Tuesday, 2 September 2014

PBOTD 2nd September: Shirley Faulkner-Horne - Parachute Silk and Mexican Saddle

Shirley Faulkner-Horne started writing early, publishing her first book in 1936, when she was 15. A non-fiction title, Riding for Children was reviewed in Riding magazine, who described it as “full of instruction, entirely accurate, and. .. written with a simplicity of style.” 

One of her wartime books, Parachute Silk (1942) is the first of the series featuring Ian and Veronica Paisley. It's a straightforward spy-chasing adventure. Their dog Rufus finds a piece of parachute silk: Ian and Veronica are convinced this means a German spy has landed, but no one will believe them. The aftermath of war gets a mention at the very beginning of Mexican Saddle (1946):
“The war was over, but it would be a long time before things returned to normal again. People were quarrelling and shots still echoed across the Continent. It seemed as if the world would never settle down.”
Ian, the hero, plans to enter the RAF, but that is all the mention the war gets: again Ian and Veronica and their friends sail off on a quest to find out just why the mysterious Mr Dickson is so keen on acquiring the Mexican saddle Ian bought at a jumble sale. It is quite possible that had the author been allowed, she would have written more, but publishers were not always keen on the War being mentioned in children’s books. Lorna Hill’s publishers rejected her Northern Lights in the late 1940s. It featured World War II, which they felt the public would not want to read about.

Shirley Faulkner-Horne's husband was a pilot, who flew in the Battle of Britain, and this probably provided a far more pertinent, and personal, reason for allowing the war to intrude only a little on her plots.

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Monday, 1 September 2014

PBOTD 1st September: Mary Treadgold - We Couldn't Leave Dinah

Today marks the anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, and so today's pony book has to be probably the best pony book war story: Mary Treadgold's We Couldn't Leave Dinah, published in 1941

Mary Treadgold had considerable experience of the worst sort of pony book, because in 1938 she became Heinemann's first Children’s Editor. Joanna Cannan’s A Pony for Jean had come out in 1936, one of the first books to operate the girl gets pony plot. It was hugely successful, and success always attracts imitators. Mary Treadgold was deluged with pony manuscripts - "―a few, a very few, outstanding, the majority quite frightful.” She could, she thought, do better herself, and so We Couldn't Leave Dinah was written.

The book was written in 1940, in a London air raid shelter. The evidence of grim reality all around must have put pony owning firmly into perspective for Mary Treadgold. Her heroine Caroline has to change her focus from ponies and face up to war and invasion. Rather than have a carefree summer full of gymkhanas and the Pony Club, she has to learn about divided loyalties and forgiveness. The book opens with Caroline day dreaming the classic pony book dream:
Her eyes grew dreamy as she pictured herself in immaculate riding kit, leading a spirited, blue-rosetted Dinah round the ring with the judge stepping eagerly forward to shake hands. “Never, Miss Templeton,” he would say, “never have I seen a horse take that gate better...”
Caroline’s golden dream is soon shattered by her six-year-old brother with the news that their Channel Island, Clerinel, is threatened with invasion by the Nazi forces. Caroline’s first reaction to the news is to insist that they must take the ponies with them when they leave. Her father tells her straightaway  the ponies must stay behind, but wanting to give his daughter just a little more of the golden world she has just emerged from, uses that classic tactic with children: distraction. He reminds her about the next Pony Club event. It works:
“You couldn’t really believe in awful things like Hitler when you were out in sun and wind and sea-spray and with people as absolutely marvellous as the Pony Club.

But not even the Pony Club is proof against invasion, or the traumas of evacuation. Caroline and Mick, in the confusion and panic, are left behind. Mary Treadgold shows conventional pony owning as the luxury it is. Both children quickly gain some perspective; despite the title, it is not the pony Dinah who is central to the story. Not only does Caroline accept the pony’s loss, she hands her over to the German girl, Nannerl. The focus switches from ponies as the central point of a privileged existence, to them as working animals, useful in getting done what has to be done―as horses and ponies had been used for centuries.

In their time spent hiding on the island, the ponies are used to carry what they need when they hide in a cave before being able to escape the island; and as transport―to move around the island more quickly when they are attempting to find out the Nazi’s true invasion plans. The ponies’ position as part of life of the ruling class is emphasised by the German girl Nannerl, the young daughter of the German commander. Not only does her family take over the Templeton house, they also take over the ponies. But the ponies become the means through which the Templetons and Nannerl connect; the shared love of the horse being a common language, no matter who is the invader or the invaded. Nannerl does not see a daughter of the invaded, whom she must grind down: she sees a girl she would have liked to play with, and in the Pony Club, something she and Caroline could have done together. When Nannerl helps both Templetons escape, Caroline is able to take the extraordinary step of regarding Nannerl as more than just an enemy. She makes her an honorary member of the Pony Club.
Nannerl was fumbling with the Pony Club badge. She held it out to Caroline. “Zis is yours,” she said sadly. “You most ‘ave it to take to England.”
Caroline looked at the little badge as it lay on the palm of Nannerl’s broad, stumpy hand. Suddenly she had an inspiration. There was just one thing she could do for the small German girl who had rendered her so great a service.
“You keep it,” she said generously. “You keep that, Nannerl. And I’ll tell you what. There’s a boy on this Island called Peter Beaumarchais. He used to be President of the Pony Club when we were all here. You find him and tell him Caroline Templton made you a Junior Member of the Pony Club and gave you her badge. He—he’ll remember me.”

Mary Treadgold’s children are, in a way which must have been rare for the time, substantially free from received opinions about nationalism. They learn, when kindness emerges, to recognise it for what it is no matter what its source.

This piece is (mostly) taken from my book, Heroines on Horseback, published by Girls Gone By in 2013.

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Sunday, 31 August 2014

PBOTD 31st August: Monica Edwards - The Summer of the Great Secret

The Summer of the Great Secret was one of the earliest books Monica Edwards wrote. Published by Collins in 1948, it is the second of the Romney Marsh series. It was illustrated by Anne Bullen, who illustrated the first four of Monica Edwards' books (Wish for a Pony, The Summer of the Great Secret, No Mistaking Corker and The Midnight Horse). 

Monica Edwards was keen not to be regarded as a pony book author, which was something of a problem after the huge success of her first book, Wish for a Pony. I do wonder if it's because of this that Tamzin declares in The Summer of the Great Secret:
“I don’t want to grow up a long-faced horsey woman.”

And I do also wonder just how many of Monica Edwards' readers shared that wish.

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Saturday, 30 August 2014

PBOTD 30th August: Patricia Leitch - Riding Course Summer

Riding Course Summer was one of the first non-Jinny Patricia Leitch titles I read. In fact, I think it was the first, and I think it's quite possibly the first pony book I read in which the ponyless girl remains that way at the end. Patricia Leitch's world was a more realistic one than most pony book authors.

She could stand back and see the humour in some of the situations in which pony lovers find themselves. The pony book can be a humourless beast but Riding Course Summer has a wry and understated humour. Leitch was a fine observer of family dynamics. Angy has set up a riding course, but won’t be able to take part herself, as she has no pony. She bemoans the fact to her family.
“I do wish I had a pony,” I told my family.
“I do wish I had a fridge,” said Mummy.
“I do wish I had a new suit,” said Daddy. And if Liz had been in she would have said that she did wish she had a new typewriter.” 
I love it.

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Friday, 29 August 2014

PBOTD 29th August: Jean Slaughter Doty - Summer Pony

I do like the review Pony Book Chronicles does of this book: "without a few useful coincidences, the heroes of pony books would be stuck doing what we did as kids - reading library books on the porch while wishing we had ponies." There are some fairly major coincidences in this book in order to make the plot work, but you can forgive it that because the portrayal of girl, and of unsatisfactory pony, is so real. 

Ginny's parents know nothing about horses whatsoever, and Ginny's own  knowledge is basic, to say the least. She rents a pony for the summer, and when the book opens she's desperately looking forward to the pony's arrival. But the pony she chose, Mokey, is thin, and frankly, a disappointment.

As the summer progresses, the whole family learns how to cope. Summer Pony is one of those pony books that manages to impart its informational load without clobbering you around the head with it. It's a lovely read, and beautifully illustrated by Sam Savitt. 

If you want to buy a copy of the book and want the original text: beware. Don't buy a copy of the most recent edition, pictured below. It's a simplified and shortened version for the unconfident reader.

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Thursday, 28 August 2014

PBOTD 28th August: Pamela MacGregor Morris - Not Such a Bad Summer

I think if there were an award for most typically British pony book title, Not Such a Bad Summer would win it. It really could mean anything, from 'it only rained for four weeks out of the six,' to ' we managed to spend all of it at our estate in Scotland with our own herd of Highlands, but don't want to appear boastful.'

In this case, if you'd asked the protagonists of the book what their summer had been like, and they'd replied "Not such a bad summer," what they'd actually have meant was that they'd hurled themselves about Dartmoor looking for an escaped prisoner, who repented (perhaps not totally convincingly), and then had to be rescued from worse criminals.

Pretty normal really.

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Wednesday, 27 August 2014

PBOTD 27th August: Kelly McKain - Megan and Mischief

Kelly McKain is one of the modern breed of pony book author. Pony books aren't the only string to her bow, by any means. She's written several other children's series: including Fairy House, Totally Lucy, Mermaid Rock and the Goddess books. 

Over 2006-2012 she wrote the twelve book Pony Camp Diaries series. There haven't been any pony book series since: whether because the author prefers writing other things, or sales didn't hold up of Pony Camp Diaries I do not know. 

The Pony Camp Diaries series is one of those things that is not necessarily going to appeal to adults. It's positively peppered with exclamation marks, and every book is written in that relentlessly jolly style that many children's programmes of today adopt. When my daughter and I read it, she didn't mind the style at all but it nearly drove me demented. I was reduced to picking pages at random and counting the exclamation marks just to see if they were as common right the way through the book. (Yes).

The books, however, deal with one of those things that all those who love ponies but don't have one see as the absolutely ideal holiday: a stay at a riding centre where you get to look after and ride the same pony for a week. It's as close as many of us come to actually having one of our own.

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