The Eighty Dollar Champion

EDC-ppbk1In a season when I am finding few books that I want to read all the way to the end, The Eighty Dollar Champion by Elizabeth Letts wouldn’t let me go. It’s the wonderfully touching, inspiring story of a plow horse bound for slaughter, who was bought off the kill truck for $80 — and ended up becoming a national jumping champion. His buyer, Harry de Leyer, is a young Dutchman who immigrated with his young wife after World War II and taught riding at an exclusive girls’ school.

When he brought the horse home to be used as a lesson horse, the big flea-bitten gray had seen better days. As he stepped off the truck and stood in the driveway under light snow that hid some of his initial marks of neglect, de Leyer’s 4-year-old daughter exclaimed, “He looks just like a snowman!” Snowman he became, and though it took a few years to discover his hidden talent for jumping, his rise to fame in the late 1950’s came at a time when America desperately needed a hero. Snowman and Harry de Leyer were a team of underdogs, ordinary types who jumped every obstacle in more ways than one. People felt represented by them.

The stories of both horse and man stirred me. They’re powerful testimonies to the power of vision and hope, and I greatly needed the uplift this book provided… even though I found myself tearing up quite frequently while reading. Like most animal books, this one includes a few sad parts. But I found that for the most part it was simply the appeal of Snowman’s quiet, steady, sociable personality, and the strength of the bond between him and the de Leyer family, that moved me. That, and it develops one of my all-time favorite themes: restoration.

For anyone as hungry for inspiration as I am, this is a fabulous read. A friend mentioned it to me back in the winter, and for some reason it didn’t come to mind until last week. I’m so glad it did. I discovered that the library has a copy of the audiobook version, and I’ve put it on hold to share with my daughters.

Here is Elizabeth Letts talking about her book, and sharing some images of Snowman and Harry.

Books in the atmosphere

I’ve been reading in undisciplined fashion this summer — which means that instead of being in my usual one-book-at-a-time mode, I’m in multi-read mode. Currently I’m alternating between Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Edith Nesbit’s Treasure Seekers, and, in preparation for my soon-to-be sixth grader’s reading list for next year, Don Quixote. (Hers will be an abridgement!) The multi-read mode is risky for me; I always wait with bated breath to see if I’ll finish any of the books on my nightstand. But it’s part of my summer state of mind to take an airier approach.

Meantime, the girls and I have thoroughly enjoyed Cynthia Voight’s Angus and Sadie as a read-aloud. For a family of border collie owners, this lighthearted story about two border collies adopted by a young couple on a farm hit the spot. Angus and Sadie have distinctive personalities and strengths, and as they undergo training and make the adjustment to their new home, we learn about their experiences from their point of view. Both active, bold Angus and biddable, timid Sadie eventually find their niche on the farm and illustrate the different ways the herding instinct can manifest itself.

This week we started Charles Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare in a belated effort to enrich our history study. I showed the girls the typical play format in my imposing Pelican Shakespeare, then made the transition to the paperback edition of Lamb’s book of summaries for children. So far it’s going well and seems like an effective and pleasurable way to introduce an overview of England’s most famous playwright.

In the airwaves, the girls have had various audiobooks playing. Little Town on the Prairie was timely to hear just before the fourth of July, since it devotes a chapter to the embryonic town of De Smet’s Independence Day celebration — complete with a reading from the Declaration of Independence. I was struck by the keenness of these pioneers’ gratitude for their freedom. They had their share of hard times and were far from wealthy, but they had a work ethic, an impressive range of practical skills and useful knowledge, and a fierce desire to make their own way in the world that made their freedom deeply meaningful. I feel my lack of such a knowledge inheritance, and I wonder what its loss will ultimately cost. I can’t help but wonder if freedom is frightening to a people who have lost the basic ability to survive without dependence on machines, systems, and consumable products.

The other story in the air around here has been The Magician’s Nephew. I’m always struck by the rollicking humor in the story, which I never really picked up on till I heard Kenneth Branagh’s reading. The scenes involving the White Witch’s adventures in London are pure comedy, and there is something magical, always, about hearing the stories read with a British accent. The other theme I was interested in this time was the “olden times” theme. It’s establishing a history of Narnia, so it’s a narrative necessity for it to take place in the past for Lewis’s audience. But there is a touch of satire, too. Lewis’s narrator doesn’t really glorify the past, but in some places he does seem to acknowledge that he is free to take artistic license with it — to exaggerate a bit here and there, or to generalize. When Aunt Letty is hurled across the room by Queen Jadis and recovers, we’re told that aunts were often tough old ladies “in those days.” And when Polly is sent to her room after a supper with all the “nice parts taken out,” we’re told, “It was a thing that happened to one quite often in those days.” It sounds to me like he’s gently poking fun at the tendency we have to recast history and make a better story out of it — kind of like Frost’s speaker in “The Road Not Taken,” who sees no essential difference between the two roads before him at the moment of choice, but who knows that later he’ll make a good story out of it.

Last but not last — and not entirely literary, either — is Pride and Prejudice, courtesy of Netflix. This television mini-series from 1995 with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth is my favorite movie version of the story, and I re-watch it periodically to regale my ears with elegant language and my eyes with elegant manners and clothing. The girls have tuned in this time with great enthusiasm. We don’t watch much T.V. around here, but it’s been a lot of fun celebrating what appears to be our first chick flick fest together. I hope that when they get around to reading the real thing the good memories will serve as motivation.

Now I Remember: The Autobiography of Thornton W. Burgess

Sometimes you can enjoy a series of books, but grow disillusioned when you read the author’s biography. (This happened to me when I read Elizabeth Goudge’s autobiography.) But in Thornton Burgess’s case, I find my respect and liking for the man greatly increased by reading his autobiography. And I am drawn back to the stories of the Green Meadows and the Green Forest now that I have learned more about their back story and motivation.

I grew up with the Thornton Burgess books. My parents passed some on to me, and my grandmother gave me some new ones for Christmas one year. My favorite was Lightfoot the Deer, but over the years (and more recently, with my daughters) I’ve read the respective adventures of Paddy the Beaver, Johnny Chuck, Grandfather Frog, Peter Rabbit, Longlegs the Heron, Mr. Mocker, Chatterer the Red Squirrel, and The Burgess Bird Book. I have to say that though I enjoyed them as a child, I took them in fairly small doses. They are written in a sentimental style, and the animals are given human characteristics — including human speech. The pictures by celebrated illustrator Harrison Cady are very distinctive, but they never really appealed to me.

Since reading the books with my daughters I’ve noticed that underneath the stylistic trappings, there is quite a bit of real nature knowledge. As we come upon different animals in our travels, it’s becoming a reflex to reach first not just for the Handbook of Nature Study or an animal encyclopedia, but for a Thornton Burgess book as well. And we find ourselves referring to the “folk in fur and feathers” (as Burgess calls them) around the yard by his names for them: Chatterer, Happy Jack, Sammy Jay, and so on.

Now I Remember was published in 1960, when Burgess was 86. Despite the distinctive, grandfatherly voice that pervades the stories, I really had no idea who the man behind them was. Born in Sandwich, Massachusetts and a self-identifying lifelong Cape Codder no matter where else he lived, he was an only child who lost his father in his first year of life. As a boy he helped earn money by collecting plants, tending cows, and trapping muskrats, and these outdoor rambles laid a foundation of nature observation that later blossomed into his best-known tales. “Studying the wild things and their ways that I might better outwit and kill them, I was with complete unawareness laying the foundations for my lifework, which began happily when I put away the gun for camera and typewriter,” Burgess explains.

He went to business school for a year, but that was the extent of his post-high school education. As a writer he began by writing advertising copy; the nature stories began when his 5-year-old son was staying with relatives (he was married twice; only a year into marriage, his first wife died at the birth of their son), and he would send him stories about the “little people” of the Green Meadows and Green Forest and Smiling Pool. Burgess wrote 15,000 stories for newspapers and magazines and well over 100 books. An amateur naturalist, he built on the foundation of his early years of firsthand observation through study and field research, always aspiring to accuracy and avoidance of becoming what President Teddy Roosevelt termed “nature fakers.” Though his writing career began in the desire to simply entertain and make a living, he quickly realized that his books had educational value, and he became a strong advocate for nature study and conservation. He worked to pass laws protecting migrant wildlife, and started various clubs associated with his stories and radio programs with rewards for conserving behavior and nature study: the Bedtime Stories Club, the Green Meadow Club, the Radio Nature League, and even the Happy Jack Squirrel Saving Club for children buying thrift stamps and bonds during World War I.

My daughter is sitting here as I type this, and I asked her what she likes best about the Burgess stories. She replies, “The animals mostly get along. There is real nature in them, but the animals get along.” This is intentional, as Burgess explains. Children learn quickly enough of the cruelty in the world. He felt strongly that in stories for children they should not be treated to the “realism” of their favorite characters getting eaten. That’s why Reddy Fox never gets Peter Rabbit. At one point in Burgess’s lifetime, an editorial gently poked fun at this by asking, “When Does Old Man Coyote Eat?” But on the whole the safety of the fictional world, though not totally realistic, is one of the features that held readers so devotedly.

I had mixed feelings about some things. These days it’s hard to imagine stories as propoganda to get children to invest in war efforts. But at the same time I found myself wistful for the kind of national unity and community that existed then, and for the moral consensus that surrounded the war effort. We live in a much more ideologically fragmented age — less naive, but with a knowledge that has come at some cost.

I also hesitate at Burgess’s repeated assertion that nature stories are ideal vehicles for conveying morals because of children’s innate sense of superiority to animals. Again, we live in a different age when it’s not fashionable to think in such a tiered way about nature; ecosystems and webs of life are inherently more democratic than superior and inferior species. Yet I’m also a Christian who remembers that the first responsibility humans are given in Genesis is to steward the Creation. There is a hierarchy of sorts; who can deny that humans display qualities that are unique among all species? The ability to reason and reflect and alter our environment can be used for good or ill, and can be exercised with the humility that comes with recognizing that we are dependent on the health of the world around us. So I found myself qualifying and revising some of Burgess’s views.

Even though I felt some of these differences, I found Burgess to be an extremely gracious personality, and my strongest impression as I close the book is liking for him. This book includes an account of events in his literary life, description of his writing habits, memories of childhood, various philosophies of life, personal and professional associations, and excerpts of letters from readers over the years that he has accumulated in a scrapbook. It could have come off as self-adulation, but it doesn’t. Instead what comes across is his great appreciation for his readers, and the enormous encouragement and inspiration they provided him. He sees himself as indebted to them.

I come away from Now I Remember knowing I would have been one of the many who loved this author and felt a sense of personal connection with him. His stories were a part of daily life in the newspapers for thousands of people and provided not just nature knowledge, but a sense of stability and decency in a rapidly changing world. His impact is much greater than I knew.

  • Images courtesy of Gutenberg.
  • Visit the Thornton Burgess Society here.
  • See the book on Amazon here.

Read Aloud Thursday: Burgess Bird Book

It’s no secret around these parts that we’ve been bird watching all summer. Thornton Burgess’s books have been a nice fit as read-alouds, and recent titles have included The Adventures of Mr Mocker and Longlegs the Heron (linked to my reviews). I read a few of the Burgess stories when I was a child, but they weren’t really stand-outs to me. My daughters seem to enjoy them very much, and as sometimes happens, their enthusiasm has kindled a greater appreciation in me. (The same thing happened with Beatrix Potter. Something about talking animals going on here…)

The Burgess Bird Book for Children is one of the titles that has kept showing up as a recommended read on my Kindle. Finally I checked it out, downloaded it for free, and have been reading it together with the girls this week. Originally published in 1919, the book sets out to educate children about birds. In the preface, Burgess explains:

This book was written to supply a definite need. Its preparation was undertaken at the urgent request of booksellers and others who have felt the lack of a satisfactory medium of introduction to bird life for little children. As such, and in no sense whatever as a competitor with the many excellent books on this subject, but rather to supplement these, this volume has been written.

Its primary purpose is to interest the little child in, and to make him acquainted with, those feathered friends he is most likely to see. Because there is no method of approach to the child mind equal to the story, this method of conveying information has been adopted. So far as I am aware the book is unique in this respect. In its preparation an earnest effort has been made to present as far as possible the important facts regarding the appearance, habits and characteristics of our feathered neighbors. It is intended to be at once a story book and an authoritative handbook. While it is intended for little children, it is hoped that children of larger growth may find in it much of both interest and helpfulness.

I would have to say that the children both large and small in our home would give Burgess a thumbs up on his endeavor. This dovetails nicely with Comstock’s Handbook of Nature Study, packing lots of the same information into a story form and setting me up to supplement a bit from the Handbook. I’m especially enjoying the material about the different nesting habits of each respective bird, because we’d like to hunt for some nests in the fall after the leaves come down. This will help us with the identification.

Another nice perk of The Burgess Bird Book is the volume of free study material available online. The Kindle version I downloaded isn’t illustrated, but this site has Montessori cards of all the bird illustrations. (They’re done not by Burgess’ usual illustrator, Harrison Cady, but by Louis Agassiz Fuertes, and they’re quite lovely. They’re also more compact for taking with you on a walk.)  The site includes additional materials too — coloring pages, mini-book-making supplies for narrations of each respective chapter, a bird watching checklist, maps, copywork, and other things. The entire text is there as well — one of several online options, for those interested. Finally, my daughters enjoy visiting All About Birds and Peterson’s Field Guide to listen to bird songs and pick up additional tidbits.

If you’re interested in developing your child’s (and your own) knowledge about birds, this book is a valuable resource. I won’t say it’s action-packed; it consists largely of conversations between Peter Rabbit and various birds about their appearance and behavior. But the information is detailed, quite a range of birds is covered, and it’s presented with gentleness and charm.

Last but not least, here’s little bird we saw on an outing yesterday. I think it’s a female yellow throat, a tiny warbler we spotted first when she was perched on a blade of grass. I think she’ll make an appearance in chapter 25.

Be sure to click over to Read Aloud Thursday at Hope Is the Word for more read-aloud ideas (and, today, for some good words on The Voyage of the Dawn Treader)!

Rodentry

Zenyatta

We’ve been enjoying hamster stories around here. Last Christmas, the addition of two of these little rodents led the kids to dub our home “New Hamsterdam.” Then a few months later my daughter won a local writing contest with a hamster story of her own. It was inevitable that we would discover Betty Birney’s stories about Humphrey, the “exceptionally intelligent and handsome” classroom hamster of Room 26B at Longfellow School.

So far we’ve either read or listened to the audiobook versions of The World According to Humphrey, Summer According to Humphrey, Trouble According to Humphrey, Adventure According to Humphrey, Friendship According to Humphrey, and Surprises According to Humphrey. All are equally entertaining, and all share a few basic qualities:

  • They showcase Humphrey’s curiosity about human behavior. He keeps a little notebook hidden in his sleeping hut where he jots down quotations, new words, and observations about people.
  • They reveal the kinds of struggles elementary-aged children face as they try to learn how to live in a world of people. There are strains between classmates, and the books show how to arrive at a positive outcome. Humphrey goes home with different children on the weekends, so he gets to observe and compare family dynamics, too. Humphrey himself even has some obstacles to overcome when he has to make room for Og the frog, a new classroom pet. And he learns that first impressions aren’t always reliable when he gets to know Mrs. Brisbane, the teacher who inherits him from free spirit substitute teacher Ms. Mac.
  • They depict Humphrey helping people. Often he hatches plans to guide his friends toward greater understanding and better communication. These plans frequently involve temporary escape from his cage, thanks to his “lock that doesn’t lock.”
  • They present a positive view of school and learning in general. The classroom activities the kids do are fun, and the kids are realistic. Humphrey is eager to learn and pays attention in class.
  • The same cast of characters reappear in each book: “Lower-Your-Voice-A.J.,” “Raise-Your-Hand-Heidi,” “Stop-Giggling-Gail,” “Speak-Up-Sayeh,” and “Pay-Attention-Art,” for instance. Then there are Aldo the custodian and Principal Morales, Ms. Mac, Mrs. Brisbane, and Mrs. Wright, the whistle-blowing P.E. teacher. We’ve developed a liking for all of them.
  • I have to make a pitch for the audiobooks as well. Hal Hollings’ voicing really brings the stories to life.

Humphrey is an indomitable little rodent who gets hurt or disappointed from time to time but never loses faith in people. He views himself as a full-fledged, participatory member of the class and models what it means to belong. That sounds rather grand for a hamster narrator, but the stories pull it off without being didactic or overly cute. It’s no wonder these tales are so popular among young readers.

Watership Down

Watership Down is one of the books Mrs. G., the school librarian when I was in 8th grade, recommended. I remember loving it, but beyond that, and beyond the general subject matter of rabbits, I didn’t remember anything. Having recently acquired a pet rabbit, now seemed like the time to reread this novel about all things lapine.

It’s a marvelous book in which Richard Adams creates an utterly convincing society of rabbits, led by Hazel and ably defended by Bigwig, Blackberry, and others, and contemplates a number of meaningful questions as they escape their soon-to-be-destroyed warren in search of a new place to live.

One such question is the nature of knowledge. There are several ways of knowing explored here: the sort of mystical, prophetic vision evidenced by the rabbit Fiver, who inspires them to strike out in the first place; the natural sense knowledge on which the wild rabbits rely for survival; the essential ignorance of a small group of hutch rabbits who come into the story; the self-deluding knowledge of a warren they encounter on their journey to what eventually becomes their home; and finally, the calculating, strategic knowledge of Woundwort, tyrant leader of a neighboring warren, who receives the ultimate insult of being “not like a rabbit at all.”

Similarly, styles of leadership and governance are explored as Hazel seeks to work with his band of followers. They have ample opportunity to refine their own essentially democratic approach as they contrast their instincts with those of Cowslip, sort-of-leader of a group of rabbits dependent on men and refusing to face the risk at which this puts them, and of Woundwort, for whom power, safety and regulation reign supreme.

Adams creates a mythology, and a minimal set of religious assumptions, for the rabbit world as well, and thus storytelling figures prominently in the tale. A few of the rabbits’ myths are interspersed with the main action of the tale, and all of them feature a crafty rabbit named El-Ahrairah, comparable to the Rabbit of ancient South American tales, or the Br’er Rabbit tales. There is a Black Rabbit of Inle, who according to legend comes at a rabbit’s time to die and takes them to the next world. Most of the tales are told by Dandelion, the resident bard of the group, and their vigorous oral tradition is shown to be important — particularly in contrast to that of Cowslip and company, who have ceased to believe in any of the old myths and create their own instead.

I may be making it out to be a philosophical novel, dry and instructive. It’s not that way at all. It’s a fabulous adventure story, full of interesting naturalistic insights and facts, and full of tension and heroism. Time and again, we see that the most important characteristic of a good leader is the willingness to lay down his life, to take great risks, for his followers. Cooperation, wisdom, and a fighting spirit combine on Watership Down to create a successful society, and that puts this book in a different class than many of the more depressing ones (Animal Farm, for instance). If you haven’t read this one, or if it’s been long enough that you’ve forgotten, it’s well worth picking up.

Rabbit Hill

Back in May when I was raking dead leaves off my flower garden, I uncovered a nest of baby rabbits. There was brief chaos: I wondered if I’d stepped on them or hurt them with the rake, it started raining, and my husband was on the phone and couldn’t immediately lend his more level head to the multi-aged feminine hysteria. A few minutes later, we’d picked them all up, ascertained that they weren’t hurt, put them in a box to raise — then changed our minds and put them all back, raking their comfy coverlet of leaves and rabbit hair back over them.

It was the beginning of a summer of watching over them. They’ve all come through to adulthood in one piece. One has sunned itself frequently in the yard; another hides under a pile of boards next door; the third got trapped in the garden one morning, and the girls and I cheered from the window as my husband tried to herd the little rocket back to the gate.

All this to say that we were an ideal audience for Rabbit Hill. This delightful story won two awards: a Caldecott for its illustrations, and a Newbery for its writing. It’s another book from my own childhood revisited with my children, and both daughters loved Robert Lawson’s tale about a patch of countryside with its lively population of animals, all imaginatively transformed into distinctive characters and dialects.

The central happening in this tale is the arrival of new folks at an abandoned farm, and the speculation of all the animals about what they will be like. To everyone’s delight they are as generous and humane as can be. I know, thanks to Elizabeth Rider Montgomery’s Story Behind Modern Books, that the new folks in the big house are Lawson and his wife, whose Connecticut property was so inundated with rabbits that they called it Rabbit Hill.

It was a fun chapter book to read aloud, largely because the personalities of the animals are so vivid: Father Rabbit with his genteel and courtly speeches, Porky the woodchuck with his earthiness and poor grammar, Uncle Analdas with his penchant for the adjective “dingblasted.” It lends itself to high drama! For an animal tale that doesn’t make you cry, you can’t do better than this.

The Man Who Listens to Horses

My husband gave me The Man Who Listens to Horses: The Story of a Real-Life Horse Whisperer when we were dating. (We’ve been married ten years.) I read most of it, and this week I went back through it again all the way to the end.

Apparently there’s some controversy about the book. Some of its factual claims are disputed: did Monty Roberts really do the stunt riding in National Velvet? Was he really a protege of Bill Dorrance — who has said he doesn’t know him? Was his father really the hard, cruel man depicted in these pages? I can’t say that these accusations didn’t affect me. They did make me more skeptical. I also felt Mr. Roberts may inflate his own importance when he presents himself as a champion of a “new way” of training horses. Surely there have been true horsemen for centuries, men who love these animals and practice “natural horsemanship” with or without its official title.

Nevertheless, the book had an impact on me. There’s no question about whether this author knows how to work with horses cooperatively rather than cruelly, in ways that build trust rather than fear. And whether or not his father is guilty of beating Monty repeatedly with a chain, or disarming and then killing a hold-up man with his bare hands, the photographs in the center of the book make it plain that his father did indeed train horses by tying them up with ropes and using other methods of intimidation.

It’s hard to read about the abuse horses have been subjected to by their human stewards. That type of thing is what I find most difficult about animal stories and movies in general. This book calls forth mixed emotions: sorrow and grief blended with delight that the sensible, successful, and humane training methods Roberts describes here are recognized and respected by a growing number of people.

I find it fascinating to read about horse behavior. Though Roberts identifies them as flight animals at the far opposite end of the spectrum from their more aggressive human counterparts, in our basic psychology our two species have some real similarities. Horses and people respond to inner and outer wounds, and mistreatment by others, in the same way: retreat and loss of trust. And like humans, they can find healing only through learning to trust someone and work through their fears together.

This book is filed in my mind alongside Cloud: Wild Stallion of the Rockies, filmmaker Ginger Kathrens’ marvelous portrait of the mustangs in the Arrowhead Mountains of Montana. We’ve read a number of horse stories in this house, but these two works distinguish themselves as studies of horse communication and behavior. We’ve also enjoyed Leslie Desmond’s Horsemanship for Children video from the library. I’d probably put the videos above this book if I had to rate them, but the type of information, and the lines of thought it inspires, are similar.

In any case, this book has the double value of feeding my own interest in horses, and contributing to the dialogue between me and my horse-loving daughter. I’m sure my husband had no idea it would eventually touch the hearts of two ladies.

Another Herd of Horse Books

Curious about what kinds of comparisons might emerge among the many horse books I’ve read to my 7-year-old daughter, I’ve started keeping track. I want to do one more post about them, then wait till a few more accumulate before doing another. One qualification: we also read books on other topics! These are ones that relate to a particular interest of hers, but she has other interests too, as does my 4-year-old daughter.

Cover ImageKathy Wilmore’s Horses! has been a great resource for my older daughter to learn about different breeds of horses. It’s loaded with beautiful photos, and it’s been perfect for her to read in the evening during her designated “read in bed time.” It’s a factual book, not a storybook, great for young sponges who want to absorb as much as they can about horses. She gave a presentation on her horse collection for a hobby exhibition with her Brownie troop, and I was caught by surprise at how many breeds and their distinctives she was able to name. I’m sure this book is a big reason why.

This book is a source of information about the different types of horses and their respective roles and talents. Each chapter is narrated by a different girl who tells the reader about her horse and the work they do together. The table of contents is here. It contains a collection of tear-out trading cards in the back, and my daughter has learned a ton about the different breeds this way.

I Wonder Why Horses Wear Shoes is another favorite informational book. It’s a slim paperback with lots of illustrations, organized according to questions. It accompanies us many places because it’s easy to carry and useful for young information hounds.

Flip, and Flip and the Cows, are paperbacks that survived my own childhood. Flip is a young colt learning about life as a horse, and he was my first acquaintance with Wesley Dennis as an illustrator. Later I would discover his illustrations in many Marguerite Henry books. The stories are simple and good for young children. My 7-year-old has outgrown the stories, but not the illustrations.

Sometimes I Dream Horses, written by Jeanne Whitehouse Peterson and illustrated with beautiful pencil drawings by Eleanor Schick, is about a young girl who dreams of horses on her grandmother’s farm in the Southwest. We found it at the library. It’s a nice story about horse-lovers in two generations.

Winter Pony is Jean Slaughter Doty’s sequel to one of my childhood favorites, Summer Pony. This story follows Ginny through a winter with her pony Mokey, who learns how to pull a sleigh and then is discovered to be in foal. There’s more of Pam and Ginny’s developing friendship as well as lots of description of this exciting new chapter of life for Mokey. The story culminates in the foal’s birth, with Ginny supervising. It’s very readable and enjoyable, and we finished it in under a week.

This one was given to us by my friend JW. It’s about a Native American girl who prefers horses to human companions, and eventually gets her wish to live with them, with the blessing of her family. The illustrations are lovely, simple and stylized. Our other book about a Native American child who longs for a horse is Indian Two-Feet and His Horse, a book saved since my own childhood. It’s written by Margaret Friskey and illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats, and tells the tale of a boy who longs for a horse, finds a wounded one, and builds a lasting friendship by caring for it. Both these tales offer an alternative to the conquering notion of ownership, and present instead a vision of friendship with the natural world.

One other book we found at the library is about a Native American boy with a love for a horse: Black Kettle: King of the Wild Horses by Justin Denzel. Though the initial picture of Native Americans isn’t flattering — Little Bear, a 9-year-old, is part of a raid on settlers, and he steals the black colt — the relationship between Native Americans and settlers quickly fades into the background. However the theme of the Native American valuing wildness and freedom more than the white man remains at the forefront of the story; Little Bear frees the colt, who becomes famous as “king of the wild horses” and is targeted for capture more than once by a shopkeeper named Lockard. I have to believe this is a main source of the story in Disney’s movie Spirit. It’s interesting that none of these three stories identify their main characters as belonging to a particular tribe.

Now for some more oldies: Little Black, A Pony by Walter Farley is about a boy whose small black pony is relegated to semi-retirement when the boy learns to ride a larger horse, only to rise to heroism when the boy falls through the ice later in the story, and Little Black pulls him out. This one is good for an early reader. There’s some tension, but also a subtheme about importance and friendship not being determined by visible things. Both the boy and the pony learn this; the boy learns that riding a big horse doesn’t make him independent or all-powerful after all, and the pony learns that there are some things his small size enables him and him alone to do.

Last but not least, there have been a number of C.W. Anderson books that offer adventure and mild tension, equestrian knowledge, and great drawings. It’s been nice to follow Billy and his pony Blaze through a series of picture books. Stories like The Rumble Seat Pony, A Pony for Three, and The Lonesome Colt round out the collection, building on the winning theme of children and their horses. My daughter knows which shelf these are on at the library, so we’ve brought them home more than once — well-worn pieces of history that have been loved by many before us.

Horsebook Riding: Weekly Roundup

A Pony for the WinterHelen Kay’s A Pony for the Winter tells the tale of a pony who gives rides at an amusement park boarded to a young girl for the winter. Deborah, who’s 8 years old, learns the ropes of pony care and wrestles with the moral choice of whether to hide the pony from its owner when he returns in the spring. It’s not a picture book; text outweighs pictures. But there are still plenty of illustrations, and though the reading level is perhaps 3rd grade, younger children can read it with no problems.

Cowardly Clyde has been a real favorite this week. Clyde, a “cowardly” horse belonging to a bravado-filled knight, ends up saving the day (and the knight) from a rampaging ogre. When I came back from my morning walk yesterday, both girls were lying on their stomachs in my 7-year-old’s bed, reading and discussing, admiring Clyde, pointing out their favorite features of the pictures, dreaming what they would do in such a situation: “I’d bite him in the tail, then run around and around till he got dizzy and fell down!” was the best solution I heard.

The Mare on the Hill is a beautifully illustrated book about a white mare who fears people (kind of like Ginger in Black Beauty) who eventually comes to trust the young boys who long to befriend her. The text and paintings are by Thomas Locker, an acclaimed Hudson River painter. Gorgeous book.

Leah’s Pony is about a young girl living in the Dust Bowl during the great Depression. Her family’s farm is about to be auctioned off “the year the corn grew no higher than a man’s thumb,” and Leah makes a decision to sell her pony so she can bid on her father’s truck. (I’m tearing up just writing about it, actually.) It’s a wonderful story that inspires young children with a vision of the power their choices can have. (Good site here.)

Last but not least, Robert the Rose Horse… I’m very tired of this book, but my girls never seem to weary of it. We’ve checked it out of the library several times now. My older daughter read it through earlier in the year, and it was one of the first books she was curious enough about to push through as an early reader. It’s about a horse with an allergy to roses whose itchy nose ends up saving the day during a bank robbery. He’s a lovable equine, albeit one who walks around on his hind legs at will….