Indie Spotlight

Interview with Josh Roberts, Author of The Witches Of Willow Cove

After reading Josh Roberts’ debut novel, The Witches Of Willow Cove, I leaped at the chance to interview him for our Mixed-Up File Blog. It’s a spellbinding tale, full of mystery and magic, friendship and folklore. Josh wastes no time jumping into the action and setting the tone for his fast-paced story. Without a doubt, it is one of my favorite books of 2020.

I am so excited to welcome Josh to our blog and cannot wait to hear his answers to all my burning questions.


“A delightfully spooky page-turner . . . Roberts spins an engrossing tale of magic, mystery, and friendship.” –Kirkus Reviews (starred review). 

“Full of magic, mayhem, gripping danger, and a good dose of humor . . . Hits all the sweet spots for the modern spooky middle grade novel.” –WritersRumpus

“A spellbinding story of friendship, teamwork, and the perils of coming of age in a modern-day coven.” –Kurt Kirchmeier, Author of The Absence of Sparrows


  1. Tell us about The Witches of Willow Cove.

In THE WITCHES OF WILLOW COVE, thirteen-year-old Abby Shepherd and five other middle school girls from a small New England town discover they not only have magical powers, but also share a secret connection to the Salem Witch Trials. Then a mysterious stranger named Miss Winters arrives and offers to teach them everything she knows about witchcraft—for reasons that may or may not be entirely innocent.

It’s one part spooky mystery and one part fantasy adventure, and it pulls heavily from real history, local folklore, and my desire to explore themes of friendship, family, loss, and loyalty. It’s also firmly rooted in the upper-middle-grade range, meaning the characters are a little older than the usual eight to twelve, the story gets a little darker, and the questions of right and wrong don’t necessarily have easy answers. And I hope it’s a lot of fun to read!

  1. How did you come up with the idea?

Growing up, I lived in a three-story Victorian funeral home a few towns over from Salem, Massachusetts, so it was probably inevitable that I’d be drawn to writing a spooky book set in a small New England town. I always knew that Abby would discover she was a witch, too, but the story definitely grew in the telling from those initial ideas.

One thing that influenced me early on is the historical anecdote that the Salem Witch Trials didn’t actually take place in modern day Salem, but rather in a nearby town that used to be part of Salem in the seventeenth century. I loved the idea of a town with a dark and secret history, and I started to wonder what would happen if you were a kid living in a town like that and you discovered not just its secrets, but that those secrets were directly tied to your own family history.

It was an intriguing idea that wound up taking me to some very unexpected places.

  1. Do you base your characters on people you know? If yes, spill the beans!

 Actually, I think to a great extent they are all reflections of how I see myself—the good and the bad parts, the characteristics I like about myself and the ones that I don’t. I will admit to borrowing some of the smaller details of certain characters from people I know, though. The way one person twirls her hair, the way another’s nose turns beet-red when she’s angry, that kind of thing. And one of the characters—I won’t say which!—is based on my wife, who I met when we weren’t much older than the characters in this story.

  1. How much of your real-life experiences play a role in the stories you tell?

Probably more than you’d think for a story about teenage witches. Obviously, I was never a teenage witch, or even a teenage girl, for that matter. But I did grow up in a town a lot like Willow Cove, and I did like to sneak around and solve mysteries when I was a kid, and like most people I’ve dealt with feelings of betrayal and questions of loyalty and the hard reality that most people are a lot more complicated than “good” or “bad.”

I’ve always been interested in historical mysteries, as well as the treatment and portrayal of women throughout history, too. I guess you could say that while I haven’t lived all the experiences of the characters in THE WITCHES OF WILLOW COVE, I’ve certainly given them a lot of thought over the course of my life.


  1. What books did you like to read when you were a kid? Did those books influence your writing?

My favorites were THE PRYDAIN CHRONICLES by Lloyd Alexander. They were the first books that made me cry, not necessarily because they were sad but because I was sad when I finished reading them, knowing that I’d never go on more new adventures with those characters.

Looking back, it’s clear to me that my whole understanding of what it means to grow up was defined by the character development and experiences of Taran, the main character—what’s right, what’s wrong, how one should act, how to apologize, how to be a man in a world where sometimes the wrong kind of masculinity is celebrated. If there was ever a better literary role model for impressionable boys, I don’t think I’ve encountered him.

And it’s safe to say that as a kid, my first literary crush was Taran’s love interest, the clever, hot-tempered, stubborn, snippy, creative, sarcastic, talkative, scatterbrained, wonderful Princess Eilonwy of the red-gold hair. You could probably argue that she made such an impression on me that I filled THE WITCHES OF WILLOW COVE with a whole coven of girls who’d be right at home alongside her on any adventure.

  1. What are you working on now?

I’m deep into the second book of the Willow Cove series, tentatively titled THE CURSE OF WILLOW COVE. I tried to make the first book a fully standalone novel, but anyone who’s read it knows that the final chapters suggest a larger world of magic and mystery waiting for them. I’d always planned on this being a multibook series and I couldn’t be happier that I get to continue on with these characters and this world.

  1. What is your writing process? Are you a plotter or a pantser?

I’m a plantser! Half plotter, half pantser, 100% willing to tear things up if I think of a better idea along the way. My usual process is to think of general story idea, then write the first five or six or seven chapters to see where it goes, and then panic and stop everything until I have a more solid understanding of what I’m writing towards. I don’t recommend it, but I’ve come to trust the process. Even if I could do without the panicking part.

  1. Loaded question: How long was your road to publishing and what happened along the way?

It took my ten years from the day I wrote the first sentence of the first draft to the day I got an offer for publication. There were at least three full drafts in between, and two other unfinished manuscripts mixed in as well.

THE WITCHES OF WILLOW COVE is the book that taught me how to write a book, because I wrote it and rewrote it so much that I do think I made (and hopefully corrected) every mistake a beginning author can make with it before it finally found a home.

  1. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

There are a few things I wish I’d fully understood before I set out on my writing journey. The first is the importance of getting something on the page. You can improve a bad manuscript. You can’t edit a blank page. I said earlier that took me ten years to write this book, but in reality it only took me a few years once I really committed to writing every day, even for a few minutes at a time. Writing is the only way you can get better at writing. There’s no substitute for it.

The other lesson I learned is to not judge myself too harshly. Sometimes what you’re capable of putting on the page isn’t very good. I mean, congratulations if you’re one of those people who can nail it on the first try, but for most authors I know, the process of improving is gradual. So, while it’s good to be critical of your work, it’s maybe not productive to be your own worst critic. Take joy in the process of writing. Celebrate the small victories when you realize you’re getting better. It’s a journey, and journeys aren’t meant to be fast.

  1. Do you have a favorite middle-grade book?

I have dozens of favorites. These days, I consume most of my middle grade books on audiobook, listening to them with my daughter as we drive around on errands or road trips or to and from her dance classes and riding lessons.

We’ve both enjoyed the CITY OF GHOSTS series by Victoria Schwab, THE STITCHERS by Lorien Lawrence, MIDNIGHT AT THE BARCLAY HOTEL by Fleur Bradley, and THE BOOKS OF ELSEWHERE by Jaqueline West, just to name a handful of recent titles. I love that middle grade is thriving these days, and I’m excited to be a part of it with THE WITCHES OF WILLOW COVE and its forthcoming sequels!

Find Josh Roberts online at

Indie Spotlight: Ashay ByThe Bay, Black Children’s Bookstore Vallejo CA

Given the challenges of the pandemic, many independent bookstores have turned  increasingly to online sales to survive. Deborah Day, founder and CEO of  “The #1 Black Children’s Bookstore,” Ashay By The Bay, Vallejo, California, made hers an online shop from the beginning in 2000. It survived the recession of 2008 and is still going strong. Fittingly, Ashay is a powerful Yoruba word that means “it shall be so.” It is also Deborah Day’s given name.

So! Day has developed an engaging and user-friendly website ( with over 800 titles, from  baby books to picture books to fiction and nonfiction for middle grade and young adult readers. Most have black American and African subjects, themes, and characters.  But since there is a large Latin American community nearby she also has school collections of Spanish and bilingual books for them. More about her school collections in a moment.

It’s exciting to see so many books for kids about black culture, people, and history gathered onto one curated site. I have now added several titles to my staggering must read pile. For instance, though I’m not a fantasy or science fiction fan at all, I can’t wait to read Tomi Adeywmi’s West-African inspired fantasy, Children of Blood and Bone.  Before the week is out I will probably also dip into Nnedi Okarafor’s imaginative and highly praised tale of magic and adventure in Nigeria, Akata Witch. As Day understands, good books for kids are good for everybody!

Before COVID, Day advertised grew her business by going to events, holding book fairs, and helping groups to conduct book fairs. She loved making in-person contacts that way. Now that those events are no longer possible she is relying more on social media ads, and she is hearing from people across the country.

The Pandemic also poses a challenge to her goal of getting children’s books about black subjects and black experience into the schools where they can have more impact on students’ understanding. Few schools are buying books right now and many students are doing distance learning. What an important time to build a home library, Day says. Of course there are many digital book available online, but the students are already screen-weary from school work. Day loves books and believes and holding a book to read is a more satisfying experience.

During shutdown, people can consult the Ashay website for the lists of the book collections, organized by age/grade e level, that Day offers to schools, and find ideas for books to order. These collections include many core curriculum books, but also give a chance for some independent publishers to become better known. Here are just a few of the many titles on her lists for middle graders:

Biographies: The Truths We Hold: An American Journey (Young Readers’ Edition) by Kamala Harris ; Portraits of African- American Heroes, by Tonya Bolden , including figures from dance, law athletics, science, and more. Who Was Jesse Owens? By James Buckley and Gregory Copeland; Brave. Black. First, 50+ African American Women Who Changed the World, by Cheryl Hudson; Hidden Figures, Young Reader’s Edition, byMargot Lee Shetterly; Black Women in Science: A Black History Book for Kids by Kimberly Brown Pellum;

Award-winning Fiction:

P.S. Be Eleven, Rita Williams-Garcia; The Season of Styx Malone, by Kekla Magoon; Harbor Me by Jaqueline Woodson; Ghost and Look Both Ways, by Jayson Reynolds; A Sky Full of Stars by Linda Williams Jackson;Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes; The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney.


The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba;28 Days: Moments in Black History That Changed the World by Charles R. Smith; The Talk: Conversations about Race, Love, and Truth, edited by Wade and Cheryl Hudson; Hand in Hand: Ten Black Men who Changed America, by Andrea Davis Pinkney.

The Arts:

Radiant Child: The story of Young Artist Jean Michel Basquiat by Javaka Steptoe; Who is Stevie Wonder? By Jim Gigliotti; The Legends of Hip Hop by Justin Bua; The Rose That Grew from Concrete,by Nikki Giovanni and Tupak Shakur; Poetry for Young People: African American Poetry, edited by Arnold Rampersad and Marcellus Blount; Who is Stevie Wonder? By Jim Gigliotti and Who HQ’; Misty Copeland: Life in Motion.

December 2020:  an ideal time to get to know more about black culture from the excellent books being published for children.   It’s also an ideal time to give beautiful, real books to children who’ve been doing schoolwork online all day. And let’s please bypass the chains when we buy these books (Amazon will survive the economic crisis) and support independent booksellers like Ashay instead. A triple win!



Indie Spotlight: The Bookworm, Omaha NE

Note:   In response to the virus crisis, The Bookworm will be open for its usual hours, but with the following changes to help everyone shop safely. They are postponing all in-store book clubs, to be resumed in the future.  Staff is increasing cleaning of surfaces, credit card machines, door handles, bathrooms, etc. For those keeping their distance, The Bookworm will ship books anywhere in the country at $2 less than the going shipping rate, and will ship orders of $100 or more for free. They will make free contact-less courier deliveries three days a week within nearby zip codes. Customers may also arrange to pay by phone and get curbside pick-up. For further information, please go to

[This interview took place before the Coronavirus became pandemic, so some of the discussion below of book clubs and nearby sites to visit should be kept in mind  for the future.] 

What better place for a bookworm to visit than a store called The Bookworm? We’re talking today with their Children’s and Young Adult’s Manager, Hannah Amrollahi.
MUF: It’s always a delight to see an independent bookstore that’s been going for a while (since 1986). You’re not only surviving, but thriving.   What keeps you going?
Hannah: Community support allows the Bookworm to thrive. We can host programming of all kinds and stock magnificent books, but without community support and engagement we wouldn’t be here. Omahans continue to show they want vibrant, physical spaces, and we are so appreciative. People drive everything we do.

MUF: What do you want readers to experience when they visit The Bookworm? You and your staff seem to have especially strong backgrounds in books and education. How do you help readers find their next favorite book?
Hannah: We strive to greet every person as they enter the store and offer assistance before they leave, because that is a basis of hospitality. Conversations between people, readers and booksellers, are personable in a way algorithms cannot be. Our favorite question to ask customers is “what was the last book you read and loved?” and let the conversation flow from there. We offer the opportunity to find something similar, but equally important, something new, niche, or related. When readers visit, I hope they leave with a sense of wonder, energy to carry into their reading, and a book they will love.
A strong background in education helps booksellers find the right books for a burgeoning reader, where their reading level and interest has taken root. The majority of sales in children’s are gifts, they are not for the customer themselves, and so we want to bring that expertise to assist. The Bookworm has a strong staff connection to Montessori, and independent learning, teaching, and reading are also strongly connected.

MUF: What’s a good day at Bookworm for you?
Hannah: The best moment I have is when I hand a book to a child and their eyes light up in excitement. A very close second is handing a book to an adult and hearing them say, “oh, this is perfect!” for the child in their life. This interaction looks a lot of different ways now that I manage as well as hand-sell. Sometimes it’s an email to a local school letting them know the books for their author event have arrived. It can be the jitters in a volunteer’s hand picking up advanced readers donations for a local charity. If we’re having an event it can be the hectic pace in a line. Regardless, it is always the best part of my day.

MUF: Bookworm seems to be book club central! You have over a hundred external book clubs getting discounts and seventeen in-store adult clubs for many different interests. That suggests strong community connections. Last, but definitely not least, is your monthly Very Newbery book club for middle graders. What‘s the next selection Very Newbery is reading?Hannah: We love book clubs! All of our store ones are open to new members, so we are constantly meeting new people and enjoying the chatter about a book.
The Very Newbery club was started last summer and we’ll resume it in 2020! I would love to read the 2019 Newbery, New Kid by Jerry Craft, since it’s the first graphic novel in the category. It would be a joy to hear what kids think about this milestone.
Currently, we work with a local parochial school for the Chat N’ Chew bookclub and the University of Nebraska at Omaha for a Young Adult Literature class. Both have several titles, as they span across grades, but for February I love Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo and Front Desk by Kelly Yang. The first is a zany and lesser-known title by a big-hit author (remember Because of Winn-Dixie?). The second is an own-voices title that paints a realistic and poignant picture of immigration in the United States in its highs and lows.

MUF: One of the great things about independent bookstores is that the books you carry are curated by people who know books and not just business. Please tell us some titles, new or old, fiction, poetry, or nonfiction you find yourselves recommending these days to readers ages 9-12?
Hannah: Nine to twelve is such a great age. Here are a few of my favorites.
New: Dark Lord Clementine by Sarah Jean Horwotiz is the type of book we have on hand because I fell in love with its quirky fun. A light read featuring an “evil” daughter dealing with a host of villagers, a sickly father, and a whittle-witch, it will enchant readers with variations on tried and true tropes while incorporating surprisingly real-world themes of privilege, family expectations, and reparation.
Old: A musty church. A mysterious visitor. The Letter for the King. I discovered this 1962 classic from Tonke Dragt, whose own life is a fascinating study of her time, after the Netflix movie announcement revived interest. It has so much to offer, amazing out-loud, fantastic syntax reflective of its translation from Dutch, short chapters that make it fit easily into any schedule, and truly endearing characters struggling with the most basic, and most important, moral decisions. When can you share a secret? To what do you owe a promise? An all-ages book I only wish I had read earlier so I could be re-reading it sooner!
Nonfiction: I have some newer titles I love, but All of Us: a Young People’s History of the World from Yvan Pommaux and Christophe Ylla-Somers is still my favorite world history for this age group. The over-sized, beautifully illustrated hardcover has the literal weight of history. The authors tell a linear story of humanity that focuses more narrowly on America and Europe only in the near present. Time becomes a third character that moves the book around the globe, placing the Bering Strait migration, the development of Chinese writing, the Indus Valley, and early Crete together on glorious spread. History is messy, but this book achieves a robust introduction and a questioning tone that will provoke curiosity.

MUF: If families visit your store from out of town, would there be family-friendly places near by for a snack or a meal after shopping? And if they can stay a little longer, what are some unique sites or activities they shouldn’t miss?
Hannah: Omaha makes an extremely family-friendly vacation. Down the sidewalk from The Bookworm is the Market Basket restaurant, a local establishment, and within a few minutes’ drive is a local bakery and restaurant, Le Quartier. For a longer day, there is the Joslyn Art Museum, a free-entrance museum with outdoor sculpture garden and children’s room, the Omaha Children’s Museum, and award-winning children’s theater company, The Rose. Area parks are spread out across neighborhoods, whose old “small town” main streets have kept their individual flavor as the metropolitan area grew. Dundee, Florence Mill, and the award-winning 24th Street Mural Corridor celebrate Omaha’s diverse communities.
Finally, The Old Market downtown features red cobblestones and vibrant businesses tucked into historic buildings. The Durham Museum downtown features full-scale historic train cars and interactive exhibits. Ending the downtown tour at Ted & Wally’s homemade ice cream and Hollywood Candy bookend the day. Check out Visit Omaha, Omaha Magazine, and Nebraskaland for features and ideas!

MUF: Now that we’re all trying to stay home, what a great time to read, and we hope you discovered some titles in this discussion.   It’s also a critical time to support independent bookstores like The Bookworm, yes?  Read and support, a win-win!