The Unicorn in the Barn, by Jacqueline Ogburn

In The Unicorn in the Barn, by Jacqueline Ogburn (HMH Books for Young Readers, July 2017), the fantastical world of magical creatures meets a realistic story of family and loss in a story that is simple but  poignant and memorable.

11 year-old Eric Harper's family have owned their piece of wooded land for generations.  Now his grandfather is dead and his grandmother is in a nursing room, and their house has been sold.  But the Harper family still own the woods, a place where people over the years have reported seeing a strange white deer...And one day, Eric sees the "white deer" for himself, and realizes she is a unicorn.

She's an injured unicorn with a bad hoof, and Eric, entranced, follows her to his grandparents' old house, now transformed into a veterinary clinic.  It's not an ordinary clinic; the vet, assisted by her daughter, Allegra, treats magical creatures alongside ordinary ones.  The unicorn is expecting twin foals, and agrees to stay with the vet until her babies are born (she is able to make herself understood, though she doesn't directly speak with humans).  Eric, since he's already in on the magical secret, is hired to help out caring for her and other creatures, giving him a chance to spend time in the soothing magical presences of beautiful creature (and a chance to shovel manure....)

Allegra is Eric's age, and she is  snippy and unwelcoming.  As Eric proves himself a decent worker and caring person, who is trusted by the creatures, she thaws, and even helps him when he dreams of using the unicorn's healing powers to bring his beloved grandma home.  Obviously the unicorn can't visit the nursing home in person, but even her shed hairs have healing magic, and Eric's grandmother is given a reprieve from pain by the bracelets Allegra makes from them.  Allegra's hostility gives a nice touch of acerbity to a story that might otherwise be too sweet, and by the time she has become more friendly, the sweetness is giving way to sadness.

The story builds to an anticipated mix of loss and wonder, when Eric's grandmother dies and the baby unicorns are born.  The sadness Eric feels is profound, and can't be magically healed, but healing does come from his grandmother's last words to him, which link him to generations of his family who have cared for this piece of land and its magical creatures.

It's  a story that works very well, and I found myself liking it more than I thought I would, and I find myself now thinking even more highly of its pacing and structure.  It's obviously a very good choice to give to any reader who loves magical vet books, and it's one of my favorites of that sub-genre, because the main character and his arc don't get lost in the fur and feathers of the creatures.  This makes it one that's also good for readers who like books where magic pushes its way into ordinary life.  It's Jacqueline Ogburn's first middle grade book, and I look forward to seeing what she will write next.

1 comment:

  1. I, too, liked ths more than I thought I would. Ailing grandparents ARE a sadness with which middle grade readers often have to deal. I liked the suspension of disbelief to set up the magical creatures clinic instead of a lengthy description-- my only objection was the odd trim size. It's done well with my readers this year.


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