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The Antlered Ship by Dashka Slater and illustrated by Eric Fan and Terry Fan

A philosophical fox named Marco has lots of questions about the world, but the other foxes in his forest are practical-minded and don’t understand his questions. So when Marco sees a ship come in at the harbor, he sets out on an adventure to find other foxes who can answer his questions. He joins the ship, with a captain and crew of three deer. A flock of pigeons also join the crew. Their destination is an island with sweet grass and trees to eat. Along the way, the group faces harsh weather and perils such as dangerous rocks and a band of pirates. As discouragement sets in, Marco lifts the group’s spirits by remaining positive and taking concrete steps to achieve success, such as looking at the charts on the ship to plot a course for the island instead of sailing aimlessly and making a meal to fill their hungry bellies from a cookbook he finds. In turn, each member of the crew contributes to the success of their voyage.

When they arrive at the lush island, Marco doesn’t find any other foxes and is disappointed, but then he realizes that he has found friends in the other animals on the voyage with him and they have some of the answers he seeks. Most importantly, they offer friendship and companionship. At the end of the book, the friends set sail for another adventure. A wonderful story of friendship, adventure, curiosity, and determination. The book contains magnificent, detailed illustrations of the sea and sky and various wildlife done in pen-and-pencil illustrations, colored digitally.

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I Know My Name Is Love by Margaret Cate and illustrated by Rachael Mahaffey

This is a self-published picture book I came across on Amazon.com. The author wrote the book after volunteering in a children’s hospital and witnessing the effects of pet therapy on the children. It is a touching story about a homeless dog who is rescued by a woman named Florence. The dog believed she was nothing special because all her life people had ignored her or called her a mangy mutt. Florence names her Tilly and treats her with the love she deserves. She recognizes characteristics that make Tilly special and names them. They are: hope, love, beauty, joy, and miracle. After seeing how happy a wheel-chair bound boy was when he interacted with Tilly, Florence trains her to be a therapy dog and they visit a children’s hospital. There, Tilly encounters people who share those same special characteristics – the staff of the hospital in the work that they do and the patients in the hospital with their courage. It is lovely how the book comes full circle – first we see Tilly showing us hope, love, beauty, joy, and miracles, and then we see those same qualities exhibited by the people in the children’s hospital. The book is uplifting and inspiring. It shows us the unconditional and non-judgmental love that dogs possess and also celebrates the special people who help others and remain hopeful and positive in spite of hardship.

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Before You Were Mine by Maribeth Boelts and illustrated by David Walker

A little boy wonders what his dog’s life was like before he was adopted from a shelter by the boy’s family in this emotional, tender picture book. The boy’s imaginings include both good and bad scenarios: a warm house with a rug of his own and a boy who loved him in one imagining and kept on a chain and all alone in another imagining. The boy also wonders how someone could let the dog go and what it was like for him while he was on his own – the fear and hunger he must have felt.

The book has a hopeful and gentle tone even though it does allude to abuse and neglect. The warm, lovely illustrations in soft pastel colors add to the mood of the book, which evokes love and gratitude for right now when the dog has a home and family that loves him and takes good care of him. So even if the past was bad, it can be overcome. The book also encourages people to adopt dogs from shelters, which is a very important issue to me. For every dog that has puppies for a breeder, that is another dog killed in a shelter.

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The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall

A 13-year old boy learns about redemption in this touching book. Arthur is grieving the senseless death of his father, drunk on a motorcycle, when he loses it after seeing the neighborhood junk man wearing his father’s hat, thrown away by his mother. He throws a brick at the junk man and injures him. After spending a few weeks in a juvenile detention facility, he is sentenced to an unusual probation: assisting the junk man, named Mr. Hampton, with his work. Mr. Hampton leaves Arthur a list of things to collect: the seven most important things, consisting of trash like light bulbs, foil, and cardboard. At first Arthur collects these objects on his own, but after Mr. Hampton collapses at his garage and Arthur finds him, the two begin working together. Arthur also makes a new friend at school who joins him scavenging. It turns out Mr. Hampton is a veteran of World War II (the book is set in 1963) and he is collecting these objects to create a sculpture, creating beauty out of broken objects being important to him because of his war experiences. Gradually, Arthur grows close to Mr. Hampton and cares about his creation, taking responsibility to see it preserved after Mr. Hampton’s death. A lovely story of friendship, loyalty, and love. The book is fiction, but is based on the real sculpture created by James Hampton that is now displayed in a museum in Washington, D.C.

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Three Bird Summer by Sara St. Antoine

A lovely chapter book about a 12-year old boy’s summer at his grandmother’s lake house, making a new friend and dealing with his grandmother’s worsening dementia. Adam is spending his summer at his grandmother’s house on a lake in Minnesota as always. But this year is different because his father and cousins are not there as a result of his parents’ recent divorce. There is also a new neighbor, a girl named Alice who befriends Adam. The book is slow paced, with the beauty of the Minnesota setting providing a peaceful feeling to the narrative. The days are leisurely and filled with swimming, canoeing, and watching the lake’s wildlife. Thrown into this is a mystery that Adam and Alice set out to solve: Adam’s grandmother, whose memory is getting worse and has moments of confusion, begins leaving notes in Adam’s room that seem to be written to a love from long ago, only referred to as “G.” But Adam’s grandfather’s name didn’t start with G. Who is this mystery man from Grandma’s past? When Adam discovers a treasure map created decades ago for his grandmother from the mystery man, he and Alice search for the treasure and eventually solve the mystery. This adds a bit of excitement and suspense to the story, which unfolds beautifully. A well-written book with realistic characters of family and friendship and dealing with changes that come from both growing up and growing old.

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Chicken Big by Keith Graves

This is a very funny take on the Chicken Little tale. In this story, a huge egg hatches a huge chick. The others chickens in the barn are confused – they can’t comprehend this enormous animal is a chicken like them. One thinks it must be an elephant. The chick is not welcomed in their henhouse and has to sleep outside. Then, as in the original tale, an acorn falls on one of the chicken’s head and they all run, thinking the sky is falling. Only the enormous chick understands that it is just an acorn. Now the chickens think the animal must be a squirrel, since elephants don’t eat acorns. When it starts to rain, the chickens again run, thinking the sky is now leaking. Only the chick understands it is rain. He uses his large body to shelter the other chickens from the rain. So now he must be – an umbrella! When the wind blows, the chick shelters the other chickens from the cold and so they think he must be a sweater. Finally, when the chick rescues their eggs from a fox, the other chickens realize the only thing someone so smart and brave could be is – a chicken! And he is welcomed in the henhouse. A sweet and laugh-out-loud story of belonging.

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Take Your Time: A Tale of Harriet, the Galapagos Tortoise by Eva Furrow and Donna Jo Napoli and illustrated by Laurel Molk

This picture book uses the real Harriet, a Galapagos tortoise who lived to be 175 years old, as the inspiration for the main character. Harriet lives in the Galapagos Islands and is happy and content with her life and herself. Other residents of the island, including lizards and birds, tell Harriet that she is too slow and is missing out on excitement. This makes Harriet curious and she decides to venture out and see the world. In a journey that spans an entire year, she swims in the sea to another island where she meets penguins and other inhabitants of the island and then swims back. Along the way, she is delighted by all the creatures she sees in the sea and meets on land. On her return journey, a group of dolphins give her a ride. At first, she enjoys going fast through the water, but the wind and the spray are too much for her; she enjoys her leisurely pace better. In the end, Harriet enjoyed her journey, but she takes pleasure in her life at her own pace and is satisfied with it. The reader can see peace and contentment in her facial expressions. She is a wise and contemplative character. This is a simple and sweet story that emphasizes how we are all different and that is okay – we can all choose our own ways. It also emphasizes appreciating the wonder and beauty of the world, taking time to savor your experiences. With colorful illustrations of Galapagos wildlife and the sky and sea that underscore Harriet’s appreciation of the beauty of the world around her.