Book Review: The Unicorn in the Barn by Jacqueline K. Ogburn

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When Eric’s grandma leaves her home for an assisted living facility, her house next door to his is sold to a veterinarian, who turns it into a clinic. Dr. Brancusi hires Eric to help out cleaning stalls and caring for the animals. His employment, though, means he has to keep a secret: along with dogs, cats and other pets, Dr. Brancusi treats all sorts of magical animals. There’s a Cheshire cat, a goose that lays golden eggs, and a squonk. But Eric’s favorite is the unicorn, Moonpearl, and he’ll do anything to keep her safe.

The Unicorn in the Barn by Jacqueline K. Ogburn is a sweet story about a boy experiencing a tough time in his family life who finds comfort in caring for animals, both magical and ordinary. Eric finds that though his jobs are sometimes messy and smelly, feeling connection with those who need his care is worth the work. As he goes along he also earns the trust of the veterinarian’s lonely daughter, Allegra, and forges a deeper bond with his grandma.

The tale unfolds gently, with Eric and Allegra both experiencing challenges, losses, and triumphs. It’s a story sure to appeal to sensitive readers and those who like stories about animals and magical beings. I highly recommend it for ages 8 to 12.

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

Book Review: We Are the Change

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We Are the Change: Words of Inspiration from Civil Rights Leaders takes an innovative approach to introducing young readers to important figures in the fight for civil rights. Sixteen award-winning children’s book artists chose quotes from activists who fought for the rights of minorities, women, farm workers, and others from the past and present. This diverse group of activists included Helen Keller, Maya Angelou, Frederick Douglass, Eleanor Roosevelt, Dolores Huerta, Khalil Gibran, and more. The artists then let the quotes inspire an illustration.

For instance, Molly Idle, creator of Flora and the Flamingo and other books, illustrated this quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world.” Her art shows a group of children roasting marshmallows over a campfire.

Emily Hughes, who grew up in Hilo, Hawaii, illustrated this quote from Queen Lili’uokalani: “You must remember never to cease to act because you fear you may fail,” with an image of a child weaving a mat surrounded by lush tropical plants.

Along with the illustrations, the artists also talk about what the quotes mean to them. This integrative approach can inspire young readers to think about their own reactions to the words and images. Biographies of the artists in the back, along with the books they’ve written and/or illustrated, can lead to further reading.

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

Book Review: Garbage by Donna Latham

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What happens to our garbage after it’s collected from the curb in front of our house? We know it goes away, but where is away and what does that mean? Garbage: Follow the Path of Your Trash by Donna Latham answers that question and more about the things we throw away.

Filled with fascinating information, Garbage has charts, pull-out definitions, activities, history, and other tidbits of facts to help anyone figure out how to reduce, reuse, repurpose, and recycle a multitude of items. It helps readers figure out how much garbage they produce and what types of trash end up in landfills. There’s also a great piece on how landfills are created and how they are filling up.

Separate chapters include info on hazardous and medical waste as well as investigating past civilizations through the trash they left. The book makes clear that everyone creates garbage of some type, but tells why it’s important for us all to find ways to create less of it.

Some activities are simple, some are more involved, but they are all fun. Examples include building a garbage can compost heap, creating a junk mail bead necklace, discovering how different types of bags break down, and tie-dying old shirts with vegetable dyes. A glossary of terms in the back is helpful, as is a list of resources for more exploration.

Garbage is the kind of book that can be referred to for years, with young readers trying different activities when they get curious about different topics. I highly recommend it for readers aged 9 and up.

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

Guest Post by Kirstin Cronn-Mills—Music is Always the Thing That Saves Me

Music features prominently in author Kirstin Cronn-Mills’s books. In this guest post she talks about how music and songs can help all of us get through difficult times. To find out more about the author and her books, visit her website,

Kirstin Cronn-Mills photo
Photo by Chelsea Kocina at Chelsea Morning Photography

Thank you for hosting me!

There are three consistent threads in my books: one is a caring grown-up for each protagonist, the second is teenagers who are outsiders, and the third is music.

Music is the art form that keeps me afloat in this world. I love all kinds of art, of course: I have season tickets to our local university theatre (and go to community productions, too); I hit any art museum I can; I am (duh) always reading something; but music is in my life every. Single. Day.  And yes, I mean every day. I can’t start my work day without a carefully chosen song for the drive to school (yes, I live close to my college—a four-minute song is just about perfect). I can’t work in my office without Pandora. I can’t write a book without a playlist. I can’t do housework without iTunes. Music is my life raft, and I’m always clinging on. You may think that sounds dramatic, but I assure you it’s not.

My first novel, The Sky Always Hears Me and the Hills Don’t Mind, has no pop music in it—its musical component is the classical music Morgan’s grandma plays as a concert pianist. Beautiful Music, of course, is a long meditation on how music keeps us safe, sane, and alive when shit is rough. Gabe is probably the character most similar to me, simply for that reason. There isn’t a whole lot of music in Original Fake, but Frankie’s dad is a character in a musical, and his bestie models himself after (and is named after) 80s David Bowie, with a little more femininity.

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Wreck’s musical connection isn’t obvious for a few chapters, then we discover Steve’s love for Gordon Lightfoot and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” Little Kid Steve was in the right place at the right time to see the ship steam right in front of him, leaving the port for its awful fate, and he gets obsessed with the song once it comes out. The song worked as an unhappy but fitting metaphor for what Tobin and her dad are going through as his ALS progresses.

Of course the playlist for Wreck includes “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” so I’ve listened to the song countless times in the last four years. As songs go, it’s really pretty brilliant. It’s a bit longer than most (6:29), and I’ve never met a song that can make me cold, but that one can. It’s instantly November, the moment you hear the first note. I can’t imagine what kind of power it takes to destroy an ore boat, but I can clearly see how Lady Superior could muster it, and somehow Gordon Lightfoot captures that strength. I’ve experienced some pretty turbulent days on its shores (though in May rather than November) and that lake scared the shit out of me. Somehow Lightfoot captures all of it in his song. When we listen, we can literally feel his “witch of November.”

Even my car makes a difference in my musical life. I not-so-laughingly call it a rolling stereo (it’s a 2018 Prius, with a damn decent stereo system and Bluetooth). You’ll always find me somewhere with some playlist bouncing out its windows. And I don’t apologize for my eclectic, ever-present music, either. We all need something to get us through our days and nights, and music is much less harmful than a million other things. My son is leaving for work as I write this sentence—leaving in my old Prius, which has an aux cord (of course!). His music is loud, too. As legacies go to pass on to your child, relying on music to help you through life is a pretty great one.

Book Review: Lottie & Walter by Anna Walker

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Learning to swim can be frightening for young children. The pool water looks deep, lots of other kids may be splashing around, and all kinds of scary things could be hiding beneath the surface. Lottie is convinced a shark hides in the pool where she takes lessons, one that is only interested in eating her. She’s too afraid to get into the water until one day a Walrus named Walter shows up and helps her have fun learning to swim, just like all the other kids.

Lottie and Walter by Anna Walker is a cute, sweet picture book that’s also funny and comforting. Lottie’s fears are real to her, and Walter helps her confront them. He sings a silly song that goes, “Humbelly doo, lumbelly la, loopy loo,” which helps her get through all kinds of scary situations, including the one at the pool. Soft, watercolor illustrations enhance calm feelings and encourage snuggling. They are also likely to inspire kids to want to spend time at the pool.

Lottie and Walter is the kind of picture book that parents will reach for over and over, perhaps for before and after bath time to inspire young imaginations.

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

Book Review: El Perro Con Sombrero Meets Los Gatos Con Gelatos by Derek Taylor Kent

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When Lucia forgets her homework on the table at home, Pepe springs into action to bring it to her. With only 10 minutes to spare, he knows he has to act fast. But how can he resist helping a bird avoid capture by a cat? And how can he walk by a dog trapped inside a car without alerting someone? Pepe’s good deeds come back to help him when a band of ninja cats tries to stop his mission.

El Perro con Sombrero meets Los Gatos con Gelatos is a cute bilingual tale told in English and Spanish to help language learners of both types. Written by Derek Taylor Kent and illustrated by Lynx Animation Studios, each line of El Perro appears in black print for English and red print for Spanish. Pepe is an animated pup, and it’s easy to look at his facial expressions to follow along with what he’s thinking and feeling. It’s fun to watch as he helps out other animals and battles the evil cats.

El Perro is great to read over and over again not only because it helps to reinforce language skills, but also because it’s a lot of fun.

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

Book Review: Bloodleaf by Crystal Smith

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Princess Aurelia lives in a kingdom where witches are routinely accused and executed. Some think she is a witch. Her only chance of escape is to fulfill the pact her parents made for her to marry a prince from a nearby kingdom and forge an alliance between the two. But Aurelia is forced to flee on the way to her new home, and she enters the capital city in disguise. As she builds new friendships and falls for a forbidden love, she seeks a way to liberate both her own kingdom and the new realm she lives in.

Bloodleaf by Crystal Smith is a captivating adventure that twists and turns throughout the story as it takes readers on a spellbinding journey. At times dark and foreboding, tension builds throughout as Aurelia discovers a devious plot that will bring citizens from both countries under the thumb of an evil force. I can’t resist a book that combines mystery, romance, magic, and just the right amount of creepiness to tell a satisfying tale. I was intrigued until the last page, and look forward to reading the sequel.

While the tale is a fantasy, Bloodleaf has parallels in modern political situations, and should make for great discussions in mother-daughter book clubs. I highly recommend it for readers aged 14 and up.

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

Book Review: What Every Girl Should Know by J. Albert Mann

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Many people may recognize the name Margaret Higgins Sanger as the feminist and women’s health activist who established organizations that became Planned Parenthood. But most probably aren’t aware of her early life, her upbringing in a gritty Upstate New York mill town in the late 1800s, when girls were expected to either grow up, marry, and have children, or become teachers.

What Every Girl Should Know: Margaret Sanger’s Journey by J. Albert Mann, is a historical fiction account of Sanger’s early life, when she was known as Maggie in a household of more than 12 adults and children. The family was poor, Maggie’s mother was often ill and pregnant, and her father was a free-thinker ostracized in their community. Maggie and her siblings had an endless amount of work every day to help keep the household running. She didn’t understand why women had such limited options, and she thought things should be different.

With the help of her siblings, she was able to leave and go to school for a time before breaking out of the cycle expected for her. Mann’s book reveals a lot about the hardship Maggie and her siblings faced, recounting parts of her life that undoubtedly influenced her outlook and led her to advocate for women. I recommend it for mother-daughter book clubs and readers aged 14 and up.

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

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