Anyway, kind Forelock sent me their most recent books, and I also found in a huge and much overdue study tidy up one of their earlier ones, so I'll be reviewing three of their titles over the coming days.
First up is Lucy Johnson's Pony Racer. Pony Racer takes a well known trope – the suffering child who is redeemed through the love of a good horse, and places it in this rosy-hued story of foster families and racing. Hero Tom has been taken away from his mother who has unspecified mental health issues, and who neglected and ill treated him. The effect this produces on Tom is to make it very hard for him to trust. He is convinced that he will soon be shipped away from the Heaven family (yes, really) and returned to his mother. He has been driven in on himself, and finds the only way he can communicate is via the pony, Leo.
Tom, as you might expect, turns out to have a particular gift for riding, and is extraordinarily good at working out what horses are feeling - often the case with abused children, whose safety often relies on being hyper-aware of others’ feelings so that they can take avoiding action. Tom progresses very fast with his riding, aided by the Pony Club and visits to a local racing stable, and finds he is particularly keen on racing.
Lucy Johnson makes Tom‘s ups and downs sympathetic, but I found myself feeling oddly distant from the character. This might well be that having just experienced the death of my dad, my emotions are not working as they normally do. Or it might be because Tom sometimes comes out with statements that sound oddly over-mature. Not that that’s impossible – children do come out with this stuff. I think it’s more that here, the child’s voice doesn’t sound like them – as if they’ve momentarily stepped out of the room, and a completely different person has stepped in. I felt the same thing on occasion with Tom's foster brother and sister, who seem surprisingly ignorant at times for horsy children. The episode where Tom has to tell Emily and Ted not to chase the ponies when they're trying to catch them was puzzling - surely any children of a horsy family would know perfectly well that wasn't going to work?
However, this doesn’t happen so often that it disturbs the flow, unlike Forelock’s persistent, and extraordinarily irritating, inability to use the comma, which leads to you having to stop and re-read a sentence until you have the sense of it because the lack of punctuation has destroyed the meaning.
That aside, this is a competent story with a very well drawn racing background with which the author is obviously very familiar. The riding and racing scenes are well done, and the author writes a good pony. She has an eye for the idiosyncrasies that make a pony character come alive. I liked the human characters – I liked them all, in fact – but my sympathies weren’t 100% engaged with any of them. That might, as I said, be me. Do let me know in the comments if you have a different reaction.
Lucy Johnson: Pony Racer
Age of main character: 9
Themes: foster children, child cruelty, mental health
Equine themes: pony racing, Pony Club, National Hunt racing
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Next up is Ken Lake's A Year at the Yard. A Year at the Yard is one of those books where horses talk to each other. Don’t expect a Ponies Plot though – this one is definitely aimed at the younger reader. A Year at the Yard is the story of a livery yard, the horses and ponies who live there, and their riders. During the year, there is a show, a visit to a beach, birthdays, Christmas and some Suffolk Punches ploughing. There are varied horses and ponies, riders ranging from the young to the old, and the oldest stable hand in the world, Jim, who is often confused about the humans at the yard, but never about the ponies. One of the ponies, Priti Pony, can read people’s thoughts, which proves helpful in moving the plot on.
There is rather a lot of plot - I felt the book was possibly over long for its target market, and for me, the book needed a strong central character around which to weld the year’s events. Jim is the nearest it gets, but the veering between lucidity and confusion was confusing, and the other characters are fairly obvious stereotypes. This is, however, a story with plenty of warmth, and certainly nothing to worry or upset the infant reader.
Ken Lake: A Year at the Yard
Age of main characters: varies from around 8 to old age
Equine themes: livery yard life
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Many thanks to Forelock for sending me these books.