Monday, March 29, 2010

Doodlebug (1977)

Irene Brady, author and illustrator
1977, Houghton Mifflin Company

Jennifer loved horses. All horses, really. But the horse she wanted was a Beautiful Black Stallion with Flowing Mane and Tail (she always thought of it in capital letters). And it just had to be more beautiful than Myra Bank's chestnut mare, Daisy!

Jennifer Dickens, who seems to be around 10, is glumly sitting on the rail at a livestock auction, contemplating the paltry $14.52 she's saved for her dream horse, when she impulsively buys a starving black pony to save him from a kill buyer. She takes him home, nurtures him back to health and tries to ride him. Ouch. Her new pony's showy trot is agony to ride. None of this is helped by her bete noir Myra, a teen neighbor whose position as a horse owner has soured relations by placing Jennifer in the position of begging for rides and Myra in the position of benevolent dictatorship.

Her parents, who breed goats, are gently supportive but suggest that Doodlebug can earn his keep by pulling a cart. Jennifer isn't thrilled at the idea of owning a carthorse, but agrees to try. The now healthy and strangely sleek pony almost trains himself and before long, they are smoothly delivering goat milk to her parents' customers. With a little poisonous input from Myra, of course:

"That little Doodlebug is the sweetest workhorse I ever saw!"

Strangers appear, revelations occur, Myra suffers a put-down that seems entirely overdone, and Jennifer fears she'll lose her little black horse for good.

A very short (35 pages) book with plenty of very nice illustrations and a brisk, pleasing story. A few minor quibbles - it seems odd that the goat breeder parents don't geld the pony (goat people, from what I've gleaned as a lifelong addict of books on how to raise livestock, are not squeamish about this) and Jennifer can hardly be a good rider just from cadging a few rides on someone else's horse - but overall a good story. I do wonder about the conflicted heroine dramas, though, where the little girl protagonist basically doesn't want the horse/pony she ends up with, and it takes the threat of losing the creature for her to realize - oh, I love Mr. Bones! It just seems a little - bratty?

Odds and Ends
The story itself is fairly timeless, but in the illustrations those parents are the very picture of 1970s anti-style.

The name Doodlebug is cute but unusual enough I went googling and came up with:
* A nickname for a German bomb used in WWII (which I remembered from far too many British kid books involving the Blitz)
* A nickname for a 1930's Ford car that was turned into a tractor during WWII steel shortages
* a nickname for small, self-propelled train cars
* a nickname for pill bugs

The common denominator seems to be smallness.

Books by Irene Brady (horse)
America's Horses & Ponies

Books written by others, illustrated by Irene Brady (horse)
Cloud Horse by Jill Pinkwater

Bio at Nature Works Press
Irene Brady's Nature Drawing blog
The American Hackney Horse Society - the pony page

Other editions
Also a paperback from Scholastic, 1977

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