’s summer takes an unexpected turn when a mysterious wooden box arrives in the mail. According to the writing on the box, it holds the meaning of life! Jeremy is supposed to open it on his thirteenth birthday. The problem is, the keys are missing, and the box is made so that only the keys will open it without destroying what’s inside. Jeremy and Lizzy set off to find the keys, but when one of their efforts goes very wrong, Jeremy starts to lose hope that he’ll ever be able to open the box. But he soon discovers that when you’re meeting people named Oswald Oswald and using a private limo to deliver unusual objects to strangers all over the city, there might be other ways of finding out the meaning of life.


Matilda coverMatilda is a genius. Unfortunately, her family treats her like a dolt. Her crooked car-salesman father and loud, bingo-obsessed mother think Matilda’s only talent is as a scapegoat for everything that goes wrong in their miserable lives. But it’s not long before the sweet and sensitive child decides to fight back. Faced with practical jokes of sheer brilliance, her parents don’t stand a chance.

Matilda applies her untapped mental powers to rid the school of the evil, child-hating headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, and restore her nice teacher, Miss Honey, to financial security.


Invention of Hugo Cabret coverOrphan, clock keeper, and thief, Hugo lives in the walls of a busy Paris train station, where his survival depends on secrets and anonymity. But when his world suddenly interlocks with an eccentric, bookish girl and a bitter old man who runs a toy booth in the station, Hugo’s undercover life, and his most precious secret, are put in jeopardy. A cryptic drawing, a treasured notebook, a stolen key, a mechanical man, and a hidden message from Hugo’s dead father form the backbone of this intricate, tender, and spellbinding mystery.


Mr. Popper's Penguins coverThe unexpected delivery of a large crate containing an Antarctic penguin changes the life and fortunes of Mr. Popper, a house painter obsessed by dreams of the Polar regions.


We had a great post about this back in 2010. Click on this link to check out a whole bunch of other movies that were inspired by middle grade novels.

What is your favorite movie based on a middle grade novel? Do you have any favorite novels that you’re hoping will be turned into a movie?

Mindy Alyse Weiss writes humorous middle grade novels with heart and quirky picture books. She’s constantly inspired by her two daughters, an adventurous Bullmasador adopted from The Humane Society, and an adorable Beagle/Pointer mix who was rescued from the Everglades. Visit Mindy’s TwitterFacebook, or blog to read more about her writing life, conference experiences, and writing tips.