What Makes a Good Horse Book?

Black Beauty. The Black Stallion. My Friend Flicka. National Velvet. Add in basically anything written by Marguerite Henry (Misty of Chincoteague), and you’ll see that horses hold a beloved place in 
classical children’s literature. But what qualities make a contemporary horse book stand out? For children who long to own a horse but can’t have one because of money or space or 
parents-who-say-no (and those children are many), the overriding question may be: How well can this book stand in for the experience of having a horse of my own? Or more simply: How real is this horse?

Writing believably from the horse’s point of view, as in Black Beauty, is one of the ultimate tests of the “realness” of a fictional horse. Anna Sewell’s 1877 novel keeps its relevance and its pride of place in children’s literature due in large part to Black Beauty’s distinctive voice. Genteel and intelligent, willing to try his best under harsh circumstances, growing dull under cruel treatment but giving loyal and devoted service in response to kindness, Black Beauty embodies many of our wishes and desires surrounding the horse-human relationship. At present, a few publishing houses try to repeat the formula with “horse diaries” or second-rate Black Beauty spinoffs, but none quite captures the combination of nobility and modesty we subconsciously believe all horses possess.

lawrence_winter ponyA novel that proves the exception to the rule is Iain Lawrence’s The Winter Pony, an account of the 1910–1913 Scott expedition to the South Pole as related by a small grey pony (one of nineteen) purchased to haul supplies and equipment. The formerly neglected pony James Pigg warms to the kind and gentle treatment he receives at the expedition-goers’ hands. Limited (by being a horse) to a mostly observational role, he narrates, in engrossing prose, the crew’s and his own life-or-death struggles in the frozen arctic. Unfortunately, as anyone familiar with the history knows, the expedition is doomed. The explorers are forced to kill the ponies, one after another, for meat, after which the five men who reach the pole (five weeks too late; Amundsen’s team beat them there) perish from cold and hunger. For horse-loving readers invested in the narrator, this turn of events is devastating, especially since Lawrence deepens the pathos by exploring the regrets of the ponies’ handlers. As a result, The Winter Pony is not a book for all readers, but those dog lovers who nonetheless enjoyed Old Yeller will probably appreciate it.

kumin_oh harrySimilar to a believable horse’s-eye-view narration, a book that can credibly evoke one horse’s unique temperament shifts the focus from the generic “horse” to a specific flesh-and-blood creature readers would like to know. Personality is, after all, what distinguishes a horse from a car or any other inanimate form of transportation. Maxine Kumin’s picture book Oh, Harry! recognizes this. Harry the horse is a clever old plug with an outsize personality who makes himself useful around the barn settling skittish colts. Because of his ability to open latches with his mouth, he also saves (and settles) the stable owner’s disagreeable grandson by freeing him after he gets trapped in the grain bin. Having known more than one equine escape artist myself, as well as a great-souled therapy horse who took genuine care of riders placed in his trust, I felt an immediate connection to Harry. Barry Moser’s fluid illustrations expertly capture horse body language and break the fourth wall with Harry’s sly looks, while both art and text portray an elusive aspect of horse ownership: that horses can have a sense of humor.

Young readers dreaming of owning a horse of their own someday are passionate about horse knowledge, and they devour informational books about their favorite creatures with a zeal that rivals that of young train- or dinosaur enthusiasts. Plenty of nonfiction books address this need, but so many go over the same old ground: horse colors and markings, parts of the horse, grooming and tacking, breeds, and (for some reason) the evolution of the horse from its prehistoric forebears. Books that stand out are ones that either trust readers’ interest level enough to go into greater depth or branch out in ways that show there is always more to learn, even for professional equestrians.

Why Do Horses Have Manes? by Elizabeth MacLeod poses offbeat questions about horses and then answers them, asking whether horses can really sleep standing up (yes; their knees can lock, allowing them to doze on their feet) or why horses sometimes curl back their upper lips (it helps them detect scent pheromones through receptors above their front teeth).

wilsdon_for horse-crazy girls onlyChristina Wilsdon’s For Horse-Crazy Girls Only: Everything You Want to Know About Horses offers an eclectic approach that allows even experienced riders to take away something new: there are sections on horse body language (invaluable!), horse books and movies, and careers that involve working with horses. Breyer Horses, the company that sells “The World’s Finest Model Horses,” is a partner in the production, so the book contains a number of plugs for their collectible horse figurines, but some readers may enjoy that information as well. My only quibble is that although girls do vastly outnumber boys at horse camps and riding stables, those in the male minority are no less fervent in their affections and shouldn’t be steered away from this informative book because of its pink cover and girl-centric title.

The Wild Horse Scientists by Kay FrydenborgAnother excellent selection is Wild Horse Scientists by Kay Frydenborg, part of the Scientists in the Field series. The excellently sourced book focuses on the real-life wild horses of Assateague Island (of Misty of Chincoteague fame) and touches not just on identifying features of the wild horses but also on sustainability, both of the creatures themselves and of their fragile barrier island home.

Any credible horse book must encompass the fact that horses are large, independent-minded creatures whose opinions sometimes diverge from those of their riders, and Jessie Haas has perfected the knack of balancing the horse’s perspective with the human’s within the same narrative. In her chapter book Runaway Radish, Radish is a round, red pony who trains little girls to be good horsewomen. Young Judy is one of his charges, and while the girl’s mother teaches Judy how to ride,
Radish taught Judy other things.

He taught her the right way to fall.

He taught her to tie good knots.

He taught her to remember garbage-pickup day, and to keep her temper, and to hold on tight.

Each sentence points readers to a humorous vignette featuring a frustrated girl and a pleased-with-himself pony. But rather than blame the horse for unseating his rider, getting loose from a tie-up, or spooking at the trash truck, Haas shows a learning process and an evolving relationship: “But Radish was good sometimes too, and the more Judy learned, the more often he was good.” By the time Judy learns how to make Radish behave almost all of the time, she’s outgrown him, and Radish moves on to teach another little girl.

Jessie Haas "Bramble and Maggie"Haas puts this dual perspective to good use in the Bramble and Maggie books, her early chapter book series about a bored and contrary lesson horse named Bramble who needs “a person of [her] own to have fun with.” She finds that person in persistently polite Maggie, who generously thinks, regarding Bramble’s excessive responses to her cues, “I am making a lot of mistakes…But she is very nice about it.” And Haas goes into greater depth in her novel Shaper, which shows how a new training method using only positive reinforcement reshapes the once-fraught relationships between a boy and his dog, and a girl and her horse. By constantly emphasizing the two-way nature of horse-human interactions, Haas makes it clear she understands not only horses but horse people, too.

smiley_georges and the jewelsOne of the best horse series to come out lately offers not just realistic horse and human characters but also a staggering wealth of equestrian information. Jane Smiley’s Horses of Oak Valley Ranch books, set in 1960s–era California, feature a young rider, Abby, who works schooling horses on her dad’s horse farm. The title of the first volume, The Georges and the Jewels, refers to Abby’s father’s policy of naming every gelding George and every mare Jewel to prevent Abby from getting too attached to them. When one of the Georges—“Ornery George” — bucks Abby off, a trainer named Jem Jarrow teaches her the skills to help the horse become softer, more supple, and less ornery. With Abby’s new knowledge, she’s even able to show her dad how Ornery George prefers to be worked with, and to insist they rename him Rally in honor of his individual personality.

Smiley gives Abby plenty of opportunities to observe horses and interpret what she sees, allowing readers to understand horse ear positions, attention, breath, and movement just as clearly as an experienced horsewoman does. In addition, Smiley transmits equestrian knowledge from the simple (what proper mounted posture looks like) to the complex (suppling exercises; how to gain a horse’s attention by communicating as a member of the herd), some of which will undoubtedly go over readers’ heads but which may well give them something to strive toward. Add in Smiley’s Pulitzer Prize–winning prose and some well-integrated school and family subplots, and you have a series any librarian would be excited to place in the hands of a horse-crazy young reader.

Horses hold a special place in children’s literature — they have noble hearts and can reward those who love them with affection, loyalty, and sometimes superhuman feats of strength and courage. Authors who understand horses and bring them to life on the page can invite young readers to share in that unique bond, perhaps feeding a lifelong love for horses in all their funny, obstinate, individual, and heroic character.

Good Horse Books

Wild Horse Scientists [Scientists in the Field] (Houghton, 2012) by Kay Frydenborg

Bramble and Maggie: Give and Take (Candlewick, 2013) by Jessie Haas; illus. by Alison Friend

Bramble and Maggie: Horse Meets Girl (Candlewick, 2012) by Jessie Haas; illus. by Alison Friend

Runaway Radish (Greenwillow, 2001) by Jessie Haas; illus. by Margot Apple

Shaper (Greenwillow, 2002) by Jessie Haas

Oh, Harry! (Porter/Roaring Brook, 2011) by Maxine Kumin; illus. by Barry Moser

The Winter Pony (Delacorte, 2011) by Iain Lawrence

Why Do Horses Have Manes? (Kids Can, 2009) by Elizabeth MacLeod

The Horses of Oak Valley Ranch series:

Gee Whiz (Knopf, 2013) by Jane Smiley; illus. by Elaine Clayton

The Georges and the Jewels (Knopf, 2009) by Jane Smiley; illus. by Elaine Clayton

A Good Horse (Knopf, 2010) by Jane Smiley; illus. by Elaine Clayton

Pie in the Sky (Knopf, 2012) by Jane Smiley; illus. by Elaine Clayton

True Blue (Knopf, 2011) by Jane Smiley; illus. by Elaine Clayton

For Horse-Crazy Girls Only: Everything You Want to Know About Horses (Feiwel, 2010) by Christina Wilsdon; illus. by Alecia Underhill

From the January/February 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Anita L. Burkam

Anita L. Burkam
Horn Book reviewer Anita L. Burkam is former associate editor of The Horn Book Magazine.

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