Book Review – The Spirit of Cattail County by Victoria Piontek

Spirit of Cattail CountyBy Awnali Mills

Sparrow hasn’t got any friends—any living ones, anyway.  In the small town of Beulah, Florida, Sparrow doesn’t fit in with anyone.  Even though her mother was from a long line of Daltons—one of the town’s few families—she doesn’t look anything like them.  She probably looks like her dad, but no one knows who he is.  And now that her mother has died, she doesn’t have any hope of finding out who he was, especially since her horrible aunt now has custody of her.

But Sparrow does have one friend.  Boy is a very solid looking ghost who haunts her house.  Sparrow sees spirits everywhere, but none are as solid and real-looking as Boy.  If only she could get her mother to come back like Boy, she wouldn’t be so lonely.  If she can help Boy get what he needs, then she’s sure he’ll help her find her mother and bring her back.  In the course of her quest, Sparrow finds surprising new friends, new questions to answer, and danger that just might make her into a ghost herself.

I think sometimes that we dismiss the grief that children experience over the loss of loved ones.  We say, “Kids are so adaptable!” and assume that they’ll just move on with their lives.  The Spirit of Cattail County demonstrates that kids grieve just as deeply as adults do, but also how easy it is to be distracted by the stuff of everyday life, even though the sorrow remains.  Sparrow has a difficult relationship with her aunt which I thought was brought around just a little too easily considering some of the things her aunt did.  But it did show that sometimes we misinterpret people’s intentions (although I thought some of the things her aunt did were pretty hard to misinterpret.)  Some of Sparrow’s questions are left unanswered, and Piontek was clearly setting us up for a sequel.

I would put this book in the hands of kids who like ghost stories (although this isn’t a scary one), mysteries, or who want books about grief or losing a parent.  Recommended for grades 3-5.

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What I’ve been reading 6/16/18

Zero Waste HomeBy Awnali Mills

There comes a time in every children’s librarian’s life when she just needs to read some adult books—PLEASE!  So that’s why you haven’t seen many children’s book reviews here recently.  But, just to catch you up with what I HAVE been reading, here’s the list:


All of the Phryne Fisher Mysteries by Kerry Greenwood that are available in my system.  I adore this series, but I wouldn’t listen to them with children in the car.  For the most part, they’re very PG right up till (at least one) very explicit sex scene.

The Job by Janet Evanovich—Criminal mastermind Fox and FBI agent O’Hare are at it again, helping out the good guys and takin’ down the bad guys

Top Secret Twenty-One and Tricky Twenty-Two by Janet Evanovich—the Stephanie Plum series continues to amuse me.


Looking for Alaska: Part of the Great American Read, and one that I hadn’t read yet (I’ve now read 52 of the 100 books).  This award winning book is worth the read and made me cry.

Carnegie’s Maid: a Novel by Marie Benedict—Fictionalized account of a relationship that the author imagines might have changed Carnegie’s character and turned him into the renowned philanthropist we know today.

The Fallen by David Baldacci—The newest in the Memory Man series.

Owl and the Japanese Circus by Kristi Charish—Owl is an archaeological thief who specializes in finding supernatural goods.  This time, she’s been hired by a dragon, and it looks like she’s in over her head.  The first in a series.

Young Miles by Lois McMaster Bujold—I love everything I’ve read by Bujold.  This is an old sci-fi omnibus that I was amazed to spy in our collection.

Burn Bright by Patricia Briggs—I inhale everything Briggs writes, and it always levitates to the top of my stack.  This is the newest in the Alpha and Omega series.  Unusual for her, the story didn’t have a neat and tidy ending, but promised battles to come.

Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson—I want to spend a little time on this one.  My husband and I watched a Blue Planet episode, and were deeply moved by the way that plastics are impacting our oceans.  In particular, for me, it was heart wrenching to hear that baby dolphins are being poisoned and dying, killed by their mother’s milk, which has been contaminated by the plastics in the mother’s diet.  I was so distressed by this that I Googled “Is it possible to live without plastic?” which led me to the blog Plastic Free Life by Beth Terry.  I subsequently read her book, and my search for knowledge about a plastic free lifestyle led me to work being done by Bea Johnson, who has moved from living without plastic to trying to live free of all disposables.

These women gave me something to aspire to.  I tentatively laid out my plans for removing plastics from our home to my husband, sure that he would outwardly humor me, but inwardly resist because of the inconvenience.  Instead, he said that he’d been haunted by the images of wales dying with their bellies full of plastic bags.  He was all in.


A lot of the practices of zero waste were already a part of my routine lifestyle, like carrying fabric bags when shopping (I was doing it at least 90% of the time), shopping thrift stores, cooking at home, growing our own food, and composting.  But I wasn’t sure if I was up to the challenge of getting rid of all the plastics in my kitchen and making my own mascara.

A few months after starting this journey, we’ve significantly cut down on our trash, mostly by replacing tissues, napkins, and paper towels with reusables.  I’ve also made my own bee wraps to replace a lot of our plastic wraps/bags, as well as sewing reusable fabric baggies for snacks and lunches.  We’re baking our own bread, discovered that we adore our own homemade tooth powder, and have little kits we carry in our cars to help us avoid restaurant trash.  We’ve significantly reduced the plastics in our kitchen, and I’m still looking for a good mascara recipe (raccoon eyes are not a good look on me).

I’ve also come to terms with the fact that this is a marathon, not a sprint.  It will take time to figure out what works for us and what doesn’t, what is reasonable to do and what isn’t.  We have to weigh our budget against our desire for plastic-free foodstuffs.  I have to firmly squelch my perfectionistic tendencies and realize that doing something is better than doing nothing.

So, there you have it.  That’s my current adult-reading list.  I have more adult books in the pile, but I started a children’s book this morning.  I’ll let you know how it turns out.


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Brothers & Sisters Storytime 5/30/18

By Awnali Mills

Today’s storytime was about siblings.  The books I chose were Alphonse, That Is Not OK to Do by Daisy Hirst, and One Busy Day by Lola M. Schaefer.  We started with Wheels on the Bus and then I brought out Riley the Rat.  He gave us our letter S and our word pictures.  He told us that he has 22 siblings!  Siblings is a big word, but one of the kids knew it, and the rest learned it.

Alphonse was our first book, and the kids were enthralled.  Then we sang If You Have a Sister:

(Tune: Dem Bones)
If you have a sister give me one clap
If you have a sister give me one clap
If you have a sister give me one clap
We love our family!

If you have a brother give me two claps
If you have an auntie give me one stomp
If you have an uncle give me two stomps
If you have a grandma give me one shake (shake hip)
If you have a grandpa give me two shakes (shake hip)
If you have a cousin shout HOORAY!


The flannel 10 Little Parrots followed (I told the kids that they were siblings—it’s hard to find flannel stories about siblings!):

Ten Little ParrotsTen Little Parrots closeup

The rhyme goes:
Ten little parrots sitting in a line, One danced away and then there were nine.
Nine little parrots eating from a plate, One hopped away and then there were eight.
Eight little parrots looking up at heaven, One walked away and then there were seven.
Seven little parrots doing lots of tricks, One leaped away and then there were six.
Six little parrots learning how to dive, One swam away and then there were five.
Five little parrots playing in a downpour, One ran away and then there were four.
Four little parrots napping in a tree, One tiptoed away and then there were three.
Three little parrots wondering what to do, One jumped away and then there were two.
Two little parrots playing in the sun, One flew away and then there was one.
One lonely little parrot squawking loud and clear, “Hey everybody, come back here!”

Then we did a version of ThumbkinWhere Is Sister?  Once we did sister, we did brother.  Then the children insisted on doing baby, and then cousin.  It’s so sweet to see children watching me intently while tucking their thumbs behind their backs.

Our next book was One Busy Day in which a brother doesn’t want to play with his sister, so she contentedly plays by herself until her brother is drawn into her play and they finish the day together.  If you aren’t paying attention to the pictures, you might miss the brother being drawn into the play because the words don’t mention it.  I like this book because it requires kids to “read” the pictures to understand what’s going on.  I also do some dialogic reading with them, asking “Do you see brother?  What’s he doing?”

Next we did a flannel Jack & Jill, then I got out our stuffed, Velcro-handed monkeys, and we danced to Bouncy Blue’s Five Little Monkeys.  After each monkey falls off the bed and bumps his head, I yell out a rock-n-roll “OW!”, pull one of the monkeys off the line, and throw her over my head.  They almost always land in the cubbies behind me, which kids find hilarious and fascinating. (What goes up but doesn’t come down?  Monkeys!)

To end, I told the kids that I loved to blow bubbles with my brother and pulled out the bubbles.  They had a great time catching and playing with bubbles.  We use the Gymboree bubbles which are fantastic, aren’t soapy, and don’t stain.  One of the mothers said, “These bubbles are fantastic!  And they don’t make me angry.”

Uh, okay?  I’m very glad they don’t make her angry.  It would be awful to have bubbles make you angry!

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Book Review – The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty

Miscalculations of Lightning GirlBy Awnali Mills

When she was eight, Lucy was struck by lightning.  Part of her brain turned off, but part of her brain when into hyperdrive.  Now Lucy is a math genius.  Her Nana homeschooled her, and now she’s ready for college, even if she is only 12.

Not so fast.

Nana isn’t going along with the whole college idea.  She thinks Lucy needs some social skills before hitting the college scene, so she’s sending her to middle school.  Lucy, who is one small step from being agoraphobic, thinks this is a horrible idea, but Nana is firm.  How on earth will Lucy fit into middle school, with her OCD repetitions, fear of germs, and her freaky math skills?  With a little luck from prime numbers and some understanding friends, she just might pull it off.

I enjoyed this book.  And that’s saying a lot, since math is far from my favorite subject—you say “algorithm” and my eyes roll back in my head (I even had to look up how to spell it).  But Lucy sees beauty in numbers, and she finds a way to make her love of numbers work for herself and others.  I found it unlikely that she would find such understanding friends right off the bat. “Middle school—the worst years of my life” is a thing for a reason.  Middle school was awful for everyone I know.  But I think that Lucy’s friends Windy and Levi are great examples to kids about how to be understanding of people’s differences.  Maybe reading about them will make kids more tolerant and more likely to risk being kind.  I hope so.

Recommended for grades 4-7.

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Book Review: The Length of a String by Elissa Brent Weissman

Length of a StringBy Awnali Mills

Imani has always wondered about her biological family.  Her forever family is great, and she loves them very much, but Imani is black, her brother is Guatemalan, and her parents are white, and Jewish.  Sometimes, a girl gets tired of looking different than her family, of being the “diverse” one, of people questioning how she can be Jewish.  It just makes a girl…wonder.

When Imani’s great grandmother Anna dies, she leaves her books to her great grandchildren.  Apparently, Imani is the only one interested, so when she goes through them, she discovers Anna’s diary—the diary she wrote when she was 12 and coming to America to flee the Holocaust in Luxembourg.  As Imani reads the diary, she is drawn into Anna’s world of fear and grief and longing for the family she was forced to leave behind.  Could it be that Imani has more in common with her forever family than she thought?  Could it be that the diary is the key to more than a great bat mitzvah research paper?  Could it lead her to family she never knew about?

I loved this book.  It is both a modern novel and a historical fiction novel.  It’s a diary, a diverse book, and a book about families of all kinds—the ones you’re born into, the ones who choose you, and the ones that you choose.  It made me look up Luxembourg during the Holocaust, because I don’t know that I’d ever heard about what went on there (and most of what I read was eventually revealed in the book, btw).

It made me cry, darn it!

I loved how the diary really made history come alive for Imani, and for me.  I love how it humanized the victims of the Holocaust without doing it in a way that might traumatize elementary students.  I really felt Imani’s frustration with being different, and her longing to know more.  It also made me really appreciate the family stories I’ve heard for years and years, not just about my own childhood, but that of my parents & grandparents.

This would be a great classroom book for accompanying a study of the Holocaust, or a lead in to family trees or family history, especially since it deals with the idea of mixed families and adoption.

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Book Review: Endling: The Last by Katherine Applegate

Endling the LastBy Awnali Mills

Don’t mistake Byx for a dog—she isn’t one.  She’s a dairne, one of the six governing species of the world.  But the numbers of dairne have been dwindling.  Byx decides to go on a quest to find other dairnes, rumored to exist on a living island in the northern sea.  But the ruler of the humans is determined to kill or control all the dairnes, making Byx’s quest a difficult one.  Along the way, she picks up some companions—a fierce little wobbyk, a scary felivet, and a few humans.  But everyone knows that humans, with their devious minds and uncertain loyalties, cannot be trusted.  Or can they?

This book was difficult for me to get into.  I love fantasy, but it’s difficult for me when the main characters, the places, the plants, the culture, and even the incidental creatures are all created for the story.  It takes a while to figure out what things are, and what’s going on (a dog with a pouch? Is she a marsupial?).  I stuck with it because one of my coworkers told me the book was getting a lot of buzz, and I’m glad I did.  Once I got through the initial “huh?” stage, I got invested in the story.  Now I want to finish reading the series.

The story can be read as an allegory about the way humans treat other species like the carrier pigeon, using them and leading them into extinction.  I don’t really mind that so much, since there are humans who are risking a great deal to help Byx on her quest.   Once you get them figured out, the characters are interesting and engaging, and you really want them to win.  Recommended for grades 4-6.  Put it in the hands of kids who love fantasy, adventures, and animals.

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Blanket Storytime 5/16/18

By Awnali Mills

Today our topic was blankets.  The books I chose were Kiki’s Blankie by Janie Bynum and Small Bunny’s Blue Blanket by Tatyana Feeney.

We opened with Wheels on the Bus, and then I introduced my monkey puppet whose name (this week) is Kiki–this is no coincidence.  She had a blue felt blanket.  We talked about her blanket, and I told the kids about my blanket as a child, which was named “Nice.”  None of them could tell me that they had named their blankets, but they assured me that they had them.  Kikki brought out our letter B and pictures of things that start with B.  This led us to the book Kiki’s Blankie which, you guessed it, stars a monkey with a blue blanket.

After the book, we rolled our song cube and sang a few choruses of This is the Way We Take a Bath.  I handed out scarves, and we acted out Oh Me, Oh My.

At breakfast time, milk spilled on my blanket! Oh me, oh my!
Have to wash my blanket and hang it out to dry
(Lunch/peanut butter, snack/banana, dinner/spaghetti)
At bedtime, cookie crumbs dropped on my blanket! Oh me, oh my!
Have to shake my blanket out, no time to wash or dry
I need my blanket, it’s time for beddy bye!
Credit: Perry Public Library

The kids very enthusiastically washed their blankets, and we hung them on our heads to dry with each chorus.  The flannel Six Teddy Bears (cut down from ten) followed, with the children acting out pulling the blanket.

Six little teddy bears sleeping in the bed,
Three at the foot and three at the head.
One little teddy said, “This bed is TOO full!”
So he grabbed the blanket and started to pull.
He pulled and he pulled and he pulled some more,
Until one little teddy went BOOM to the floor!
(Make pulling motions with PULL and clap with the BOOM)

(Count down until…)

One little teddy bear sleeping in the bed,
Zero at the foot and one at the head.
This teddy said, “This bed is NOT full!”
So he put out his paw and started to pull.
He pulled and he pulled and he pulled some more,
Until five little teddies climbed up from the floor!

Credit: I found this rhyme here: SurLaLune Storytime.

I read Small Bunny’s Blue Blanket next, then did the flannel I Once Had a Blanket.  You can do this with scarves, but I made it into a flannel.

I once had a blanket, it was fluffy and new
I once had a blanket, and its color was blue!
I once had a blanket, my mommy gave me one
I once had a blanket that was orange just for fun!
I once had a blanket, the prettiest I’ve ever seen
I once had a blanket, and its color was green!
I once had a blanket, pretty as can be
I once had a blanket that was purple don’t you see?
I once had a blanket, soft as a pillow
I once had a blanket, and its color was yellow!
I once had a blanket, at the foot of my bed
I once had a blanket, and its color was red!

Credit: Adapted from Anne’s Library Life

I made a little teddy bear to go with the blankets from that flannel, so after I Once Had a Blanket, I pulled out the teddy and explained the game we were going to play.  I hid the teddy under one of the blankets, then the kids had to guess which color blanket he was hiding under.  Then all together we said, “Teddy bear, teddy bear, are you under there?”  I kept repeating the process until we discovered the teddy.  We played that for about three rounds, and then I ended with my closing song.

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