Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Secret Horse
Marion Holland, Taylor Oughton, il.
1959, Little, Brown & Company

The summer stretches out long and boring for Maryland girl Annick (Nickie) Baxter. A sudden financial crisis involving replacing the front porch means she can't go to riding camp with her friends, and she's sulking up a storm until the arrival of a new neighbor, Abigail (Gail) Walton cheers her up. The horse-crazy Nickie talks Gail into stealing an unwanted horse from the local pound, and hiding it in the abandoned stables of a seldom-occupied estate nearby.

Nickie's single-minded efforts to get what she wants are awe-inspiring, and her gamble is so high that every scene has the potential for disaster, from the midnight creep with a stolen horse to the breathless moments waiting for the annual influx of handymen and lawnmowers to leave. There are sufficient obstacles, convenient happenstances (like the gorgeous stableblock just out the back door and through the fence), appealing heroines and a very pleasant horse named Highboy, who is just skinny and neglected enough to provide a bit of rescue story as well. With all that said, it is mostly an adventure story revolving around a horse. The girls scarcely ride Highboy, and it can't be said to be a pony book in that sense. It is satisfying and well written. A few bits of dialogue seem impossible for a pair of 10-year-olds, though.

The book's set in Maryland, outside Washington D.C., and both fathers appear to work in the government. The owner of the big estate, Mr. Olds, has turned sour after the death of his wife and daughter. A rather expositionary conversation between Nickie's parents seems both out of place and irritating, hinging as it does on the assumption that the reader desperately needs to know the old man's motivations for returning. It also indulges an ill-judged foray into mild author pretension, as the utterly conventional, middle-class, stay-at-home mom makes a casual classical reference that simply does not belong in the story.

Also, in the annals of children's books, has there ever been a financial crisis as bizarre and dull as termites eating the front porch?

Maryland, suburban D.C.

I love the cover on the Scholastic edition. Taylor Oughton's drawings throughout are good, rather basic and better with people than horses, but satisfying.

Editions pictured:
1) Dark cover, horse with house in background

2) Horse in woods, paler frame (pictured below)
APPLE Paperback - Scholastic - interior same, different cover

Practical Information
Not a lot. That you can make hay by spreading cut grass on a flat surface to dry in the sun, mostly.

Butterscotch - owned by Gail's family previously
Tennessee Girl - owned by Gail's family previously
Chocolate Chip - owned by Gail's family previously

Other Books by Holland
No Children, No Pets
Casey Jones Rides Vanity
Everygirl's Horse Stories (anthology)
No Room For A Dog

Holland also wrote several books for beginner readers

Bourgie Parents
Where's that footman?
Bulldozers on the Prowl

Other Editions
Apple Paperback (show below)

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Billy And Blaze
C.W. Anderson
1936, Macmillan Publishing Co.

Billy loves horses, and is lucky enough to get a pony for his birthday. Together, boy and pony explore the woods, find a faithful dog and win a jumping class for Best Pony at a horse show.

C.W. Anderson's art is a favorite of most horse-crazy kids. What sums up the appeal, to me, is how soft it is. His drawings capture the liquid warmth of a horse's eyes, the gentle slope of their massive bodies; the charcoal shadings suggest the sheer bulk and physicality of horses, while the lines of ears and legs and curves of neck and tail suggest their substance. In his most action-packed illustrations there's still a hint of future peace, of the inherent laze of a large herbivore. Here, in one of his earliest books, the style is still being worked out and there are more lines, less shading, and altogether a less accomplished look. The art is good, certainly, but it doesn't yet have that distinctive Anderson touch. The dog, however, is excellent, with the touch of humor Anderson always showed in his art.

Blaze - bay pony with four white socks and a blaze
Rex - German Shepherd Dog (apparently)

Other Books by Anderson
Billy And Blaze books
Billy And Blaze
Blaze And The Gypsies
Blaze And The Forest Fire
Blaze Finds The Trail
Blaze And Thunderbolt
Blaze And The Mountain Lion
Blaze And The Indian Cave
Blaze And The Lost Quarry
Blaze And The Gray Spotted Pony
Blaze Shows The Way
Blaze Finds Forgotten Roads

Other Books (picture)
A Pony For Linda
The Crooked Colt
Pony For Three
Lonesome Little Colt

Other Books
High Courage
The Horse of Hurricane Hill
Afraid To Ride
Phantom, Son Of The Gray Ghost
A Filly For Joan
Great Heart
Another Man O'War
The Outlaw

Other Books (nonfiction)
Tomorrow’s Champions
Horses Are Folks
The Smashers
Heads Up, Heels Down
Deep Through The Heart
Twenty Gallant Horses
Complete Book Of Horses And Horsemanship

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Casey Jones Rides Vanity
Marion Holland, author and illustrator
1964, Little, Brown & Company

Casey Jones has outgrown her pony, Top Notch, but is torn at the idea of having to part with him. At the first horse show of the year, she takes him for a last outing and falls in love with the beautiful mare Vanity Fair. An accident lands his owner in the hospital and allows Casey to board her for a few months. The first order of business is to get the lovely mare over her fear of jumping.

A clear, well-written horse show adventure with a lot of very nice drawings. A particularly skillful meshing of character with the horse story in the sibling relationship between Casey and her sister. The heroine is very independent and her adventures are rarely followed by the sort of dutiful scoldings so many authors seem obliged to write, as if fiction were required to carry some sort of moral message of 'be careful, and tell a grownup, don't do scary stuff yourself, kids.' This tendency has become worse in recent years; if this book was written in 2008, the little expedition to Vanity's real home would end up with a policeman or Casey's father telling her off.

The illustrations by Marion Holland are a little fanciful, but that adds to their charm. Some of the pony drawings remind me of Thelwell, but cleaner lines.

Horse Show
Sibling Jealousy

Other Books
No Room For A Dog
The Secret Horse
No Children, No Pets
Everygirls Horse Stories (anthology)
A Big Ball Of String
Billy's Clubhouse
Billy Had A System
Billy's Raccoon
A Tree For Teddy
Timothy And The Forest Folk

Monday, January 19, 2009

Can I Get There By Candlelight?
Jean Slaughter Doty, il. Ted Lewin
1980, Macmillan

Gail Simmons rides her Welsh pony, Candlelight, through a rusted gate behind her new home, and discovers meets a lonely rich girl who wears old-fashioned clothing and is shocked to see another girl riding astride. Despite the evidence that something is odd, Gail decides to take the friendship as it comes. And Hilary is a good friend, for a while.

This weak but haunting story presents two horse-crazy girls from very different worlds sharing a summer delighting in one beautiful pony mare. As in "Summer Pony,"the approach of fall brings about a crisis. All of Jean Slaughter Doty's horse books have an element of melancholy, but here it becomes the book. The sense of something bad always about to happen is the main attraction, and despite the crucial presence of the pony and rider in the plot, it fails to ever become a pony book, which makes it very different from most of Doty's work.

I call it weak not because it fails to be a pony book, but because despite the effectiveness of the mood created, it has numerous serious flaws. A short book, it still can't quite support the slim plot, and after a long, fitful buildup with entirely unnecessary forays into Gail's family life, it ends abruptly. The main characters are fuzzy; Hilary is a slightly spoiled rich girl who doesn't want to go to boarding school and does something very nearly evil, and Gail is a rather dull middle-class girl who's a little worried about going to a new school in the fall too. The mare is initially given quite a personality, but fades into the background until the very end of the book.

Practical Information
Some glorious information about sidesaddle and carriage horses, which are two things not commonly seen in pony books.

Horses and other animals
Candlelight (Candy), a Welsh pony mare
Nanette, a small white dog

Social Aspect
There is considerable emphasis placed on the wealthy Hilary's lifestyle, with the mansion serving as a summer home, the Mama and Papa in Europe, the governess and maids and coachmen. It is, of course, a more interesting story for a child, the 'princess' lifestyle of a bygone age, but reading the book as an adult, I'm a bit more critical of the modern princess lifestyle of Gail, whose family is living temporarily in a small house while their big new house is built for them, who owns a purebred Welsh pony, whose mother apparently does nothing more onerous than shop for the new house...

Vaguely Northeastern, author was from Connecticut

Ted Lewin's illustrations are black and white drawings, even on the cover (unusual) and actually do fit the rather modern attitude of the book and the era, unmistakably belonging to the 1970's brand of realistic flatness.

Other Books
Doty's other horse novels include Summer Pony, Winter Pony, The Monday Horses, and The Crumb. She also wrote a dog book, Gabriel, and several nonfiction works on horses as Jean Slaughter (Pony Care, Horsemanship For Beginners, and Horses Round The World)

Bourgie Parents
Where's that footman?
Magic Gardens
Bulldozers on the Prowl

Other Information
The University of Southern Mississippi's de Grummond Children's Literature Collection includes materials about Doty.

Other editions

And now an English book for a change of pace.

Poor Badger
K.M. Peyton, il. Mary Lonsdale
1990, Doubleday

Ros Palfrey is horse-crazy but lacks opportunity until she spots a handsome pinto pony grazing in a park near her home. Completely around the bend about the pony but suspicious of his careless owners, she makes it her mission in life to look after Mountfitchet Meteor Light or, as she calls him, Badger. But despite her efforts, his owners' sloppy care slowly turns to neglect, and as winter approaches, Ros begins to believe that Badger will die of hunger and cold. So she hatches a plan...

Going home from school, the path led out of Safeway's parking lot and across a wide stretch of rough ground toward the railroad. It was spring, and the ground was greening happily, bright with dandelions and ­-

Ros stopped in her tracks and Leo, trailing, walked into the back of her.


"Look!" Her voice quivered with glory. "Look!" It squeaked, out of control.

Leo looked. Usually the field was empty, except perhaps for an old man walking his dog, but today a pony was grazing in it, held by a chain fastened to a tether.

I am so jealous. I always wanted to find a pony tied out in a field by my town's supermarket. All I ever found was a turtle. Damn those English towns with their wacky commons and lack of proper zoning regulations, making Americans drool with envy.

A crisp and energetic book with a dreamy sidekick who comes into his own, a brave heroine, a realistic villain and an adorable pony. I would quibble that the heroine's parents are rather spineless when the pony's owner calls up to complain about their daughter's behavior. Her father's caution about it being chancey to draw the RSPCA's attention to the pony's condition seem more about reluctance to get involved than a real concern about the pony or his daughter. And the insistence on realism at the end was more labored than a traditional perfect ending would have been.

Did I mention the adorable pony? The cover makes that quite clear. The interior illustrations are less charming, being rather rough and doing a better job with the human faces than the pony.

Mountfitchet Meteor Light/Badger - black and white pinto pony gelding
Ermintrude/Erm - dog

Horse Show

Other Books
Flambards In Summer
The Team

Author Website

Sunday, January 18, 2009

There Was A Horse
Sam Savitt, author and illustrator
1961, The Dial Press

The last rays of the late March sun slanted across the barnyard, spotlighting the horses bunched together in the paddock. Suddenly the gray's head came up, turning toward my departing truck. There was a bold, defiant look about him, and for one brief instant the sight of the gray horse against the red barn in the brilliant sunlight dazzled my eyes and grabbed my foot, pushing it down hard on the brake.

Bill buys the skinny gray horse intending to remake him as a hunter and sell for a profit to help his older brother, a dairy farmer. His own future is uncertain; about to graduate high school, a self-taught horse nut who doesn't know what he's going to do with his life. The big gray, though, resists the re-training plan, going completely out of control in the field. He's too wild for hunting and too fast for the show ring, and Bill's about to pack it in when Drake, a new hired man, recognizes the big Thoroughbred. Steelman was a steeplechaser who overturned and nearly wrecked himself in the Maryland Hunt Cup a few years ago. Drake agrees to undertake training Bill and Steelman to compete in this year's Cup. While Steelman's almost ready, Bill's seat-of-his-pants riding style and youthful resilience are clearly not going to be enough to get them through one of the world's most grueling races.

Sam Savitt wrote few books compared to the ones he illustrated, but those few were lovely horsey books. He never seemed at home with female characters, so the near total lack of them in this book is a strength, in a sense, though of course in another sense it's pathetic. The male characters are solid. Bill is one-note as an obsessed teenaged boy can be, and as the narration comes from him, it's almost all about the horse. Elder brother Chris and mentor Drake appear as important figures which the narrator barely understands till the end of the book. The action is realistic and yet heroic; most believable and painful is the loss of nerve Bill experiences after a bad fall:

Over the past three years the gray horse had given me a pretty rough time - no doubt about that. I had hit the ground, bounced back and hit the ground again, and aside from bruised bones and charlie-horsed muscles, never gave it a second thought. But with each successive jolt a little more heart was knocked out and always a little less returned.

And who but Sam Savitt would lovingly include a drawing of the race course? I've never watched the Cup, but I aspire to drive down there some day.

There Was A Horse - Steelman was owned by a Mr. Whitcomb in the past; Phantom, Son Of the Gray Ghost - a Mr. Whitcomb is refered to as the former employer of a Joe Tanner, former head of Whitcomb's stables.


Other Books by Author
Vicki And The Black Horse
Vicki And The Brown Mare
Midnight, Champion Bucking Horse
Wild Horse Running

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Panky In The Saddle
Nancy Saxon, il. Charles Saxon

It was a long way to the ground, and I wasn't in control anymore. I wondered if there was any truth to the saying that horses can smell fear. It was one of those things you couldn't ask. It would sound dumb.
Frances "Panky" Mooney loves William, the small black gelding who has exasperated everyone at the Fox Run Hunt Club in a wealthy part of Connecticut, and worries that she'll never learn to ride as well as her friends.

The simple style and realistic first-person narration by the child heroine are probably perfect for an uncertain or beginner reader. The length (145 pages) and extended ruminations on parental finances, though, seem to place it out of that category. The few illustrations are hit or miss, some being wonderfully spot-on, some beautifully dreamy and a few just awkward.

Also awkward are the attempts to make this more than just a horse book - the bits about her family's finances are unappealing and ultimately unbelievable, and the predictable plot about her idol turning out to have feet of kleptomaniac clay was a snooze.

I pretended to concentrate on making William back up. I sawed the reins left and right in turn, the way I'd seen Katie do. William responded with a few half-hearted bucks. Then he fell back on the tried-and-true William formula. When in doubt, run. We went half the ring before I got him back to a walk.
I did like the realistic portrayal of going from dreamy love to a realization that there is an element of basic animal management to riding, as well as the faithful love for horses that the heroine shows, and the fact that her obsession is out of the blue, of no reasonable origin. I loathed her constant refrain about being fat, and thought the harping on how superior training is to buying a 'made' horse was a bit tiring.

Other Books
Panky and William (precedes this book)
Panky In Love

Horse Show
Bourgie Parents

Ponies Of Mykillengi
Lonzo Anderson, il. Adrienne Adams
1966, Charles Scribner's Sons

After the long winter, a spring thaw brings new life to the Icelandic farm Mykillengi. Rauf and Egli take their ponies out for a ride in the warming air, and become trapped when an earthquake opens a cracks in the earth between them and home. To make mattes worse, Egli's pony is about to foal.

A picture book with warm, soft paintings of shaggy Icelandic ponies and their children struggling across a dark, snowy plain to find home. Lovely, simply illustrations and an exciting plot.

The ponies, coated with winter fur, have a shelter open to the south, closed off from the cold north wind. There they wait out the winter storms, munching the dried fish-heads the children have given them because the last of the hay is gone

Fish heads!

Another in a long list of books where the boy is of course the leader and there is a strict gender split with boys riding geldings and girls riding mares. And this simultaneously graphic and rosy picture of the mare's feelings about foaling - It is like the beating of her heart, but much stronger, slower - deeply exciting and satisfying - is a bit much.

- grey Icelandic pony with white mane and tail (name means 'volcano')
Jokull - red roan Icelandic pony (name means 'glacier')


As you may be able to tell, this is a slightly tongue-in-cheek list. It is not usually meant to be a serious criticism of a book, just a comment on whatever story ideas it shares with others.

Explaining the Themes - Horse-specific
Horse Show - clearly, a horse show figures large at some point

Abuse - a horse is abused or is said to be a victim of past abuse

Rescue - a horse is removed from abuse or neglect, or rehabbed from bad habits stemming from abuse or neglect

OHDEARGODITSPINTO!!!!! - Daddy, where is my chestnut Thoroughbred and is that a blue eye? (outmoded currently, but v. popular in older books)

But I Wanted To Ride Western/Jumpers/etc. - why won't this %#&@$ horse learn to jump/race barrels/do dressage/etc.?????

Why did my parents buy me a horse? - I wanted a charm bracelet for Christmas, not a farm animal

Born Free! Free as the wind blows.... - yes, me and my mustang stallion will live happily ever after in the arroyo with the owl and the coyote

Pony contest - so I bought 16 quadrillion boxes of soap and sent in all the lids and now I'm hanging out by the mailbox harassing the USPS for a confirmation letter

Mare swap - Child is craaaaazy about mare; mare gives birth; child and author forget mare entirely

Critter death - I stood up, leaving Horsie's still body behind, and Pa grasped my shoulder; I had left childhood behind

Explaining the Themes - General
Missing Daddy - a father is MIA

Boho Parents - mom's a sculptor, dad's a writer, and it's ever so likely we all live in a crumbling mansion or in New York

Bourgie Parents - mum's worried about the servants, daddy's a Type A, and it's all so stressful

My Parents Aren't So Bad, After All - I matured and saw them as fragile and imperfect people who finally realized I was right

Sibling Jealousy - why am I not just like my sibling, God?

I'm a TROUBLED teen (but not like, you know, on heroin) - I'm moody, I have Problems, and it's all adorable

Where's that footman? - we're so rich our houses have houses

GHOSTS!!! - there may be a wee bit of the supernatural in here somewhere

Magic Gardens - time travel, mist and other cool things involving nature

Bulldozers on the Prowl - development threatens the horses

Christian/Religious - Jesus, is it ok to pray that I win the pony championship?

Dead Elder - Gosh, the friendship I had with old lady Agatha was the most special summer of my life, and she taught me all about horses and how to forgive myself for my brother's accidental death. And she died right around the time the plot needed a lift. Sweet.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Summer Pony (Jean Slaughter Doty, 1973)

When Ginny Anderson convinces her parents to lease her a pony for the summer, she never expects that her dream horse will be so - real. The first shock is the decrepit Sweetbriar Pony Farm, where her loving but unhorsey parents take her to select a pony. The second is the pony, a skinny pinto mare with mismatched eyes and a mind of her own. The third is the reality of caring for an animal who can die from overeating and fly into a lethal panic over a falling leaf. But as the Andersons learn about stable management and Ginny learns to ride, the summer becomes fun, especially when Ginny makes friends with a neighbor who also rides.

Summer Pony is impressive in its handling of a typical situation - a horsey child with unhorsey parents, and the problems that creates - in a solid, realistic manner that manages to be interesting and involving without resorting to the more spectacular adventures that many horse book rely upon. True, Ginny does conveniently makes friends with a wealthy, horsey neighbor girl whose family has an Irish stableman who is a ready source of information and help. But without a few useful coincidences, the heroes of pony books would be stuck doing what we did as kids - reading library books on the porch while wishing we had ponies.

Information-wise, Summer Pony is one of those that gives the hungry wannabe horse owner good food. Ginny's shown puzzling out how to bridle her new pony, learning the difference between bits, and other fascinating-to-horse-people arcana. Catnip.

There is no separating this book from its illustrator. Sam Savitt's cover alone makes the book sing. The interior drawings are as alluring. Savitt's warm, safe style suits this book perfectly, and it is a beautiful marriage. The most recent edition unfortunately replaced Savitt's realistic cover painting with a cartoonish watercolor.

Other books by the author:
Winter Pony (sequel)
The Crumb
The Monday Horses
Can I Get There By Candlelight?
Yesterday’s Horses
If Wishes Were Horses
The Valley Of The Ponies
Dark Horse