I had a trip planned to the Twin Cities, Minnesota. Like many trips in the last few years, this trip was canceled at the last minute. It’s especially unfortunate, as this trip was actually to begin a children’s book writing degree, and the Twin Cities are such a lovely place, chock full of kid lit history and home to not one but two children’s bookstores. I had a lovely handful of excursions planned: I could stop by Maud Hart Lovelace’s house during a free day, maybe, and during a break I could stoop to walk through the miniature purple door at Wild Rumpus or visit the bears at Red Balloon Bookshop.
But, alas, it was not to be. The rising COVID numbers moved the classes online, but experiences like bookstore visits are a little harder to digitize. I can still shop, of course, but I do miss the feeling of being in a new bookstore.
Since I couldn’t visit those two remarkable children’s bookshops, I decided instead to plan a fantasy trip around some of the best children’s bookstores in the American midwest. This isn’t a comprehensive list, and I’ve decided to be generous with my definition of midwest: I’ll include Kentucky and Missouri and I’ll start in the Chicago area, since that’s where I’m located, and end close by. I’m focusing on children’s bookstores, which eliminates some states entirely. If there is a bookstore that sells mostly children’s books but has added a tiny adult section, I’ve decided to allow it. It’s hard to survive as a bookstore these days, and I think it’s actually a pretty good idea to include a small bookcase of titles for adults to peruse while their charges play and read.
So, let’s head out on this imaginary trip. Obviously, we have several audiobooks playing, and lots of snacks, and we’ll be stopping at only the finest coffee shops and sandwich places along the way.
First up, we’ll go to Booked in Evanston, Illinois. Booked bills itself as the only children’s bookstore in Chicagoland. (They do have a small adult section.) Booked was founded by Rachel Round, who holds a PhD in Education, School Psychology, and Disability Studies, and wanted to have a place for children to grow their minds.
Next, we’ll head up to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and visit Rainbow Booksellers for Children. Rainbow Booksellers has been open for over 40 years, and in their current neighborhood for more than 25. You enter the bookstore under a lovely open-book sign, but don’t forget to peek around the corner at the larger-than-life bookshelf mural on the side of the building!
Now we head west, through the woods, to Waupaca, Wisconsin. We’ll enter The Bookcellar, which looks for all the world like an adult bookstore, but we’ll head to the back, where Dragonwings Bookstore is hidden. As far as I can tell, these two stores operate independently, they just share a space, so it gets a pass. We’ll hideaway in the giant tree sculpture for a bit before we head out.
On to the Twin Cities, the inspiration for our imaginary trip. We’ll stop in St. Paul first and visit the little house that holds Red Balloon Bookshop. We’ll admire the bear sculptures before we head in to browse, and then we’ll let the WILD RUMPUS START and head across town to walk through the tiny door at Wild Rumpus. Don’t forget to look up at the ceiling, which at first seems quite normal, and then becomes an upside-down canoe pushing through the ice in one of Minnesota’s many lakes. We’ll take a minute to visit with the store pets that have, at various times, included cats, ferrets, a tarantula named Thomas Jefferson, and a very fancy chicken, because it’s a loooong drive before we reach our next bookstore.
Next we’ll drive nearly 500 miles, all the way through Iowa, passing many fine general bookstores but, as far as I can tell, no children’s bookstores. We’ll see much corn and many cows, and we’ll finally arrive at our new destination: Paper June Books in Topeka, Kansas. I can’t find much information about Paper June, but I do know they have a lovely name. From their quite active Facebook, I can tell that they have an abundance of events for little ones, dance parties as well as storytimes. They’re doing good work on the prairie.
I was hoping our next stop would be Reading Reptile, a legendary Kansas City children’s bookstore, only to find that that particular reptile reached the end of its days in 2016. The current owners closed the bookstore so they could focus on The Rabbit Hole, an indoor, immersive literary experience. It hasn’t opened yet, but I’ll be curious to stop by next time I drive through!
But we didn’t come to Missouri just to peek into covered windows, we’re here to visit EyeSeeMe, a Black-owned children’s bookstore founded by Pamela & Jeffrey Blair and dedicated to exposing African American children “to literature that respectfully mirrors themselves, their culture and their families.” The cheerful blue walls and white shelves make it feel a little like you’re floating on a cloud while you shop, and that’s just what we need before we hit the road again.
Now it’s time to take creative license with our definition as we cut across Kentucky. You’re right, you’re right, Kentucky probably is the south, but we’ve got to get to Ohio somehow. We’ll head to Fort Thomas, Kentucky, a pretty little town nestled in a curve of the Ohio River, and we’ll visit Blue Marble Books in a red brick building. Maybe we’ll get to attend a reading in the Goodnight Moon room! If you look at this road trip on a map, you’ll see soon that cutting through Kentucky was, perhaps, not the most logical next step, but I will let you in on a secret: I made our trip significantly longer in order to swing around to the Goodnight Moon room. This is what road trips are for! Circuitous long-cuts to find treasures, and Blue Marble Books is certainly a treasure. Now, across the Ohio River.
I don’t want anyone in Ohio to take this the wrong way, but I was pleasantly surprised at the number of children’s bookstores in your fine state. I never associated Ohio with whimsey, but that’s on me: too focused on the chili and the ice cream and not the books. There’s Cover to Cover Children’s Books in Columbus and Beanbag Books in Delaware, Ohio. And I wanted to give an honorable mention to Blue Manatee Literacy Project in Cincinnati. They have a perpetual buy one/give one project: if you buy a book (adult books included), they’ll donate a book to a child who might not otherwise have access.
This is where we do a bit of a hook around and double back through to Indianapolis. I know, I know, but we saw the Goodnight Moon, room, so you should be thanking me. We’re headed to Indiana to visit Kids Ink, a lovely little children’s bookstore in Indianapolis that has been around for more than 30 years. Like many independent bookstores, they seem to be highly community minded and have several donation projects running at once.
Fortunately, we are at the Crossroads of America, and so it is no big thing to swing on up near Detroit to Coreander’s Children’s Bookshoppe in Grosse Point, Michigan. It’s one of the sweetest little bookshops I’ve seen, with lovely curved windows, a garden, a fireplace, and winding staircase. It’s definitely worth a stop.
And finally, we’ll make our way across the state and end up at Storybook Village in Pentwater, Michigan. Pentwater is a destination in itself, and Storybook takes advantage of this by recreating town landmarks in child-size miniature throughout the store. You can tuck into the corner of a lighthouse with a picture book or hide in a gazebo with your new graphic novel or sit and wait for a puppet show to start at the base of the castle tower.
Now, as you might have suspected, I did plan this entire imaginary road trip to end up at a nice beach, so if you don’t mind I’ll be taking a stack of middle grade novels and heading to the lake. I hope you do the same!
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Want more bookstores? Check out the best bookstores in all 50 states (and D.C.!). Or follow these 7 children’s bookstores who are really fun on Instagram. Or you could follow some picture book Instagram accounts! Want to take a similarly silly journey? Rank some board books with me.