My Top 5 Horses in Children’s Books

Fledge flying horse The Magician's Nephew

When I blogged about my top 10 animals in children’s fiction back in September I promised to follow up with my favourite horse characters, because I felt they deserved a list of their own. Finally, here it is.

I was a sucker for a pony story as a child, and I read anything I could find in my local library with a horse on the cover or a hint of one in the title. I must have consumed a lot of rubbish about gymkhanas and curry combs and five-barred-gates which I have completely forgotten now. Looking at my choices of rather more classic books below, I realise they are all highly dramatic, and highly romantic – even, at a pinch – the Thelwell ponies, who are the objects of their girl-riders’ romantic affections.

1. Black Beauty by Anna Sewell (1877). I blogged about this book here and here. Beauty is beautiful (natch) in looks and temperament, honest, ill-used, and eloquent in this, his ‘Autobiography Of A Horse’. He is the template against which all other fictional horses – and many human heroes and heroines – are measured. And fall a little short.

2. Thelwell ponies – any of the cartoon ponies created by the (somewhat reluctant) Norman Thelwell. They are the complete antidote to all the other noble equines here. Thelwell ponies are short, fat, hairy, stubborn, lazy, and selfish, and not even very good at natural horsey skills. Unless by natural horsey skills we mean kicking, bucking, shying, braking suddenly, and foraging in hedges. Yet they are still adored by their owners and riders, and readers of the little books like A Leg At Each Corner (1961). The nearest I could get to having a bloody-minded little Merrylegs of my own.

The Silver Brumby by Elynne Mitchell

3. Thowra in The Silver Brumby by Elyne Mitchell (1958). Thowra is a wild Australian horse whose pale colour marks him out to other horses and to threatening humans, so already as a colt he has the makings of a persecuted hero. I loved Mitchell’s tale, told from the horses’ point of view without anthropomorphising them. A story firmly rooted in the natural world and using Thowra’s knowledge of it, so yet another strand that appealed to me as a child – and still does.

4. Flicka in My Friend Flicka by Mary O’Hara (1941). I watched loads of Westerns as a child. Cowboy films and TV series seemed to be the common dramatic staple then, just as cop/crime shows are now. My Friend Flicka, set on a Wyoming ranch, fulfilled my love of all things outdoorsy while I lay on the sofa with my nose in a book! It has the best ingredients: our sympathetic attraction to the underdog (the least favourite son, the filly that isn’t wanted), family rivalry and injustice, learning, love and loyalty. It also features serious injury, life-threatening illness and gruesome details, all of which seemed totally necessary to many of the books I relished, and were seen as perfectly suitable – nay, classic – material for child-readers!

My Friend Flicka by Mary O'Hara

5. Strawberry in The Magician’s Nephew by C S Lewis (1955). Which takes us almost back to Black Beauty, since Strawberry is an overworked cab-horse in Victorian London when he gets whisked by magic to the Wood Between the Worlds and into Narnia as it is created. There Strawberry makes the ultimate transformation into Fledge, not only a flying horse, but a talking one as well. As Fledge he becomes the first in line of all the flying horses of Narnia. I loved the idea of a knackered old working horse finding his youthful strength again, blossoming into a mythical beast, and, as Beauty never could, gaining the capacity to tell humans the truth.

Flambards by K M Peyton OUPI’d also like to give an honourable mention to the horses in the Flambards books by K M Peyton, although by the time I discovered these I was more interested in the budding romance between the human characters than the horse-riding stuff. The beautiful, romantic, but accurate equine illustrations by the amazing Victor Ambrus really added to the delight.

And to The Pie in Enid Bagnold’s National Velvet (1935). This is another novel of transformation, and bears almost no resemblance to the famous film with a young Elizabeth Taylor as plain little slaughter-houseman’s daughter Velvet.

Lastly, though it is definitely not a book for children, Horse Heaven by Jane Smiley (2000) is a wonder. A huge book about the American racing community, it tells parallel stories of jockeys, trainers, breeders, owners, grooms, various hangers-on – plus a dog and several horses! The amazing foal who might become a star, and the experienced old nag who is more than he seems. I have never, ever read anyone who creates the truly alien perceptions of an animal so persuasively before. The heart-wrenching powerlessness of the horses as they inevitably change hands, even on the way up in value, let alone on the way down, takes me right back to where I started, with Black Beauty.

Strawberry into Fledge, The Magician's Nephew by C S Lewis

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10 Writers’ Displacement Activities

We ought to be writing. We want to be writing. But when we get the chance, what are we doing instead?

1.  Housework

If there are household chores that need doing, we’ll do anything else, which is only logical because housework is boring, tiring, and soon enough it’ll need doing all over again.

But when we’ve got some writing time, suddenly there’s an urgent desire – no, a compulsion – to clear away the breakfast things first. And it would only be sensible to put a load of dirty clothes in the washing machine so that they can be doing in the meantime. And, oh, there’s gunk that’s really crying out to be teased from of the plughole in the shower. We don’t exactly turn into domestic gods and goddesses, just furious tidiers and fixers, laden with clean laundry, dirty cups, and distracted good intentions, on our way to whatever space we write in.

2.  Caffeine top-ups

No one writes without a cup of coffee in them first, right?

And now it’s probably time for another.

Might as well make a pot.

Maybe tea would make a nice change now.

Just have to wash up the favourite cup.

And nip to the loo, again, what with all the fluids…

3.  The working lunch

This isn’t a time-saving meeting of colleagues over ordered-in sushi to thrash out ideas or go over the last month’s figures. It’s the planning and assemblage of something you can eat with one hand while typing with the other. Hazardous.

4.  Going for a walk

Julia Cameron – she of The Artist’s Way and Walking In This World – reckons this is a good way to unblock creativity, and she’s certainly not alone. Going for a vigorous walk in the fresh air does help us rethink, solve problems, and just sets the brain going. At the very least it gets us off our backsides. But a walk to the corner shop for more snacks, all the while contemplating what snacks to get, is not the same as striding for miles over the windswept fells and thinking about daffodils.

5.  Sharpening pencils

There is absolutely no reason for sharpening all our pencils to a perfect needle point in this day and age, unless it is to use them for poking tiny bits of cheese or biscuit crumbs out of the crevices of the keyboard. See (3) above. In which case, it’s a valid use of time.

6.  Social media

It’s kind of work. If we’re not out there, our publishers tell us we ought to be. It will help our public profile. So we keep checking if it’s helping our profile. And then we see other writers with much better profiles. Or who are just much better at social media. Or much better writers. So, feeling a bit low, we succumb to any of the other displacement activities, especially food-based ones.

7.  Actually quite tedious and repetitive on-screen games

We don’t play the really involving ones because that would be, well, really involving. Just the dull ones. As a bit of a break from all that vital creativity.

Research shows that repetitive self harm sets up receptors in the brain just like drug addiction, so that nothing else quite fits the bill. Hard to think that could apply to Spider Solitaire, but there you go. Click. Click.

8.  Snack time

Well, we only had a sandwich for lunch and half of that fell on the floor due to eating one-handed while crouched over a keyboard. So a little boost is probably necessary about now. A little sugar rush. Just to liven things up.

9.  Research

Oh, God, and now there’s Pinterest as well…

10.  Daytime TV

In conversation at a party once it became to clear to me that all the people who ‘worked’ from home were familiar with Diagnosis Murder, while all the people with go-out-to-work jobs just looked blank. They had no absolutely no idea that in his latter years, instead of retiring to his lovely beachfront property and spending his days fishing, veteran actor Dick Van Dyke retrained as a medic, solved a whole load of crimes, and kept his extended family in gainful employ. He wasn’t a time-waster.

Dick Van Dyke in Diagnosis Murder

Reading together: building memories, shared jokes, and a family shorthand.

‘I always wanted to be a writer. Some of my earliest memories are about telling myself made-up stories as I played. And I was an avid reader.

Although it’s wonderful to sink into the world of a book all on your own and tune out everyone around you, finding you love the same novel as someone else, or being able to recite favourite bits of a story together make a real bond…’

You can read the rest of my guest blog for Reading Force here.

Reading Force is an initiative that brings British forces children and families closer together through sharing books. I was very excited when The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth was chosen as one of their 2014 recommended books. If you need any inspiration you can find a range of fab books for children of all ages on their latest list of recommended reads here.

Alice In Wonderland by George Leslie Dunlop

Alice In Wonderland, a painting by George Leslie Dunlop 1879

‘Black Beauty’ revisited (1)

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell cover image

In preparation for drawing up the list of my Top 5 Horses in Children’s Books, I am reading Black Beauty. It was one of my best-loved books as a child yet I hadn’t picked it up since. I must have owned a copy as I read it a number of times but I have absolutely no memory of what the book looked like, whether it was hardback or paperback, of jumble-sale origin or brand-new.

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell cover image

This time round I’ve bought a secondhand copy as the covers of new ones I found in bookshops came nowhere near what my idea of Beauty ought to look like. (The ones I’ve included here are ones I do approve of!) As a classic book, long out of copyright, there are lots of editions available with variable cover images. Some make Beauty look handsome and noble (correct). Others are frankly naff, the artwork apparently based on a plastic toy animal rather than a living, breathing horse. One audio version cover makes Beauty more like a plump cartoon pig than well-bred horseflesh!

It is hard now to imagine a world as full of horses as ours is full of cars. They were ridden or driven as transport, pulled everything from smart carriages to ploughs, omnibuses to hearses, were used for pleasure riding, and as pets-cum-playthings and teaching aids for children. We understand that cars are owned and run by experts and enthusiasts, by those who just use them to get from A to B but take reasonable care of them, and by people who don’t know what goes on under the bonnet or how to drive sensibly or safely. And, before the advent of the internal combustion engine, it was just the same with horses. But horses are sentient beings and herd animals, not machines.

horse-drawn vehicles traffic jam

I now know that Black Beauty was written as a kind of 19th century best-practice guide to horse care rather than a pony story for children, which was how it was presented to me. Anna Sewell was concerned about the ill-treatment of horses, through ignorance, arrogance, and thoughtlessness as much as through deliberate cruelty or neglect. This is the only book she ever wrote and she frequently strikes a practical rather than a romantic note, trying to appeal to common sense, and even economy, if entreating compassion won’t wash. One of her lessons is that if you treat a horse well and don’t overwork it, you will get better service and more years out of it. She obviously understands the different conditions that must prevail in settings like livery stables – the hire-car outlet of its day – and cab ranks, grand country houses with designer stable blocks, and pleasant vicarage meadows. Some of the difference is down to sheer economic necessity, but not all. Some is due to the temperament of the owners and workers. Sewell seems to me a keen observer of human nature, even if her humans tend to embody types she wants to show us rather than 3-dimensional characters.

horse-drawn Victorian Hansom cab

Black Beauty is a short book and I am only a quarter of the way through – nothing too dreadful has happened to Beauty yet. But on this reading I can see that each chapter presents a small moral and/or practical lesson: how – and why – to break a horse in gently and slowly; how to get it used to traffic and trains; why bad habits like biting and kicking are a result of bad treatment; even how to find out the true character of an employee in a subtle way.

But as a child I just consumed Beauty’s narrative, even if on re-readings I knew that it was all going to go horribly wrong before it came right again. I think it’s where I first appreciated that there was a narrative arc to a story – for example, from riches to rags to riches again – or in Beauty’s case from bran mash to beatings and back. The book’s subtitle is The Autobiography of a Horse and it’s told in the first person (or first horse) by Beauty himself. I had forgotten this. I wonder if it was the first novel to be narrated by an animal? I’d also forgotten that Beauty (!) is male, and that poor put-upon, biter and kicker Ginger is female.

I know that Beauty, like a long-lost childhood sweetheart, has got to be top of my list. I just had to check him out first. More about Black Beauty later…

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell book cover design

Make every week a children’s book week with 100 Best Books For Children

This was really last week’s news, but why not extend Children’s Book Week a little longer? Make every week a children’s book week?

Booktrust published its list of 100 Best Books for Children. The books had to be published in the last 100 years and the selection panel chose to concentrate on fiction. There are certainly many familiar books and many of my own family favourites here, particularly in the youngest section.

eachpeach

In the 0-5 age range, special mention to Each Peach Pear Plum, which I think I could still recite – at a pinch. We loved looking for the witty details in the pictures, and I really do admire the way all those fairytale characters managed to appear most naturally together. Hairy Maclary From Donaldson’s Dairy has a similar zingy rhythm to it and an inventiveness that makes it such fun to read aloud. And then John Burningham’s Would You Rather? which mixes cringy, scary and funny and gives lots to talk about. There are just one or two in this section which are new to me. Only the other week – coincidentally just before this list came out – I came across I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen for the first time and enjoyed its poignant deadpan humour.

stanley

Fewer real favourites in the 6-8 age group, though I loved being reminded of Flat Stanley by Jeff Brown. Mister Magnolia and Winnie The Pooh are in there too, but I think my kids enjoyed these at a much younger age – probably because I enjoyed them so much. This section seems to show that around now individual reading tastes begin to develop and diverge.

But 9-11s has a really strong field and so many beloved books in it. I’m so pleased to see The Wolves of Willoughby Chase made it, alongside Skellig, Ballet Shoes and Journey to The River Sea.

Interesting that in the 12-14s there are several books I only read as an adult and bought as adult books: Watership Down, I Capture The Castle, The Curious Incident of the Dog In castle The Night-time. Some wonderful reads here, new and old. At this age I didn’t know where to look for interesting and challenging books and, outgrowing the children’s section of the local public library, I launched on a random assault of the adult shelves. (The word ‘adult’ as an adjective always sounds rather dodgy these days!) I waded through some very strange stuff before settling into science fiction and rather macho thrillers. I couldn’t seem to manage the classics then and nothing I read at school – except Lord of the Flies – engaged me at all. If only today’s range and quality of reading for teens had been available when I was that age.

My Top 10 Animals in Children’s Books

Animals always manage to creep (bound, gallop, flutter) into my own writing. Dogs, cats and horses have all featured, and my next book even includes some hens. Here are my ten favourite animals in children’s books, not including horses – they deserve a list of their own!
In no particular order, then…

Jumble in Just William et al by Richmal Crompton. Jumble is like the dogs of my childhood: 1. A mongrel, of course. 2. Lives a charmed life. 3. Doesn’t do ‘walkies’. 4. Any rigorous training is devoted to learning tricks, not behaving himself in public. 5. Never sees a vet. 6. Just one of the gang.

Fred, the eponymous hero of Posy Simmonds’ picture book. Enormous, snoozy, boring Fred turns out to lead a secret double life. When he dies (yes, the difficult topic that a pet might not be immortal is raised) the neighbourhood cats come together to celebrate his legendary night-time persona in a glorious wake. A lesson for complacent cats and cat-owners everywhere.

Mole in The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame. Ratty knows his way about, but Mole is rather new to things, so as a child I indentified with him. I don’t think I was particularly amused by Mr Toad until I was older and met a few real-life Toad-alikes; possibly still not amused.

Squirrel Nutkin by Beatrix Potter. I’ve only seen a real red squirrel once, at Cawdor Castle in the Highlands. They are increasingly rare, reduced mainly to Scotland – and Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour. They have been pushed out by their imported cousins, the grey squirrels. Of all Potter’s immaculately-drawn animals, handsome Squirrel Nutkin remains my favourite.

Hare in the Little Grey Rabbit books by Alison Uttley, illustrated by Margaret Tempest. While Grey Rabbit keeps calm and carries on, effortlessly making bandages, soup and cowslip balls, dear old Hare is an enthusiastic, somewhat galumphing fool, full of hare-brained schemes. He also gets marks for being an elegant dresser – those coats!

Owl in Winnie The Pooh and The House At Pooh Corner by A. A. Milne. Lots of animals to choose from in the Hundred Acre Wood but most of them are made of cloth! Owl is a real bird, lives up a tree, and is the go-to creature for dispensing wisdom. “Able to read and write and spell his own name WOL, yet somehow [he] went all to pieces over delicate words like MEASLES and BUTTEREDTOAST.” Know the feeling.

Pantalaimon in His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman. I so, so wish daemons were real and not just a brilliant fictional idea. Pan has all the great qualities of a companion-animal, a loyal familiar, and then some. What would my daemon be (once it had stopped shape-shifting)?

Buck in Call of The Wild by Jack London. I don’t know why I enjoyed such sad stories as a child (and this isn’t really for children), but I do love a good book told from an animal’s point of view. This one doesn’t spare the reader’s feelings as we follow Buck’s brutal path through the harsh conditions of the Klondike Gold Rush. Read and weep.

The Caterpillar in The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carl. (Can’t leave out the invertebrates.) He’s a caterpillar. He’s hungry. Some of those food choices might not be mine, but he’s got to build up his strength to transform into a beautiful butterfly. I once spent some happy hours making that butterfly for a story-bag, and was rather proud of the result. I wish I still had it.

The Monster in Not Now, Bernard by David McKee. I’ve snuck him in because I read about him to my children over and over and over again, and he still makes me laugh and I still feel sorry for him. He might have – sorry, SPOILER ALERT ! – eaten Bernard but my heart goes out to him. And I think he qualifies as an animal, doesn’t he?

Now I’m sure that – just like forgetting a friend’s birthday – I’ve unforgivably overlooked some old favourites.

Do let me know who you would choose.