Black and white and read all over…

A Board Book Every Week: No. 6

 My Animals board book by Xavier Deneux

 My Animals by Xavier Deneux (Bloomsbury 2007)

 

The point of little books in high contrast black-and-white is to stimulate a baby’s early visual development. The newborn’s retina registers only dark and light so the plethora of pastel baby stuff that surrounds them won’t make much impact. Red, black and white, stripes and concentric circles and zigzags will command a very young baby’s attention. (That, and the faces of their favourite people, of course.)

But, but, but – it’s hard to share a book of geometric shapes, and shared attention and cuddles are what board books are really about. Monochrome books get propped up around cots and prams and beside the mat when the baby’s having a kickabout on the floor. Shared on a lap – not so much. They don’t have the content that creates a beloved book you return to again and again.

For most babies whose development is progressing along expected lines they won’t be in use for very long. Like a gorgeous outfit for a newborn, they’ll soon be back in the cupboard, outgrown. So I’ve chosen My Animals because it fits the bill for early visual stimulation but has staying power too. It’s sold as ‘a black and white book for babies and beyond’ and I’d say that claim is true.

My Animals by Xavier DeneuxIt’s a fat book with glossy boards, one animal per page, and a fingertip-sized hole that leads through to the next image. Sometimes the hole highlights a witty detail: a fish, a butterfly, an eye, and my favourite – Panda’s tummy button. On other pages the hole merely shows the line of a back or a few stripes. At first I thought this a bit disappointing, but then I realised that the design is really clever and satisfying, each image echoing the last one or integrated into the next.

Okay, a baby won’t appreciate this, but we adults can – and maybe we’re training up not only immature visual skills but a future eye for art and design elements all around. I firmly believe that you’re going to get more shared attention with developmentally-appropriate books and toys, but within that you shouldn’t just stick to the cute and the bland.

The animals range from cat, bird and dog to more exotic crocodile, hippo and penguin. Never having seen a live zebra doesn’t seem to hold a small child back from getting excited about them. They have the necessary Vis. Stim. spots and stripes but being animals the interest will last longer, and the poke-a-finger-through-the-hole thing is great.

Occasional flashes of vivid petrol-blue or oranMy Animals by Xavier Deneuxge lift the monochrome palette. The cover is matte black, a slightly weird texture – to me anyway – and, judging by those on the bookshop shelf, marks easily. But any baby book that gets good use will soon show signs of wear. Like those teddy-bears you can see have been very well-loved.

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Discovering the new cover for ‘Gully Potchard’

My new book, The Dangerous Discoveries of Gully Potchard, will be out in six weeks. And it has a brand new cover. This is the da-da-daaah! moment. (It took me at least two minutes to decide how best to spell that.)

Beady-eyed readers will have spotted that there was already a cover image out and about for this book. It was red and flame-yellow. But the team at OUP Children’s had second thoughts and came up with something far more spectacular. The cover of a book is so important: it’s crucial to get it as right as it can be. There’s still a dog, a sinister baddie, and a hatchet involved. But now it’s a stunning night-time blue and there’s one helluva chase for my hero, Gully, an ordinary boy who finds himself in extraordinary circumstances.

The Dangerous Discoveries of Gully Potchard by Julia lee, Oxford University Press, cover image

 

Can’t have enough blue – children’s book covers

Following on from my post on Blue Book Covers…looking through my store of children’s books, I found plenty of blue there too.

Here are some classics:  

The Swish of The Curtain by Pamela BrownThe Secret Gardeen by Frances Hodgson BurnettAnne of Green Gables by L M Montgomery     

I rather like this old Puffin edition of Noel Streatfeild’s The Circus Is Coming, but I think the back cover is better than the front. Or is it just that one has a creepy clown on it and the other a pretty horse!?

The Circus Is Coming by Noel Streatfeild, vintage Puffin paperback,  front cover The Circus Is Coming by Noel Streatfeild, vintage Puffin paperback, back coverIn contemporary children’s books the colour is very atmospheric, sometimes poignant, often vibrant and outdoorsy, sometimes just a great contrasting shade.  Here are some favourites:Breathing Underwater by Julia GreeneLiar & Spy by Rebecca SteadThe Dragonfly Pool by Eva Ibbotson

 

Small Charne for Stuart by Lissa EvansMidnight Is A Place by Joan AikenSky Hawk by Gill Lewis, OUP paperback

Oh, and there is this one, of course!  

The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth by Julia Lee, OUP paperback

 

My next book, out in August, has a new cover – and it’s a vivid dark blue. Still a secret, but coming soon.

Blue is the colour

photo (38)

There’s an interesting Twitter hashtag on the go at the moment – #bookadayuk – an idea from new imprint The Borough Press. It has a different theme each day to get everyone talking and tweeting about books. 

My favourite so far was the Blue Book Cover day. In honour of it I’m even writing in blue today!

Blue is clearly a popular colour for covers – there are lots of them out there, and lots on my own bookshelves, I discovered. Here are a few that are so beautiful I’ll include them here even though they are books for adults. 

Yesterday Morning by Diana Athill

Breath by Tim Winton If the book title or contents feature something about air or water, sky, sea, or heaven, then blue is an obvious choice and can result in some truly stunning images.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It might be part of a rich tapestry of colour and evoke the palette of other eras. Blue can be shorthand for misty nostalgia, or sad introspection – or even dark dangers.

But it’s often the colour of joy.

The Children's Book by A S Byatt, paperback

 

The Country Child – Alison Uttley

‘There are some happy books that are neither “children’s books” nor “adult books”,’ says Nina Bawden in her introduction to A Country Child, and this is one of them.

I have had this on my To Read list since I wrote about rediscovering Alison Uttley’s time-slip novel A Traveller In Time last year. I didn’t know until this week, when I stumbled upon it on the children’s classics table in a bookshop, that it has been reissued. It is published by Jane Nissen Books with this gorgeous cover in translucent blues and greens that sing like sun through stained glass.

 

The Country Child by Alison Uttley, published by Jane Nissen Books

Inside there are the original illustrations by C F Tunnicliffe – they are beautiful and plentiful!

Alison Uttley is best known for her delightful and nostalgic Little Grey Rabbit and Sam Pig books for young children.

Little Grey Rabbit by Alison Uttley children's books

She was born and bred in the Derbyshire countryside at the remote Castle Top Farm in what are still breathtaking surroundings, and writes superbly about country customs and the rhythm of the seasons. I’ve yet to check this area out for myself but would love to visit.

First published in 1931 by Faber & Faber,  A Country Child follows Susan Garland through a year in the life of her family’s farm. Uttley was born in 1884 and bases the story on her own childhood, but Nina Bawden had largely similar experiences on a farm in the Welsh Marches during World War 2. She says that ‘for anyone who loves the countryside, or wants to understand our rural past, it is a perfect book’.

It’s also a beautiful book to hold and look at and I’m so pleased I’ve found it. It might be nostalgia but it’s quality nostalgia! Whether it would appeal as much to young readers these days is another matter.

The young Alison Uttley, author

 

The Joy of Nitpicking – editing, the last stage

Once, afraid to press Send on a completed manuscript, I turned on Codes to show all the hidden formatting symbols in my 120,000 word document – spaces, paragraphs etc – and spent a happy, reassuring few hours just checking that I hadn’t typed two spaces between words instead of the usual one, or put a space between a speech mark and a capital letter. I even found a few! That is the soul of a nitpicker. I confess. But it put off the scary moment of sending my ms. off into the wide blue yonder and out of my hands. Is that a familiar feeling?

I’ve recently been doing the page proofs for my second children’s book. I know authors who don’t pay too much attention to this stage – it’s almost done with, after all, isn’t it? – but I can’t take that attitude. Not only do I have the sort of brain that generally spots typos in my own and other people’s work (yes, Sunday Times Bestseller List fiction, that all too often means you!) but it’s my last chance to right the niggly wrongs before my baby goes off to become a Real Book.

For those not familiar with the process, page proofs are exactly what your book pages will look like, fonts, page numbers, title page, credits and all, with marks to show the dimensions of the actual page. But they are still printed out on a stack of A4 sheets so in a way are not so different – yet very, gratifyingly, different – from the ms. you printed out yourself to re-read and edit earlier in the process. If you did that, which you should, of course, maybe more than once. (There’s a good blogpost about that here.) No book is ever going to be perfect, especially to its author (be very wary if you think yours is!) but it should be as damned near perfect as you can get it at every stage. Otherwise, what is the point?

Already, the manuscript has been copy-edited by some clever person with an even nitpickier brain than mine and an eagle eye for factual errors, logical errors, typos, grammar, punctuation, and, yes, whether I’ve used the word ‘squeeze’ three times in two pages. Doesn’t mean I can’t use ‘squeeze’ that often, I just have to be aware of it, that it’s through deliberate choice, not sloppiness, or ignorance of an alternative. I love copy editors who pick up on that level of detail. Long may they be employed by good publishers! I’ve just been reading some early Agatha Christie and she’ll use the same adjective or verb three times in a couple of lines, when there are other perfectly good choices around. It makes the writing drab – sorry, Christie fans.

But somehow even after copy-editing a few things that feel awkward to me do slip through and page proofs are my chance to change them, and pick up on tiny errors. My space-checking facility flips on. At every stage of editing I find it easier to do what I think of as ‘the housekeeping’ first – the routine, easy stuff, not the challenging imaginative decisions – and this is housekeeping. With a little bit of drama thrown in – last chance, last chance!

But reading a stack of A4 sheets is not the same as turning the pages of an uncorrected proof copy: this is the same version, but bound into a book-sized copy without the final cover artwork. The feel and rhythm of reading from page to facing page, then turning over, is very different; of seeing where a paragraph or chapter stops, whether a clue you’ve planted has space to really register, or a cliff-hanger just slips over the next page and ends on two short lines – will it work?

I’ve said goodbye to the page proofs now and posted them off before Christmas. I’ve got the bound uncorrected proof, so I can read it as a book. I can’t tot up how many times I’ll read a book between its first draft and its final appearance, but you have to be fond of your characters to spend that much time with them.

The Dangerous Discoveries of Gully Potchard ARC author Julia Lee Oxford University Press 2014

Bound-proof copy cover

(Of course, I just had to turn on Codes to check for extra spaces in this piece – and I found one – and deleted it. Happy now.)

The Dangerous Discoveries of Gully Potchard by Julia Lee Oxford University Press paperback children's book

The actual cover image for my next book.

Narnia – where it’s always winter but never Christmas

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe C. S.  Lewis

Ok, so it’s the last day of 2013 but Twelfth Night isn’t here yet so I can still get in my other Christmassy book. It was the first of the Narnia Chronicles I came across as a child, therefore the right place to start my re-reading. The young man behind the counter in the Age Concern shop where I bought it recited their proper sequence to me in a solemn voice – clearly a fan. But blow the recommended reading order suggested by C. S. Lewis! The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe was the first he wrote. It was published in 1950, and The Magician’s Nephew (the creation story of Narnia) didn’t appear until almost last.

This book was read out loud by my class teacher in junior school, in the precious 15 minutes at the end of every school day when we could just sit and listen to a story.* I must have sought it out afterwards to relish by myself. The copy I read then had this joyful cover art by Pauline Baynes, whereas my current one – still with the evocative Baynes illustrations inside – has a very different feel on its cover (by Julek Heller).

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C S Lewis cover art by Pauline Baynes Puffin books

I was surprised to find that what I remember as an epic is quite short, just 200 small pages with plenty of pictures. It’s fast-paced and the tension keeps up. After a quick and absolutely classic set-up – parents ditched (actually they don’t even get a mention, the children are just sent away from London ‘because of the air-raids’), despatched to rambling country house, adult supervision largely removed – Chapters 2 and 3 contain the stand-out scenes which cement this story in my mind: Lucy’s encounter with Mr Tumnus and Edmund’s with the White Witch. The good/evil dichotomy is convincingly established. And we’re introduced to the icons of LWW: the snow, the lamppost, the Turkish Delight. I’m convinced that at least half my love of Turkish Delight springs from this scene. It’s shown as the ultimate desirable food, and yes, it did used to come at Christmas in a round box, tied with ribbon, and there was never enough. I don’t think chocolate or toffee would have worked nearly so well.

Another surprise is that Mr Tumnus, so fondly remembered as a major player, has a very small part in the action. After Chapter 2, he doesn’t appear again until he’s discovered, turned to stone, in the Witch’s palace, and then doesn’t do much at all.

In fact, quite a few aspects of the book were thinner than I remember. This is a beloved classic of children’s literature, but it’s not perfect. I don’t think I ever felt Lewis created very interesting characters, but as an adult reader this was really noticeable. Edmund is the only one with any complexity, if you can call it that, and only because he’s not straightforwardly nice. Early on we learn that he is ‘spiteful’ and prone to telling lies. Poor kid, he’s already gone over to the dark side before the Witch begins her work!

But somehow Lewis makes his actors memorable – animals more often than humans – without giving them much substance. Although it’s Lucy’s story – she is the good, active force that starts it off – she and Susan are soon pushed into very conventional girl roles: caring, loving, healing (Lucy’s bottle), calling for assistance (Susan’s hunting horn), and definitely not fighting. ‘Battles are ugly when women fight,’ says Father Christmas, handing Peter his sword and shield. As if they’re not ugly when men do. Lewis was a young soldier in the First World War; surely he must have known this?

He dwells only briefly on the fighting, unlike the film version where the final battle goes on at length with all the usual CGI thwacks and grunts and even more ‘protect the girls’ business than in the book. I had to turn back a page to check the Witch’s fate, as Lewis almost skips over this momentous event. The grisliest scenes concern the Witch and her mob taunting Aslan at the Stone Table and are really harrowing.

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C S Lewis Puffin papaerback cover by Julek Heller

Julek Heller’s cover illustration

Peter is assigned the traditional role of the oldest brother: sensible, responsible, and required to be brave. At least he’s allowed to admit he doesn’t feel brave. It’s all very conventional, as if Lewis doesn’t want to give the four children much thought, or simply wants them to represent clear good/bad roles. There is a very strange passage – all stiff upper lip and ‘don’t mention the war’ – when Aslan has a talk with the repentant Edmund which we’re not allowed to overhear but ‘which Edmund never forgot’. If it’s that blinking memorable, why can’t we benefit from it too? I demanded petulantly. Then Edmund shakes hands with his siblings and Aslan instructs them, ‘There is no need to talk to him about what is past.’ And they don’t. I expect as a child I saw this as a fair-enough response to an awkward situation, but at this distance it just feels really constrained and emotionally illiterate. But we are in the 21st century now!

The children’s speech is strikingly banal, too, and of its time, apart from the olde-worlde-speak they develop at the end because that’s how princes and princesses must talk! (If this is a joke, it goes on a bit.) I did wonder if I’m just used to much quirkier, smart-mouthed characters in modern children’s fiction, but then Oswald Bastable, William Brown, Dido Twite, and even for younger readers Pooh Bear, have a joyous command of language and their speech tells us a lot about the inner workings of their minds. There is some gentle humour in LWW but it tends to come from the non-human characters.

So what remained of the book I loved as a child, and read at least twice? The wonderful fairytale feel of a land where it’s ‘always winter but never Christmas’. The thrill of the thaw when it comes, along with the tinkling bells on Father Christmas’s sleigh. Deep magic and deeper magic are pretty persuasive. Aslan remains impressive, and, although it struck me as an odd mix of borrowings – and the internal logic not quite sound – I found the mash-up of characters from European folktale, Greek myth, Victorian Christmas, and jolly British wildlife endearing. But most satisfying was still the idea that by hiding in a wardrobe you might accidentally find yourself in another world: that really grabs the imagination. After all, it could happen to anyone, couldn’t it?

* Maybe ‘reading for pleasure’ wouldn’t be such an alien concept if the school curriculum allowed this unheard-of luxury to all primary school children, every day. It was a much-needed wind-down time, let teachers share their favourite books without any demonstrable learning required, and turned us on to new stories. Or let us just daydream, which is no bad thing.

Marchpane, Queen Mary, and Adventures in Time

A Traveller In Time by Alison Uttley

I have really fond memories of this book, which I read when I was about 11 or 12, but hunting for it decades later I got distracted by several similar titles and themes. No, it wasn’t Daughter of Time – a 1951 detective novel by Josephine Tey with a historical puzzle: that’s about Richard III and the book I was after concerned Mary Queen of Scots. Nor was it A Stitch In Time by Penelope Lively (1976). She might be a well-known British author and it involves time travel, but back to the Victorian era. And it certainly wasn’t A Wrinkle In Time (1962) by American writer Madeleine l’Engle, although this one is incredibly widely-known – though not by me before I began this search!

Then I lighted on A Traveller in Time and it turned out to be by Alison Uttley, famous for writing the Little Grey Rabbit books for younger children. My copy has a cover in a horrible shade of beige and a girl who looks as if she’s dressed in early-era droopy Princess Di, but inside are much more classic and appropriate illustrations by Faith Jaques.

A Traveler In Time by Alison Uttley Puffin paperback

The magic I loved as a child turning into a teen was still there. Fey young Penelope, along with her older brother and sister, goes to stay with Great Aunt Tissie and Great Uncle Barnabus on their farm in a remote Derbyshire valley. They are London children and the winter has been bad; in true Edwardian style they are sent to the country to get the roses back in their cheeks. The idyllic countryside and the sensible rural ways of Tissie and Barnabus are a strong reminder of the charms of Little Grey Rabbit, but this is a book for an older audience. It didn’t stop me wallowing during the early chapters – as Penelope does – in the slow and gentle farm and kitchen life that has hardly changed in generations. Uttley has based it on the farm she grew up on and seems to remember everything. She delves into sensory detail, bringing back every touch and taste and smell.

But then an odd thing happens: Penelope steps through a door and into another time, the era her aunt and uncle hark back to often, without being aware just how long ago it was – the dangerous times when Elizabeth held the throne and Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned nearby. The farm is the remains of Thackers, an old manor house owned by the Babington family, Catholics and passionate supporters of Mary. Penelope knows from history that their plans are doomed but gets caught up in their lives and dare not say too much. Her watch stops whenever she slips back to the 1580s and, try as she might, she can’t control when her time-trips happen. In the past, everyone accepts her as Penelope Taberner, niece of Mistress Cicely, the housekeeper (an Elizabethan dead-ringer for Aunt Tissie) and her strange ways and garb are put down to being a Londoner. Everyone, that is, except the dogs who slink and shiver as if at a ghost, and a deaf-and-dumb servant-boy who watches her in terror.

A Traveller In Time by Alison Uttley Puffin Classics paperback

Faith Jaques’ depiction of Thackers farmhouse

So far, so typical of time-slip fiction, but since this was first published in 1939, I imagine it’s an early template and Uttley handles it deftly. A locket lost in the past and found in the present cannot be returned to its own time and serves as a poignant reminder to Penelope that she can do nothing with her knowledge to help those she comes to love. The author links both eras through implements that still exist in the farm kitchen: the ancient warming pan was a new-fangled gadget in the Babington household, the bread oven has been turned into a cupboard, yet the kitchen fireplace and the great best bed are the same. Springs, barns, and views are familiar, and the fields still bear their old names which feature in Anthony Babington’s will: Westwood, Squirrels, Meadow Doles. I loved the details of both early 20th century and Elizabethan rural life – it was rather like an episode of Tudor Monastery Farm!

I did question how Penelope’s Elizabethan friends so happily accept her odd coming and going – not easy for a young girl to pop back to London in those days – and get to know and trust her so thoroughly, but Uttley addresses this. Penelope has some idea that she visits more often and for longer than she is conscious of, perhaps in her sleep. And there is a dreamlike quality to the visits: she can hardly remember her present-day life when she goes back in time. Sometimes in her ‘real’ life she sees or hears figures from the past alongside the present, like an overlay, as they and she inhabit the same spaces but in different yet parallel times. And she’s shattered to find a ruin when she is taken to visit nearby Wingfield, another old manor house she first encounters in its heyday when Queen Mary was kept there.

As someone who always tries to pick up the atmosphere when visiting historical sites, longing to know what it was ‘really’ like way-back-when (Get out of the way, tourists!), I liked this meditation on old houses which have seen a great deal of history pass by. And I do enjoy novels which use objects to link different eras and characters.

When I read this book as young teen I found the budding friendship between Penelope and young Francis Babington much more romantic than this time round. In fact, for the first half of the book Penelope is quite a young child. It’s only on her return visit to Thackers several years later that a different kind of friendship blossoms, and it is very low-key. The droopy frock featured in the cover illustration is meant to be Penelope’s best dress of green taffeta: Francis sings ‘Greensleeves’ to her because of it.

A Traveller In Time visits all the seasons, but ends at Christmas in the snow, making it a great book to read at this time of year. Amidst the tense drama of the ending Uttley describes the yuletide preparations, feasts, and carol-singing of both Tudor and Edwardian eras. Penelope even gets to make a version of Thackers in marzipan, and it was here I first learned its lovely old-fashioned name – marchpane.

The Marchpane Thackers, A TRaveller In Time by Alison Uttley Puffin paperback

Penelope fashions the farmhouse out of marzipan for the Christmas feast

Teenagers in the Blitz: ‘Fireweed’

Fireweed by Jill Paton-Walsh cover image paperback Hot Key Books

Fireweed by Jill Paton Walsh

I picked this up in a bookshop because of its lovely graphic cover – in just three colours – and bought it because of the introduction by Lucy Mangan. I used to follow her column about classic children’s books in The Guardian but I’d never come across Fireweed. I’d heard of Jill Paton Walsh’s fiction for grown-ups but the fact that she was a winner of prestigious children’s book prizes had passed me by. Lucy Mangan loved this book when it was a class read at school – despite this scenario being enough to ruin most set books for her – and that was enough for me.

After the first page I was careful not to read the rest of the introduction until after I’d finished the book. I suspected it might give away more about the ending than I wanted to know, and that was true.

Bill and Julie are teenagers adrift in London during the Blitz. 15-year-old Bill has escaped his isolated evacuee placement in Wales and come back to London, virtually penniless and now – due to a bomb – homeless. His family life is rather bleak, and he seems a little detached from his emotions. Julie’s background is more mysterious – partly because it is Bill who narrates their tale and she keeps as much back from him as he does from her (but not from the reader). For example, neither Bill nor Julie are their real names. But she’s got more ready cash and the two team up, trying to evade both the bombs and anyone official – or just officious – who might question them and end their brief spell of utter freedom. For a few weeks in the autumn of 1940 while London and its inhabitants reel under constant bombardment, they play at surviving in the cracks of a dangerous city.

The author was only three in the year of which she writes, and thanks ‘everyone I know who is old enough to remember 1940’. Fireweed was first published in 1969. My parents were young teens during those war years, and when I was a child ‘The War’ was a frequent topic of conversation amongst  all the adults I knew, as a relatively recent and still very vivid set of experiences for them. I’ve read fictionalised accounts of civilians at home or abroad, from authors who lived through it (e.g. Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Taylor, Olivia Manning, Elizabeth-Jane Howard) to more recent representations of the era by younger writers (Sarah Waters, Jill Dawson). Paton Walsh’s depiction of London in the Blitz is outstanding, perhaps because she was able to draw on very real contemporary memories. Fireweed is full of practical details, sometimes gruesome, without getting bogged down. I’ve never read such an evocative description of the tube stations that served as shelters for crowds of Londoners every night, while still working as a form of transport. Or of newly-bombed streets, and the fragile bits of buildings still standing. The Blitz was smelly! Filthy! The food was pretty rubbish, especially when you couldn’t use your ration card. The organisation of keeping a city going, and mopping up the debris, human and otherwise, is amazing, but still looks, from this distance, amateurish and based on good luck and goodwill and a very British propensity for ‘mucking in’.

And maybe the picture of the Blitz is so vivid because Bill and Julie aren’t quite adults yet, and have that mix of fearlessness and naïveté of those just emerging from childhood. They roam London, looking at everything, not only seeing but feeling and smelling and tasting, too. Yes, they get tired and anxious and frightened, cold and hungry, but they also show nerves of steel, ingenuity, and a weary determination to keep up the fantasy for a little longer.

Lucy Mangan reread the book many times, always getting more from it. She says that Jill Paton Walsh dismissed it later in her career, but it still feels a worthwhile read to me. Two young teens, not always compatible, fending for themselves in a frightening world, but a world full of strange opportunities: sounds a perfect modern YA read.

‘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