Book Review: Valedictorians at the Gate by Becky Munsterer Sabky

Valedictorians at the Gate cover image

Anyone who has been through the college application process with a teen knows how stressful it can be. Foremost on most people’s minds is how they can stand out in a competitive field and get into the college of their choice. Becky Munsterer Sabky, a former admissions director at Dartmouth has some advice.

In Valedictorians at the Gate: Standing Out, Getting In, and Staying Sane While Applying to College, Sabky offers and insider’s look at what admissions directors consider when choosing who to admit. Her story is relatable and straightforward, and she gives tips on things like how visiting campus can help with the application process, why GPA’s both matter and don’t matter, getting recommendations, early admissions, and more.

Perhaps one of her best pieces of advice is to remind students, and parents, that there isn’t just one school that’s perfect for them and if they don’t get in to their top choice it won’t be a catastrophe. At the beginning of the book, Sabky even shares that she, herself, didn’t get into Dartmouth, but she ended up being really happy where she ultimately attended.

As a parent who has been through this process twice, I found Valedictorians at the Gate to be helpful in giving advice on how to navigate the whole process as well as manage expectations. I think it should be particularly relevant to students in their sophomore and junior years and their parents, but those even younger could benefit as well.

The publisher provided me with a copy of this title in exchange for my honest review.

Interview With Judith Rabinor, Author of The Girl in the Red Boots

When I read for review Judith Ruskay Rabinor’s memoir, The Girl in the Red Boots, I was fascinated by her advice to her patients in her psychotherapy practice as well as her personal stories about her own relationship with her mother. In this interview, Dr. Rabinor talks about her challenges in writing her book and gives more observations about the mother-daughter relationship.

Judith Rabinor photo

The Girl in the Red Boots combines memoir with advice for people who want to start conversations about important issues with their own moms. What was your biggest challenge in writing this book?

My biggest challenge was creating a compelling story to engage the reader. This is the mission of all writers: to figure out what makes a reader turn the page rather than put a book down. Did my story offer a universal message? And what was my message? Was it clear? Does one person’s suffering automatically generalize to a universal principal?  Questions multiplied and created more stress: How would my story and my message teach readers my message: Transformation is always a possibility. We are never too old to change, revise our stories and grow: “change your story, change your life.”

I worked on this book for many years before I understood how writing changed my story—and me. That was a big revelation. Pause. My story had changed. An earlier version of this manuscript opens at a deathbed scene: I sit by my mother’s side for four days, reflecting on our relationship. As I wrote I realized that my mother’s death was not the trigger to my transformation. I decided to start at a crisis point and then I knew where to start this book.

Years earlier a writing coach had suggested that a deathbed scene is mundane, almost cliched.. But I couldn’t follow her advice because I wasn’t  ready to see my story differently. What is important to convey is how the very process of reviewing my relationship with my mother prompted me to ask new questions and it is new questions that open up our stories. In the writing and rewriting, I came to many moments where I was filled with awe and new awarenesses–an appreciation of my mother’s love for me and of  my own blind spots.

Tell me about how you decided to weave your own experience along with the stories of mother-daughter relationships from your practice.

Sharing my own story was a decision I deliberated over, slowly. Initially I was hesitant to share my own personal experience thus I was indecisive- would I write a memoir or fiction? I began by writing both and I registered at a local JCC in a memoir and a fiction class, unsure of which direction I should pursue. What gave me the expertise to write the book was my professional work as a psychologist, with decades of experience treating mothers and daughters. On the other hand, my own personal struggle gave me a different yet deeper credential. My own journey taught me to accept my ambivalent and loving feelings: resentment, frustration and disappointment can exist alongside of tenacious loyalty and love.

Sharing my personal experience created a lot of anxiety for me professionally. I worried about my professional identity. I was trained as a psychologist (in the 1970’s) and had learned that therapists should maintain a “blank screen,” an invisible presence. Therapeutic anonymity was the norm. Self- disclosure was frowned upon. But as I became a more experienced therapist, this perspective made little sense to me. Sharing personal information often opened up our relationship. Early on in The Girl in the Red Boots I discuss this issue: when I shared my own experience being bullied as a teenager, a patient spontaneously revealed hidden aspects of her eating disorder.

One things that bothered me about my own mother was her perpetual sunny nature. I experienced her as inauthentic. Her reliance on the pithy philosophy “everything will turn out fine!” was maddening. It made me distrust her. Giving advice and support to others carries more weight when the speaker—author or therapist—has been genuine.

Did the process of writing it open up new observations for you about your relationship with your mom?

I began writing this book with a need to mourn my mother and to vent my anger, frustration and disappointment with her. By the time I completed the book, I realized how deeply I loved her. Writing the book actually facilitated my own transformation. I was able to applaud the fact that my mother supported me (and metaphorically gave me my Red Boots—and a zest for life), but I don’t think I was aware that she actually was my role model. In the course of writing, I came to appreciate my mother’s strengths and see her limitations differently. At the end of the book I sum this up:

“… I have revised my narrative from a “Story of a Disappointed Daughter” to a “Story of a Grateful Daughter.”

There’s so much readers can take away from The Girl in the Red Boots. Is there one message you hope they glean from it?

The main message of The Girl in the Red Boots is that it is never too late to develop a deeper understanding of yourself. “Change your story, change your life,” is the logo on my website. As it’s easy to get stuck in a “story” which may not convey the whole, complicated, messy truth. Learning to live with the messiness of life means we have to abandon idealized images. Ultimately we must live with a messy truth.

Do you believe the observations and advice in your book apply to relationships beyond the mother-daughter one?

Understanding and untangling your relationship with your mother will help you with every other relationship in your life. A cornerstone of all psychological theories is that we are all profoundly impacted by our early experiences. When the mother is the primary caretaker (as is still generally the case in the Western world), this relationship serves as a template for all other relationships. As Bruno Betteheim said, “The ways we were loved—and not loved—has shaped our expectation of how we expect to be loved and how we love.” Understanding our mothers ultimately translates into understanding what we bring to every relationship—the strengths, vulnerabilities and expectations we bring to our connection with husbands and wives, children, friends, colleagues.

Is there anything else you’d like to say to readers at

Writing this book was a healing journey. As a therapist, I’ve been in the business of  facilitating transformations  for decades. I know people read books to find answers to their own dilemmas. For me, it was actually the writing of this book that opened my eyes and allowed me to reevaluate my story. This book offers far-reaching lessons that are not limited to the mother-daughter relationship—but are applicable to all kinds of important relationships:

#1. Its never too late to make peace with anyone. Even when someone you love is no longer alive, it’s possible to make peace with your own feelings. And if you are at odds with someone you love, if you want to repair the relationship, take a risk, reach out and make the first move. .

#2. Developing compassion for your mother may help you develop compassion for yourself. 

#3. All relationships are imperfect. Expect disappointment, frustration and ambivalence to be part of most relationships.

#4.No one is as bad as the worst thing they’ve ever done.

#5. We are all capable of revising our stories.

Melissa Face and I Love You More Than Coffee

Mellisa Face’s essay collection, I Love You More Than Coffee, seeks to capture the conflicting emotions parents often feel: anticipation, joy, fear, guilt, and worry. Written for both new and seasoned parents, the stories are heartfelt and humorous. Here is an excerpt from her title essay. For more information about the author or her book, visit

Author Melissa Face
The author with her children.

“Do you like me more than candy?” my four-year-old, Delaney, asks. She’s been on this kick for a few weeks now, partly joking and partly trying to determine how she measures up in our eyes.

“Of course I like you more than candy,” I reassure her.

“Do you like me more than cookies?”

“Yes. I like you more than cookies, too,” I promise.

“What about coffee?” Her expression turns serious. “Do you like me more than coffee?”

“Now that’s a tough one!” I joke with her. “You wouldn’t really ask me to choose between you and coffee, would you?”

My older child, Evan, chimes in at that moment.

“Careful, Mom,” he warns. “It’s less than six days until Mother’s Day. You don’t want us to stop working on your presents, do you?”

I see him grin and wink at me in the rearview mirror, and I feel an actual ache in my chest from the love I feel for both of them.

“Of course I don’t want you to stop. I adore the things you make for me.”

But honestly, I had forgotten Mother’s Day was approaching. As grateful as I am to have my children and to be their mom, I don’t particularly love this holiday. Mother’s Day makes me feel inept and guilty. It is a day of celebration of all the characteristics I don’t demonstrate as a mom: selflessness, patience, tolerance, and kindness. It conjures images of moms who make and pack nutritious lunches, and plan and coordinate stimulating activities, all while talking in a quiet, calm voice.

I tried to be that mom a few times. Twice, maybe.

Since I’m a relatively hopeful person, I have fleeting moments when I think I can still be that mom. I tried again last Friday.

Delaney asked me to make her pancakes for breakfast, so after dropping Evan off at school, we went to the McDonald’s drive-thru, and I bought a large coffee and pancakes. That’s how pancakes are “made” at this stage of my life.

We were both excited about our day together. I promised her I would color with her and play with her doll house. And I promised myself I would try not to yell or fuss the whole day.

Hilarious, right?

“Uh-oh!” Laney exclaimed, while I poured her juice in the other part of the room.

Nothing good ever follows “uh-oh”.

“I spilled a little bit of syrup,” Delaney whimpered.

“Of course you did,” I said, not exactly to myself.

The entire packet of maple goo cascaded off the edge of the table, into Delaney’s lap, and eventually formed an amber puddle on the floor.

For a minute or two, I just stood and watched it ooze and thought about what I might use to clean it up. I thought about not cleaning it up. I could just leave it there; we have other rooms in the house.

“I’m sorry,” Delaney said. “I was just trying to be a big girl.”

“I know,” I told her, while I wiped syrup off her belly.

A few minutes later, my maple scented daughter sat next to me with her box of crayons. We took turns coloring Skye from Paw Patrol, her current obsession, in as many shades of pink as we could find.

We were almost finished when Delaney told me she had to go to the bathroom. She has been working on her independence in this area as well, so she goes in alone, and I check on her as necessary.

After the sink had run for about five minutes, I knew it was time to check. I opened the door, and Delaney jumped.

“You scared me!” she said.

“It wouldn’t be scary if you weren’t doing something wrong,” I scolded.

Delaney had her Doc McStuffins doll under the faucet, face upright. I wondered if she had been learning about water torture in preschool.

“What ARE you doing to your doll?” I demanded.

“I was just cleaning her face from where somebody marked on her.”

That somebody was Delaney, about two weeks earlier.

I Love You More Than Coffee cover image

I took in the scene: a puddle of water on the floor, two soggy towels on the door knob, and half a bottle of soap emptied into the sink, and Delaney, shirtless, perched on her stool, scrubbing away at Doc McStuffins’ face. I’m still not sure why she took her shirt off for the task.

Anyway, my reaction was not one that I’m proud of, not one I aspired to back before I became a mother. There was yelling, fussing, and tears, from both parties. I took Delaney upstairs to the bathtub, fussing all the way and wishing I could just sit down and drink my coffee, my coffee that sat cold on the counter, before the daily messes began, before I lost hope in another day, before I once again turned into the mom I do not want to be.

I was really hoping as I scrubbed syrup, hand soap, and one unknown substance off my daughter that she would not choose this moment to ask me if I liked her more than coffee…

Review: CoComelon Books

Cocomelon book cover image

CoComelon, the wildly popular YouTube videos and Netflix show for preschool children, now has a set of companion books. The four titles are: Hello, New Friend!;The Wheels on the Bus; Yes, Yes, Vegetables!; and Ready for School!

The books are a great way to add tactile interaction to the stories that help teach letters, numbers and more through catchy tunes. They are also easy for small fingers to hold and turn the pages. Also, their small size makes it easy for parents to slip them in a tote for reading at a park or playground or any activity that helps get kids through waiting time.

The publisher provided me with a copy of this title in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review: Rat Rule 79 by Rivka Galchen

Rat Rule 79 cover image

On the eve of her 13th birthday, Fred has a fight with her mom. The two are settling in after yet another move and Fred is angry that she once again has to start over with making friends and forging a life. When she goes to her room she’s too angry to sleep. In the morning she leaves her room to see something totally unexpected: her mom steps through a paper lantern and disappears. When Fred follows, an adventure begins.

Rat Rule 79: An Advenure by Rivka Galchen is an inventive tale of Fred’s journey to find her mom in a fantasy land where a Rat Queen rules. With the help of her new friends, Downer the elephant and Gogo the mongoose, Fred has to learn the myriad rules of what’s allowed and not allowed while she searches. Ultimately she hopes to heal the relationship between the rat queen and her beloved adopted deer and return to a normal life.

Similar to Alice in Wonderland and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Rat Rule 79 is about a child trying to find her way during a confusing time of life. The characters she meets on her quest all help her gain insight to something that confuses or troubles her as she navigates perils and helps those around her as well as herself.

Illustrations by Elena Megalos are rendered in shades of gray and red, giving them a dreamy quality to go along with the compelling narrative. Rat Rule 79 is sure to delight readers both young and old. I recommend it for ages 10 and up.

The author provided me with a copy of this title in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review: Why Longfellow Lied by Jeff Lantos

The story of Paul Revere’s ride to warn the countryside about British troops is well known lore. Especially about how this patriot waited for the lanterns to shine in the belfry tower, one if by land, two if by sea, before he started his journey. But what if the facts don’t match up to the story?

Why Longfellow Lied: The Truth About Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride by Jeff Lantos delves into the myth that has grown around Revere’s actions and how that myth was influenced by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous poem about that night.

Lantos starts with an intro that includes a cast of characters, gives background on what was happening in Boston during revolutionary times, and reprints Longfellow’s poem in its entirety. Then he examines the poem chapter by chapter to compare what Longfellow said with what the historical record actually shows.

Anyone who loves history will appreciate this approach that compares the time a historical event occurred to the time a poem about it was written. The author ties it all together by talking about what Longfellow hoped to achieve by poeticizing the facts while remaining true to the spirit of the event.

Why Longfellow Lied is a fascinating story that untangles a bit of history in a way that is sure to appeal to many readers aged 9 to 12.

The author provided me with a copy of this title in exchange for my honest review.

Tori Eldridge Talks About the Mother-Daughter Relationship in a Bi-Racial Family

Tori Eldridge photo

Tori Eldridge is the Anthony, Lefty, and Macavity Awards-nominated author of the Lily Wong mystery thriller series—The Ninja DaughterThe Ninja’s BladeThe Ninja Betrayed—and the upcoming dark Brazilian fantasy, Dance Among the Flames (out May 2022).

She also has shorter works that appear in horror, dystopian, and other literary anthologies, including the inaugural reboot of Weird Tales magazine. Her screenplay The Gift was a Nicholl Fellowship semi-finalist. Here she talks about the challenges of the mother-daughter relationship, particularly in a biracial family, and how her own experiences have influenced her writing.

To find out more about Tori, visit

Here’s her essay:

Lily Wong has a complicated relationship with her mother that stems from unresolved filial obligation, devastating grief, secrets Lily keeps, and the added cultural complexity of a biracial Asian-American daughter and a Chinese-national mother from Hong Kong. Although Lily isn’t me and my Chinese-Hawaiian mother was most certainly not like hers, I drew a great deal from my own mother-daughter relationship to write about them in The Ninja Daughter, The Ninja’s Blade, and The Ninja Betrayed.

My mother was an adventurous loner who played by herself as child, climbed (and fell out of) trees, swam in sugar plantation ditches, and explored the neighborhood around her Wailuku River home. After the end of World War II, she flew to Tokyo for work during the occupation, where she met and married my father, a young Norwegian lieutenant from North Dakota, and gave birth to my two elder sisters. She must have used up her sociability quota during those exciting times as a young wife and mother because when I finally came along in Honolulu, the beach trips and picnics had stopped, and I was admonished to learn to play by myself—unfortunate since I was a profoundly lonely child.

When I first created Lily Wong’s character and explored her relationship with Ma, many of my issues and experiences with my own mother pressed into my mind. Some of them fit with Lily’s situation. Most of them did not. What did come through were the core emotions of yearning, frustration, miscommunication, and our mother’s shared tendency to speak the unvarnished truth.

To make sure that I wouldn’t impose my personal issues and distinct Chinese-in-Hawaii experience onto Los Angeles-born Lily Wong and her Hongkonger mother, I interviewed many of my Chinese-American friends about their own upbringings, especially those raised by immigrant parents. It fascinated me to note all the many cultural similarities amidst the individual differences.

Chinese mothers are notorious for blunt comments and bruising critiques, made all the more effective when shot between calculated silence and inscrutable expressions. Filial duty and obligation work behind the scenes to influence attitudes and (often confounding!) behaviors. After numerous conversations—and tears of laughter—I had a deep cultural pool from which to create Lily’s relationship with Ma.

Although the Lily Wong books are gritty mystery thrillers, they are also a journey between daughter and mother. The challenge for me has been to find the perfect balance between family dynamics, intrigue, and action. It’s not something I had ever read in a novel, but it was essential for the series I wanted to write.

In The Ninja Daughter (book one), Lily and Ma cope with buried grief and the walls they have erected to protect their emotions. Their relationship is further complicated by Lily’s secret life rescuing and protecting women and children from violent situations. To Lily’s employers at the women’s shelter and those she has saved, she is a tireless champion for those in need. To her mother, Lily is a troubled young woman with no job, no friends, and an aborted university education.

In the second book, The Ninja’s Blade, Lily’s grandparents visit from Hong Kong to “celebrate” her mother’s fiftieth birthday. The visit causes great anxiety for Ma and gives Lily an opportunity to see her mother in the role of a daughter. The change in perspective has a noticeable impact on Lily. The more she knows; the more empathy she feels. So when her mother is summoned to Hong Kong, Lily is happy to escort her in The Ninja Betrayed.

Three generations of Wong women under one roof during stressful times forces my fictitious characters into conflict and growth. It wasn’t easy for me to write, and it’s not easy for them to live. But the relationships between mothers and daughters are too precious for a modern-day ninja like Lily and me not to make the effort and fight.

Book Review: Once Upon a Camel by Kathi Appelt

Once Upon a Camel cover image

Zada has seen adventure in her long life, racing as one of the Pasha of Smyrna’s elite camels, trekking across the American southwest for the US Army, and facing down a mob of mustangs bent on trampling a cougar pup. But now she’s content to leave her adventures behind and rest in the West Texas desert with a kestrel family for company. That all changes when a massive dust storm as big as a mountain, a haboob, begins to blow on her little home. Can she muster one more trip to save some chicks and reunite with her friends?

Once Upon a Camel by Kathi Appelt is a delightful tale of friendship, love, devotion, and hope. Appelt is a master storyteller, seamlessly weaving in facts about camels, the desert, Smyrna, kestrels, historical info, and more into the tender narrative.

Kathi Appelt on a camel
Author Kathi Appelt

At the center of it all is sweet Zada, a camel who shelters two kestrel chicks in the scruff of fur on top of her head during the storm and works to get them safely to the mission after it ends. To keep the birds calm while they wait to reunite with their parents, she tells them stories of her life with her best friend Asiye in Smyrna and beyond.

I loved reading about Zada and her stories, and I was sad to leave her world behind when I finished the book. The author notes that she named her storytelling camel after the most famous storyteller of all time, Scheherazade, and Once Upon a Camel enchants as well as any Arabian Nights tale. I highly recommend it for readers aged 8 and up.

The author provided me with a copy of this title in exchange for my honest review.

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