Fall reading recommendations from three local bookstores

From a novel set at the site of the Salem witch trials to a collection of children’s books, local bookstore experts have just the book for you this fall.
The storefront of A Room Of One's Own, a local bookstore in Madison, WI.
Photo courtesy of Misian Taylor
A Room of One's Own, located in downtown Madison, is accepting online orders for books.

As the leaves begin to turn and aggressive marketing campaigns for pumpkin spice-everything crop up around Madison, it’s once again time to find that new fall companion: a good book. This autumn, let local novels be your guide to the wonderful worlds created by Wisconsin writers, many of whom have new and recently released reads just in time for the fall season. 

Here are the latest recommendations from experts at the three local bookstores: A Room of One’s Own in downtown Madison, It’s More Than Mystery to Me on Monroe Street and Arcadia Books in Spring Green. Whether you’re looking for a collection of poems, essays, a new children’s book or a relaxed novel — these three stores have something to offer for every reading level. While looking for that new literary adventure, Charlotte Colaluca of Mystery to Me reminds readers to not just read local, but to shop local, too. 

“When you spend money at any local business, that money goes right back into your community and that money starts to work for you,” Colaluca says. I think it’s an act of humanitarianism at this point if you shop local instead of shopping from Amazon, because when you send money that goes to the richest man on earth, that money doesn’t come back to you. It goes into his pocket. 

All three bookstores have more volumes than a person can read in a lifetime, but the most popular books these days, according to our local bookstore sources, have been books about racism, white supremacy and how to be antiracist in America. Nancy Baenen, co-manager of Arcadia Books, said it was wonderful to see so many readers interested in educating themselves through books. 

“Probably like all of the other bookstores, we’ve been having a lot of interest this summer in books about race,” Baenen says. “It’s just great that peoples first reaction to was to want to learn and understand and better themselves on the issue. 

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 Mystery to Me also has a collection of books about racism for younger readers, too, and plenty of short chapter books, graphic novels and more featuring Black characters, including Shuri: A Black Panther Novel. 

For young readers looking for a local authorKevin Henkes’ books are both Madison and national treasures. Henkes, who’s been writing and illustrating children’s books for 30 years, is most well-known for his “Lily and Friends” picture book series. He often stops in to Mystery to Me, says Colaluca. 

“I grew up on his books,” she says. “He is the kindest, funniest, most thoughtful man.” 

Henkes has two new books coming out this year, including a hardcover full collection of the “Lily and Friends” series. His other new release, “Winter is here,” is an exploration of the beauty of the season alongside expressive paintings by Laura Dronzek. The children’s book — a companion piece to “When Spring Comes” and “In the Middle of Fall” — has been praised by newspapers and journals alike for its lyrical text and rich illustrations. 

For those looking for tidbits about historical Wisconsin, Misian Taylor of A Room of One’s Own recommended “Coming Out, Moving Forward: Wisconsin’s Recent Gay History, by R. Richard Wagner. The book is the second volume in his work on gay history in Wisconsin, and the book outlines the challenges LGBT Wisconsinites faced from the late 1960s to the early aughts. It also describes the state’s successes  including becoming the first state to enact a law prohibiting certain types of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. 

Local works focusing on sexuality and identity don’t stop at Wagner’s book. “Tomboyland,” a collection of essays by Melissa Faliveno, discuss her upbringing in working class Wisconsin through the lens of queerness, womanhood, family and class. 

Of course, anyone’s literary fall list would be lost without a work of poetry. “Grimoire,” written by Cherene Sherrard, a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, is a work exploring Black motherhood and ancestry through a series of poems beginning with reimagined recipes from one of the earliest cookbooks by an African American woman.  

Another professor of English at UW–Madison, Quan Barry, published her book, “We Ride Upon Sticks,” just before the nation went into lockdown. The book is set at the original site of the Salem witch trials, making it a perfect spooky scene as we settle in for the Halloween season. It follows a 1980s field hockey team as they do just about anything to make it into the championships.  

Offering another university connection, the late renowned sociologist Eric Olin Wright , who was a professor of sociology at UW-Madison, authored a collection of ruminations on living, dying and mortality as he battled leukemia. “Stardust to Stardust traverses his journey toward death and explores the big questions about life and the universe.  

“That I, as a conscious being will cease to exist pales in significance to the fact that I exist at all,” reads a portion of the book’s description. “I don’t find that this robs my existence of meaning; it’s what makes infusing life with meaning possible.” 

For the reader looking for something a little less intense than grandiose questions oliving and dying, “A Small Earnest Question” offers a wry tale full of vivid characters living on Door County’s own Washington Island. Author J. F. Riordan, who resides on the island, has been called a “modern day Jane Austin” for her book, and visited Mystery to Me for a virtual event this month. Colaluca says this book is perfect for anyone looking for a relaxing read. 

"A Small Earnest Question," a book by a local Wisconsin author, is held in front of Mystery to Me's storefront windows.

Photo courtesy Charlotte Colaluca

“[Riordan is] so excellent as far as writing about that place, and its not a very high-stakes drama … Its like a nice break from the world we currently live in.” 

An escape is just what the pandemic ordered. Be it poetry, essays, novels or a drama set in Wisconsin itself, local authors have every kind of publication for a reader to disappear into, for a few short hours, and let themselves get lost in a story. All of these local authors can be found at bookstores in and around Madison. 

Arcadia Books storefront, partially obscured by fall decorations including a pumpkin, in Spring Green, WI.

Photo courtesy of Nancy Baenen

A Room of One’s Own, Mystery to Me and Arcadia Books are all open for online shopping. A Room of One’s Own is taking all orders through the store’s website and offers shipping via USPS. The store can be reached at 608-257-7888. Mystery to Me can be found at 1863 Monroe St. or reached at 608-283-9332 and the store’s website. The book shop is open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sundays.

Arcadia Books own can be found at 102 E. Jefferson St. in Spring Green or reached at 608-588-7638 and online. The store is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays.