This one really grabbed me, a 570-page history of WWII, The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939–1945, by Nicholas Stargardt, an historian at Oxford. It explores the feelings and changing beliefs of ordinary Germans and their reactions to the war as it progresses. It's incredibly well-written, not text-bookish at all, and I couldn't put it down. It is based on correspondence between, for example, German soldiers and their wives, mothers, fiancées as well as memoirs. I hesitated to recommend this book because of its length, but that was not an impediment to me as I got into it. It's not your ordinary history book.

The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939–1945 (Basic $35), by Nicholas Stargardt, recommended by Mari Lu, Quail Ridge Books, Raleigh NC.


Lady BanksIn which Ms. Jaki Shelton Green remembers her grandmother's hand kneading bread, Ms. Gertie creates a monstrosity of science, Ms. Margaret Maron turns her home into a refuge for disrespected and dilapidated flamingos, and Mr. Pat Conroy advises young writers: "Read everything. Go deeper."

Keep Reading Lady Banks' Commonplace Book | SUBSCRIBE

Robert WalkerThe King of the BirdsThe ForgettingHungry Is a Mighty Fine SauceTwo by TwoThe Home PlaceGertie's Leap to GreatnessThe Book of IsaiasAmong the LivingA Lowcountry HeartVirgin and Other StoriesLove, AliceA Question of Mercy

Pat Conroy Week

October 24-28, 2016 is Pat Conroy Week
Donate $40 or more to the Pat Conroy Literary Center and be entered in a drawing to win a complete set of the 2016 Pat Conroy Southern Book Prize Winners and Finalists.
41 books for $41!

Pat Conroy's foreword to Writing South Carolina: Selections from the First Annual High School Writing Contest, edited by Steven Lynn with Aïda Rogers; © University of South Carolina Press, reprinted with publisher’s permission

In the summer of 1961, my family crossed over the Combahee River and entered into Beaufort County for the first time. I was fifteen years old and had never heard of Beaufort, South Carolina, in my life. It was my twenty-third move since my birth, and Beaufort High would be the eleventh school I’d attended and the third high school in my adolescence. I was in the middle of a very unhappy childhood.

But I was a military brat, and my mother had convinced her seven children that we were serving America whenever we moved because our father was a fighter pilot and our nation needed him. Little did we know that we were driving toward the life we were meant to live and toward the destiny we were all meant to share. I had entered the Lowcountry of South Carolina for the first time in my life, a place of such mysterious and uncommon beauty that it still strikes me as some lost archipelago of paradise. I had no clue that I would spend the next fifty-three years of my life writing about this sacred place and the amazing people I found there.

This much I know. I was a teenager, like all of you are, and like you, I entertained the improbable dream that I wanted to be a writer and that I had things to say. I also know this—all of you who contributed to this book write much better than I did in high school, and the stuff I published in The Breakers, our literary magazine, would not have made the cut in your wonderful book. I’m reading my dinky poems and quasi-essays as I write this, and I think objectively that I showed little promise during those awkward, melancholy years of my boyhood. You, ladies and gentlemen, write with a verve and a confidence I don’t believe I matched until my final years at the Citadel. As high school writers in South Carolina, I think you’re writing better sentences and thinking deeper thoughts and showing off a more refined talent than I could present to my teachers in high school. Someone has taught you well and you’ve been smart enough to listen, and you’re using the English language with both purpose and gracefulness.

I owe my writing life to the cowled nuns of my grade school who taught me to read and write and taught me about how the great interior engine of words could work together; if you learned the immense powers of verbs and good grammar, then you could align words in a sentence as pretty as a string of pearls. I learned to diagram sentences that looked like the blueprints of battleships. I never quite learned the mysteries of colons or semicolons. From an early age, I developed an intolerance for the exclamation point, and I’ve never gotten over that bizarre tic in my writing style. A teacher told me not to use the word poignant even when I found situations that struck me that way, “because we have endured enough ‘poignant moments’ in fiction, so we can retire that overused word.” I thought I had never used it again until a sharp-eyed reader found it blinking like a lantern in some tired sentence in The Prince of Tides. But learning to write is a safari into those far interiors of self that can seem reckless and unreachable until the voyage begins. Our English teachers become our guides through the perilous missteps we make when we begin to turn our most private thoughts into stories and poems we’d like other people to read. They light the campfires in our bloodstreams that combust into the bright firelight of dreaming in our consciousness. The teachers lead us to the books that are great, tell us what makes them so good, and tempt us to develop our own personal styles that force the language to do what we require from it.

There is no phrase I revere as much as “English teacher.” That profession still strikes me as a form of holy orders, but I revere all the teachers of the world, and it shames me to see them bullied, excoriated, and subject to the contempt that America displays toward them in the early years of this century. My teachers found me as a young boy who didn’t know the alphabet and helped lead me every step of the way to a manhood where I write books that are the joys of my life.

When I was a freshman in high school, Sister Ann of the Sacred Heart order introduced me to William Shakespeare and Twelfth Night, then told us we were now reading the greatest writer who had ever performed acts of pure magic with the language common to us all. The next year Joseph Monte taught me that teaching was an art form of the highest calling, and I read twenty books under his watchful eye, including David Copperfield, Crime and Punishment, and The Sound and the Fury. He made me write a letter to William Faulkner, a letter to the editor of the Washington Post, and the first short story I ever wrote. He presented his class with an ambitious list of the hundred best books ever written (according to the world of Joseph Monte), and I crossed off the name of the last book before I began my plebe year at the Citadel.

My fate as a writer continued in its exalted fashion when I walked into the Beaufort classroom of Gene Norris in September 1961. He was the first person who ever taught me who did not wear either a priest’s collar or a nun’s habit. On one of the first days of school, he put on a recording of Ravel’s Boléro and asked us to write him an essay on whatever feelings the music brought out in us. I described a camp of gypsies about to be slaughtered by a group of Franco’s troops during the final stages of the Spanish Civil War. The last book on Mr. Monte’s Hundred Best Books list had been For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. My Boléro paper caught Mr. Norris’s eye, and the next day he told me he knew I was going to become a writer whether I knew it or not. I’ve written about my complete admiration of Gene Norris in five of my books, and his spirit is present in every word I write. During his final years, we called each other on an almost daily basis; when Gene died I delivered a eulogy at his memorial service, and I served as one of the executors of his will. Though I didn’t know this in high school, you can grow up and be best friends with the men and women who taught you. After I walked out of his class, I never let loose my grip on Gene Norris or his buoyant, self-actualized life. I turned him into part of my life, part of my story. The truth is I never left Gene’s class, and I was still seated on the front row until the moment of his death.

In my senior year at Beaufort High School, I came under the spell of the delightful, pixilated wordsmith from Due West, South Carolina, Millen Ellis. He was a fanciful, Tolkien-like presence in the classroom, demanding and softhearted at the same time. He turned his classroom into a crossroads of the world; his bulletin boards changed constantly—from art exhibitions at the Met to some obscure movie coming to the Breeze Theater downtown. Millen wrote down the answers of quizzes and would crumple them up and hurl them into the shelves meant for books under our student desks. If we were alert, we’d find these answers, but his lesson was not lost on us: pay attention to everything; do not let anything escape or fool you; awareness is the keystone to all knowledge. And there was an art to life that he was helping us to enter, but first he had to prove to us that it was there in the first place. I listened in Millen Ellis’s class to the first opera I ever heard, Boris Godunov, and he taught the play Macbeth with such passion that its lines and speeches remain with me to this day. He made us memorize one hundred lines of English poetry, and I now wish he’d made us extend it to a thousand lines.

So, young writers of South Carolina, we’ve come to this central pivot in our lives. I’ve been a South Carolina writer for fifty years, and this is your first song ever played at the big dance of our maddening, complicated, but splendid state. I think South Carolina produces more stories per square inch than any place on earth. That is where we have a part, you guys and me. It is our job to become the poets and songwriters and the cunning, spinning craftsmen and web-spinners who will write the novels and short stories that’ll explain our time here to those lucky enough to follow in our footsteps. Here is my advice to you, writer to writer. Keep a journal. Write in it whenever you can. Learn how to notice strange and wondrous details. Copy down dialogue from memory. Learn how people sound when they are sitting around talking versus how they sound when giving a speech or running for office. Details are the gold coinage in the realm of fiction and poetry. Gather them up like the eggs of racing pigeons and hoard them well and don’t listen to their cries of release until you find the perfect moment to release them from their bondage.

Read everything. But make sure you read all the books and poetry that seem to be defining the times in which you live. Become discriminating critics of your own writing as well as that of others. Try to be kind and constructive to any other writer who approaches you for help. To write is a form of nakedness that all of you are going to learn about when this book is published. It is an act of courage to write anything, but it is an act approaching madness to want to do this for a living.

Go deeper. That is my advice to all writers. Then go deeper again. When I look at myself in the mirror, I’ve no clear idea of who that guy is looking back. For fifty years I’ve been trying to learn the essential truth of that one man. I’m not sure I’ve scratched the surface of that unending mystery. There are enigmas buried inside you in the deepest waters. Whether they be angels or moray eels, whether they be godlike or demonic, it is your job to discover them for yourself and no one else. You write for yourself. You write for no one else. It is your art that you are seeking, and if you are very lucky, it is your art that is desperately trying to make its own voice heard to you. Listen.

Pray it is calling your name.

With your publication in this book, it has already called your name one time.

Pat Conroy

Congratulations to Kate DiCamillo, whose novel Raymie Nightingale was named a National Book Award Finalist in Young People's Literature.

DiCamillo's book was also selected as a Spring 2016 Okra Pick.

Interview of Daniel Connolly, author of The Book of Isaias (a Fall 2016 Okra Pick), by Kat Leache, high school friend of Daniel’s and bookseller at the Booksellers at Laurelwood in Memphis.

Daniel ConnollyDaniel: I guess I’ll just start by saying thanks for doing this again.

Kat: My pleasure. It was so much fun to read. I mean, hard to read at times, but fun. What was the origin story of the book?

Daniel: I’ve been really interested in immigration for a long time. I almost always spoke with adults, Mexican immigrants. And I was interested in doing a big project, possibly a book and didn’t really know exactly what I was going to do. Then I went to lunch with this guy, Mauricio Calvo, who’s head of the group Latino Memphis. In that interview he brought up that he was very concerned about immigrants’ children. And he talked about all the challenges that they’re dealing with, like domestic violence in some cases, and kids dropping out of school. And he asked this question in Spanish: “¿Qué nos espera?” Which means “What awaits us?” That was really the genesis of focusing on kids. I got the idea of embedding in a school from a journalism conference. I heard of somebody who did that in Philadelphia. That came later. I actually called that person and asked how to do it. I called some other people who’d done similar things and got some practical tips.

Book of IsaiasKat: I just loved the way you take the reader through the lives of these kids in just such a conversational, direct way, and you never hit anyone over the head with some of the heavier issues, yet it’s in your face the entire time you’re reading - what potential is there, what limits them, what inequality actually looks like. 

Daniel: I spent a lot of time with this group of children of Mexican immigrants through their senior year of high school and for a couple of years afterward. And what I’m trying to do is show how they can contribute to the society, the obstacles that are standing in their way now, and offer some ideas of how we as a society could help. And I’m telling that in a story about these individuals, just a really interesting group of people that I met while doing embedded reporting at a high school.

I was very lucky to meet Isaias and the Ramos family. They did a lot for the book. They basically let me into their home, time after time, let me hang out with them over and over. And we’re talking about a period of years. . . . Looking back at it, I have a sense of just gratitude that everything worked out the way it did.

Kat:  What else can you tell me about writing the book? 

Daniel: I had to learn what we call immersion journalism, which is basically following people around. And so it’s like you see this in a documentary movie, where it’s just a camera following somebody as they do something. It’s a technique that I had to learn as I did the book. A lot of what appears in the book is overheard dialogue and scenes that I observed. I’m not asking people about it afterward, I was actually in the room as these things happened.

And so the experience of doing this was so much different than the experience of writing an article for the daily newspaper. An article I would do for the newspaper is more like a snapshot, and this is more like a movie.

Kat: You write that, “at its heart, the illegal immigration system is inherently exploitative and aims to give the worker as little as possible.”

This book is engaging in a million ways, but what I liked best about it for me as a thinker and a member of society is it made the problems of the current immigration system very clear, in very specific ways.

Daniel: What I argue in the book - and this is based on interviewing immigrants going back to 2004 - that what we call ‘illegal immigration’ isn’t really illegal. It’s a phenomenon that our federal government in both Republican and Democratic administrations has tolerated. Illegal immigration is a method for bringing workers into the country. If the government tries to enforce immigration law in a city, that means they’re taking workers from businesses, and businesses don’t like that. They complain to members of Congress and they get it stopped. So what ends up happening is, the class of people who are here illegally, basically no one’s trying to get them out, but they live here with limited rights.

I don’t really take a strong stance on what our immigration policy should look like. I do say we should support immigrants’ kids for a variety of practical reasons. And I guess the last thing I’d say about the immigration question is it’s just so important to understand that illegal immigration isn’t really illegal, because once you understand that, everything else that happens out there starts making a lot of sense.

Kat: Somewhere early in the book you say ‘Memphis looked like real life,’ kind of speaking for the Ramos family once they got here.

Daniel: Isaias said that. He’d seen this British TV show ‘Bernard’s Watch’ and he was expecting Memphis to be like that, but it wasn’t. The story, it could be anywhere in America, but it’s very, very specific to this one Southern city. There is a peculiar racial history of desegregation, busing and how this all white school became a Hispanic and African-American and Asian school. And it’s a view of the South that we’re not talking about magnolias and mint juleps. We’re talking about a modern, multicultural South that I don’t think has been written about that much.

Kat: I loved the photos you included in the book.

Daniel: I worked with two photographers during the course of this project. It was Karen Focht here in Memphis and Dominic Bracco in Mexico. So we have a visual record of everything from a really crucial meeting that took place in Isaias’ house to Isaias playing rock music. I actually took that photo myself. 

I appreciate you getting all the way through it and reading it. It’s a commitment. It’s a short book, but still . . . 

Kat: It was easy to read. It will be an easy book for people to pick up. You really do a good job of just reporting facts, mostly, but then putting your own personality and thoughts into it just enough to give it personality but to still seem like the straightforward account that it is. It came together really well, I really enjoyed reading it. I think that other people will in Memphis and elsewhere. It really couldn’t be any more timely. 


DANIEL CONNOLLY has for more than a decade reported on Mexican immigration to the U.S. South for news organizations including The Associated Press in Little Rock and The (Memphis) Commercial Appeal. An award-winning journalist, he has received support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, the International Center for Journalists and the Fulbright program. He lives in his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee.

The 2016 Fall Okra Picks have been selected – a flavor-filled collection of new Southern books hand-picked by Southern indie booksellers – people with impeccable taste in books.. 

All the picks have a strong Southern focus and are publishing between October and December, 2016, and all have fans among Southern indie booksellers; people who are always looking out for the next great writer who should be on your plate and in your TBR stack. So the next time you visit your local Southern indie bookstore, expect someone to hand you one and say, “You’ve got to read this!” Take them at their word. Great books are always good for you!

The 2016 Fall Okra Picks   

Robert Walker The King of the Birds The Forgetting Hungry is a Might Fine Sauce

Robert Walker 
by Corey Mesler
Livingston Press, September 2016
Fiction, 9781604891720

The King of the Birds
by Acree Graham Macam
Groundwood Books, September 2016
Juvenile, 9781554988518

The Forgetting
by Sharon Cameron
Scholastic Press, September 2016
Juvenile, 9780545945219 

Hungry is a Mighty Fine Sauce
by Shellie Rushing Tomlinson
Shiloh Run Press, October 2016
Cooking, 9781634097826 

Two By TwoThe Home Place Book of Isaias Book of Isaias

Two By Two
by Nicholas Sparks
Grand Central Publishing, October 2016
Fiction, 9781455520695 

The Home Place
by J. Drew Lanham
Milkweed Editions, October 2016
Nonfiction, 9781571313157 

Gertie’s Leap to Greatness
by Kate Beasley
Farrar Straus and Giroux for Young Readers, October 2016
Juvenile, 9780374302610 

The Book of Isaias: A Child of Hispanic Immigrants Seeks His Own America 
by Daniel Connolly
St. Martin’s Press, October 2016
Nonfiction, 9781250083067

Among the Living Lowcountry Heart The Virgin and Other Stories Love Alice A Question of Mercy

Among the Living
by Jonathan Rabb
Other Press, October 2016
Fiction, 9781590518038 

A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life
by Pat Conroy
Nan A. Talese, October 2016
Nonfiction, 9780385530866 

Virgin and Other Stories
by April Ayers Lawson
Farrar Straus and Giroux, November 2016
Fiction, 9780865478695 

Love, Alice
by Barbara Davis
Berkley Books, December 2016
Fiction, 9780451474810 

A Question of Mercy
by Elizabeth Cox
Story River Books, December 2016
Fiction, 9781611177220 

Okra Picks are chosen every season by Southern Independent Bookstores. For more information visit

What is TRIO?

It's a traveling exhibit of art, music and literature that celebrates the inspirational power of great storytelling. First conceived by Shari Smith of Working Title Farm, and a writer and singer for “The Shoe Burnin’ Show,” TRIO is a testament to the way words, music and art can come together around the power of a single story. Each TRIO starts with a book, which is given to a musician and a visual artist, who then write a song, a piece of music, a work of art inspired by the story.

The 2017 TRIO exhibit debuts September 16 at the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance Discovery Show in Savannah, GA, and then travels around the South for the next twelve months, hosted by and sponsored by SIBA member bookstores. KEEP READING...

Barbara O'Connor interviews Monika Schröder, author of BE LIGHT LIKE A BIRD (Capstone)

Barbara O'Connor & Monika SchroederChildren’s authors Monika Schröder and Barbara O’Connor have been friends for years, brought together when they shared the same editor, Frances Foster at FSG. After communicating by email for a year or so, they finally met in person at a librarians’ conference in Washington, DC. But their bond grew closer when Barbara moved from Boston to Asheville, North Carolina, a short distance from Monika. Now they enjoy chatting all things book related while walking their dogs once a week in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. Making the bond even more special is the fact that they each have new children’s novels being published just days apart.

Barbara is the author of award-winning novels for children, including How to Steal a Dog, The Small Adventure of Popeye and Elvis, and The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester. Her latest novel, Wish, is published this fall by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Visit her at:

Monika is the author of Saraswati's Way, The Dog in the Wood and My Brother's Shadow. Her latest novel for middle-grade readers, Be Light Like a Bird, will be published by Capstone on September 1st. Visit her at:

Barbara: You grew up in Germany and have lived all over the world. Your previous books have been set in Germany and India.  What made you want to write a book set in the United States?

Be LIght Like a BirdMonika: I often start a book with setting. The 'seed idea' for Be Light Like a Bird came to me the first time I saw a landfill. My husband and I had cleaned out the cabin my husband inherited from his father in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. I couldn't believe it when he drove all the stuff to a landfill nearby, a big hole where people bury unwanted items. In Germany we recycle or incinerate most of our garbage, so it left an impression on me when I saw a guy dropping a vacuum cleaner, a book shelf and an entire carpet into the landfill...a cemetery for junk.

I learned more about this landfill and read about the people in the community who had fought its expansion. Then I asked myself a "What if...?" question: What if there were a girl who loved birds and whose bird watching was threatened by the expansion of the landfill? Once I had that girl in my mind, I found myself asking more and more about her life. How did she get to Michigan's Upper Peninsula? And why was birding so important to her? I learned that her father had recently died and that her mother had more or less dragged her up north. She was grieving and lonely and once she arrived in Upper Michigan she came up with a plan to make her mother stay. From there the story of Wren developed.

Barbara: The characters in Be light Like a Bird grieve in many different ways - tears, anger, detachment, moving on, not moving on - and it is hard for Wren to know how to deal with her loss. What do you want readers to understand about grief and mourning?

Monika: Grief and mourning are difficult and hard emotions to go through and, while there may be similarities in the ways people deal with the loss of a loved one, I don’t think there is “one right way” to process those emotions. That’s why I wanted to create characters who show a variety of reactions to their pain.

Barbara: There are several references to burial in your book. Wren's father is lost at sea without the chance for the family to conduct a proper burial. Wren, feeling the need for such closure, buries road kill instead. 'Burying' unwanted items in the landfill. The un-burying of Native American sacred objects originally intended to accompany the dead on their journey to the afterlife. And one could even say Wren's mother is trying to 'bury', to hide and forget her feelings for her dead husband. Could you talk a little about this aspect of the book?

Monika: That's an interesting question. Perhaps it wasn't a coincidence that the first title, the working title of my novel was 'Buried'. In a way your question already may provide the key to what was going through my mind as I was working on the book. I can't say that I intended to illustrate some grand theme but perhaps my subconscious tied these instances of burial together in the different subplots of the story.

Barbara: Tweens and teens can have complicated relationships with their parents, even when a major life-changing event (such as a death in the family) doesn't occur.  What can readers learn from Wren's changing relationship with her mother?

Monika: It takes a long time for Wren to finally learn what causes her mother to act the way she does. It was only in my twenties that I realized the reason for my longstanding conflict with my mother. That understanding enabled me to see her with more empathy, and be less judgmental. It may not be possible for a 12-year old to see past her own emotions when judging a parent, but I hope that reading about Wren and her mother helps young readers to realize that adults have their own struggles to deal with, and this might cause them to act in a way children might find inexplicable.

Barbara: Theo is a great friend and the developing friendship between Theo and Wren helps her to get through the conflict with her mother. Did you have a model for their friendship?

Monika: Kids that age may have to go through some mocking or bullying since at that age girls like to stay with girls and boys with boys. But I used to teach fourth grade for many years and I remember a few of these boy-girl relationships among my students and they helped me to create the relationship between Wren and Theo.

Barbara: What are you working on next?

Monika: I am working on two projects, a middle-grade mystery novel set in Calcutta 1832, and I have recently submitted a manuscript for a picture book about my dog, Frank, whom we adopted from the streets of India. In it Frank exchanges a series of letters with a dog-friend back in Delhi, describing his new, spoiled life in the US.

Monika Schröder interviews Barbara O’Connor, author of WISH (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Barbara O'Connor & Monika SchroederChildren’s authors Monika Schröder and Barbara O’Connor have been friends for years, brought together when they shared the same editor, Frances Foster at FSG. After communicating by email for a year or so, they finally met in person at a librarians’ conference in Washington, DC. But their bond grew closer when Barbara moved from Boston to Asheville, North Carolina, a short distance from Monika. Now they enjoy chatting all things book related while walking their dogs once a week in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. Making the bond even more special is the fact that they each have new children’s novels being published just days apart.

Barbara is the author of award-winning novels for children, including How to Steal a Dog, The Small Adventure of Popeye and Elvis, and The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester. Her latest novel, Wish, is published this fall by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Visit her at:

Monika is the author of Saraswati's Way, The Dog in the Wood and My Brother's Shadow. Her latest novel for middle-grade readers, Be Light Like a Bird, will be published by Capstone on September 1st. Visit her at:

Monika: You’re known for your novels with Southern settings. Why did you decide to exclusively write books with Southern settings and tone?

WishBarbara: As a new and inexperienced writer, I was struggling to find my writing voice. Then I read Missing May by Cynthia Rylant and had a light bulb moment. I adored her voice in that book and I realized how much voice and setting were intertwined in her work. That’s when I began to write books set in the South, where I grew up. My childhood memories are closely connected with the South: the kudzu, the steamy summer weather, the boiled peanuts and collard greens, the great Southern folks with their accents and phrases like “I’m fixin’ to go” and “I like to died.” By drawing on those memories, I found my writing voice.

Monika: I have a feeling that your recent move to the Blue Ridge Mountains had an impact on the setting of Wish. Am I right?

Barbara: Absolutely! I grew up at the bottom of those beautiful mountains and have many happy memories of day trips up the winding roads. The woods were lush with ferns and cool, damp moss. The creeks were icy cold with giant boulders warm from the sun, perfect for a barefoot little girl to jump on. After 26 years in snowy Boston, I headed back to the Blue Ridge Mountains. I felt so at home again that I knew I had to set my next book there.

Monika: I know that often stories start with the seed of an idea. What was the seed for Wish?

Barbara: I was teaching a writing workshop to a class of fifth graders at an elementary school in Massachusetts. The students were given a set of questions to use to interview a relative. The next day, they brought those interview questions back to class and I would work with them on writing a short biography of that person. (Many people don’t know this, but I actually started my career writing biographies for children.)

I asked the students to share with the class one of their favorite questions from the interview. One young boy had interviewed his grandmother and he chose to share the question, “What were some of your favorite activities as a child?” His grandmother had answered, “Soccer, ballet and fighting.”

I now had a character to plunk down into those mountains. Her name is Charlie Reese, a feisty, troubled child with a bad temper.

Monika: I love the character of Howard, who tries so hard to befriend hot-headed Charlie. Can you shed any light on the creation of Howard?

Barbara: Howard was actually a character in a manuscript that I abandoned (something I almost never do). The story wasn’t working, but I liked Howard so much that I snatched him out of that story and knew he’d be a perfect friend for Charlie. He is very much the yin to her yang.

Monika: Wish tells the story of a child displaced from her home due to dysfunctional parents. You’ve also written about a homeless child in your novel, How to Steal a Dog. Your books are geared toward readers aged 9 to 12. How do you handle such tough issues for young readers?

Barbara: I’m a strong believer in not sugar-coating the world for children. Some families are dysfunctional. Some children are homeless. To never write about those things doesn’t make them go away. And by writing about them, some children will see themselves and relate, while others will learn more about the world around them and perhaps gain more empathy.

On the subject of protecting children from the harsh realities of life, I like to quote Phyllis Fogelman, the editor of Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. She says, “It is generally knowledge, not a lack of it, that arms children and helps to prepare them for the world as it is rather than what we would like it to be.” To which I reply, “Amen.”

Monika: What do you see as the main difference between writing for children and writing for adults? For instance, do you ever write in order to teach a moral or a lesson? Do you make a point of keeping vocabulary more simplistic?

Barbara: I never write to teach a moral or a lesson. My main goal in writing for children is simply to entertain them. If they learn a bit along the way, that’s a good thing, too.

As far as vocabulary, I never think about it. Maybe that means my brain is stuck in fourth grade. I definitely don’t “dumb down” the vocabulary.

Monika: Any advise for aspiring children’s writers?

Barbara: The obvious: read. Read as many books as you can, particularly book written in the genre and style of your own writing. It’s important to read new books to stay abreast of the market and to see which publishers are publishing which types of books.

Also, I always recommend that aspiring children’s writers join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators ( That organization provides a wealth of information and support. If possible, attend one of their regional conferences. You’ll come away informed and inspired.

Lastly, your writing process will very likely be different from others. Some writers write every day. (I don’t.) Some writers keep journals. (I don’t.) Some writers outline. (I don’t.) Do what works for you.

Richard Grant

When I try to explain to people outside the South that Mississippi has some of the best bookshops in America, if not the world, I usually hear a “huh” noise that reminds me of a puzzled dog tilting its head. As a bookhound who moved to Mississippi from New York City, and grew up in London, England, it was a surprise to me too.

Oxford was my gateway drug to the rest of Mississippi, and Oxford is unimaginable without Square Books at its geographical and cultural heart. I linger there for the atmosphere and conversation as much as anything, but the store also pries my wallet open with remarkable ease. Enthusiasm for books spreads like a gentle contagion among the staff and the customers, and I invariably buy more books than I was intending, and feel refreshed for doing so.

Dispatches from PlutoWhen I bought an old house in the Mississippi Delta, near the tiny farm settlement of Pluto, my cultural lifeline was Turnrow Books in Greenwood. I would make the 50-mile drive there at least twice a week. It’s a marvel that such a first-rate bookstore can exist in such a modest-sized town. Turnrow has become a hub for the community, a lunch spot and meeting place, a venue for musical and literary events, a bastion of civilization in the old crumbling cotton town.

Now I live in Jackson, within walking distance of the Lemuria Book Store, yet another Mississippi independent that rivals anything in London and New York, and outmatches it for charm, hospitality and comfort. Down on the Gulf Coast in Pass Christian, Pass Books is another state treasure, and chooses its coffee beans with the same care and good taste as its books. All these independent bookstores add so much to the pleasure of living here. They do what the big chain bookstores were never able to do, and that is to make you fall in love with them.



The Transformation of the World The Bloody Shirt Barkskins Life is Meals

The Transformation of the World, by Jurgen Ostenhammel. Lately I start my days at 5am and read this massive, dense, intellectually dazzling history of the 19th century for an hour. In this way, I strike a small blow against the internet, and the damage it’s doing to my powers of concentration. 9780691169804

The Bloody Shirt, by Stephen Budiansky. A blistering indictment of Southern racial violence and terrorism after the Civil War, and a necessary corrective to Southern mythology about Reconstruction. 9780452290167

Barkskins, by Annie Proulx. I’ve just finished this epic saga about the ransacking of the world’s forests. Exhaustively researched and brilliantly told, it requires Proulx to kill off dozens of characters over the centuries, which she does with perverse glee. At 80 years old, she seems at the height of her powers. 9780743288781

Life Is Meals, by James and Kay Salter. This delicious collection of bite-sized vignettes about food and drink is best enjoyed in bed at night, and preferably read out loud by your bedmate. 9780375711398

The Pat Conroy Southern Book Prize

The best in southern literature, from the people who would know . . . Southern Independent (and independently minded!) Booksellers

(Columbia, SC) Southern indie booksellers once again demonstrate their independence of mind by choosing an excitingly eclectic collection of books for the 2016 Pat Conroy Southern Book Prize.

"What a delicious gumbo of literary works--salty, spicy, bittersweet, and sour. I loved all of these books for the sole reason that they tell the world in colorful, rich and diverse language just what it so special and, yes, crazy about the American South." – Hub City Bookshop, Spartanburg, SC

Formerly the “SIBA Book Award,” the newly reborn Pat Conroy Southern Book Prize features an expanded list of categories, inspired by the tastes and inclinations of Southern readers. Nominated by booksellers and their customers, vetted by bookstores and selected by a jury of Southern booksellers, these are the Southern books that Southern bookstores were most passionate about, and inspired the most “you’ve got to read this” moments and “hand sell” moments in stores across the South. The nine winners chosen from a field of nearly forty finalists. Together, they represent the best of Southern literature, from the people who would know—Southern indie booksellers.

My Sunshine AwayAbove the WaterfallBull Mountain

The Great Santini Fiction Prize Winner: 
My Sunshine Away by M. O. Walsh (G.P. Putnam’s Sons)

“This debut author spins a tale that will grab you from the first page and keep you turning pages until the last.”– Fiction Addiction, Greenville, SC

The Prince of Tides Literary Prize Winner: 
Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash (Ecco Press)

“Beautiful language, I could not put this book down.  Read it in one day.” – Garden District Bookshop, New Orleans, LA

The Beach Music Mystery Prize Winner: 
Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich (G.P. Putnam’s Sons)

“ Reads like a twisty, dark TV series you can't help but binge-watch.” – Avid Bookshop, Athens, GA

The Bone TreeSoul Food LoveDispatches from Pluto

The Lords of Discipline Thriller Prize Winner: 
The Bone Tree by Greg Isles (William Morrow & Company)

“Iles has written an intense, tightly plotted narrative with more than one shocking turn of events that will have readers racing to finish, but then pining away for the third installment of this massive and electrifying trilogy.” – Square Books, Oxford, MS

The Pat Conroy Cookbook Prize Winner: 
Soul Food Love by Alice Randall (Clarkson Potter Publishers)

I really appreciate the goal of this cookbook - to make Soul food quick, inexpensive, tasty and healthy! The family history part of the cookbook was very interesting and I appreciated the honesty of the authors. I loved the pictures of the family & the finished product of the recipes.” – Joe’s Place, Greenville, SC

The Death of Santini NonFiction Prize Winner: 
Dispatches from Pluto by Richard Grant (Simon & Schuster)

"In Dispatches From Pluto, Richard Grant brings clarity, insight, and wit through his outsider's observations of a small and forgotten community in the Mississippi Delta. The situations he writes of and the people he comes to know as friends are brought warmly and enrichingly to life as he settles his family in a rotting and dilapidated plantation home in Pluto, Mississippi." – Pass  Books, Pass Christian, MS

JacksonlandMosquitolandSerafina and the Black Cloak

The Water is Wide History & Life Stories Prize Winner: 
Jacksonland by Steve Inskeep (Penguin Press

“Great history! Loved the book, very well written”  – Books Unlimited, Franklin, NC

Poppy's Pants Young Adult Prize Winner: 
Mosquitoland by David Arnold (Viking Books for Young Readers)

“Mim's voice in this amazing amalgam of a love story, a road trip novel, and a coming-of-age story, will stay with you long after you finish .” – Fiction Addiction, Greenville, SC

Poppy's Pants Youngster's Prize Winner: 
Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty (Disney-Hyperion)

“A wonderfully thrilling mystery for young readers that is as much a celebration of being "different" as it is pitch-perfect creepiness.” – Avid Bookshop, Athens, GA


Nine great books for your Southern reading list. But remember that they come from a "gumbo of literary works--salty, spicy, bittersweet, and sour" to quote one Southern bookseller. To round out your literary diet, be sure to look at the full list of Pat Conroy Southern Book Prize Finalists.

For more information on the SIBA Book Awards please visit SIBA’s website for Southern literature, 

Free Book Stimulus Plan

Increase your karmic footprint.

We understand that you can buy books anywhere.  You understand that while loving independent bookstores is a wonderful thing, loving them with your shopping dollars is even more wonderful! 

These Southern Indie Booksellers want to entice you to shop with them.  Buy online or in store from any of these shops, then complete the form below and mail it in with your receipt and get a free book.  

What kind of book? you ask.  Answer:  A Free One.  Read more

Southern Indie Lit Crossword Puzzle Book

Do you know your Southern lit?

The Southern Indie Lit Crossword Puzzle Book

We dare you to use a pen on these crossword puzzles, each inspired by one of the winning titles of the SIBA Book Award, honoring ten years of the very best in Southern literature as chosen by the people who would know...Southern Independent Booksellers!

A great gift for your book club, for puzzle-lovers, and anyone who loves Southern literature. $9.95 paperback. Available at Southern Indie Bookstores.