When my own children were small I was very, very keen to indoctrinate them about that noble creature, The Horse, through literature, but I was doomed to disappointment on many fronts: there were dogs (Spot), cats (Mog) and of course engines; (I think there is a stage that most mothers of boys reach: the theme tune for Thomas the Tank Engine starts, and they twitch) but horse books I failed to find, until Berlie Doherty's Snowy was published. I loved this story of a barge horse, and thought I was doing a good and subtle job in making sure it was well to the fore in the pile of books we always read, until my daughter turned to me and said "Mummy, I don't want to read about that horse any more."
Things have moved on in the ten years since I was in the picture book market. Snowy is alas no longer in print, but due to the wonders of Amazon et al, we can now plunder the American market. There are also home grown efforts (I must admit I have done very little research on this - if any publishers want to tell me about their splendid range of pony books for the very young I will be very happy to hear from them). I read My Perfect Pony, by Gaby Goldsak, illustrated by Michelle White, which I bought from a charity shop: hence the glaring emptiness in the pocket on the front. Its previous owner obviously loved the necklace which once was there more than the book.
This is the story of Pepper the pony and his owner Lucy. It is a book with another agenda other than the joy of the story. In contrast to much Victorian children's literature, in which the moral was aimed at making you moderate your behaviour, there is a strand of modern children's literature which wants you to feel better about yourself. This one aims to bolster the self esteem of its infant reader by showing that it does not matter if you, the pony, are short and fat, and you can't jump, show or do gymkhana games often. What matters is that you don't throw a wobbly if you go past geese, or wave your hindleg at your child owner. That's all true, of course. What's not is the suggestion that you will still win in the end if you are a decent soul: would that it were so.
So, if I were still at the reading aloud stage, I would struggle to put this one across with any conviction (and I like to think I could put a picture book across with passion: my reading of Where's Spot? I like to think has few equals. "THERE'S Spot!"). Any infant listener to my reading of this book would also pick up my thinking "Oh ye gods, NOT ANOTHER ONE," when I reached the point where the Great White Horse takes the pony hero Pepper on a flight full of learning opportunities. I have written about the invasion of the pony story by the fantastic before, but its creeping into books for the youngest was an unknown to me until now.
It's a reasonably good looking book though: the illustrations aren't too cutesome, though in some pictures Michelle White has some ponies' hocks flexing normally, and some á la Jumbo.
There is hope though: there are better books for the very young. Jessie Haas, whose books are not in print in the UK, but are obtainable through Amazon for a reasonable rate, writes the sort of book that will have you shuffling them to the top of the to-be-read pile all the time. Several years after they would have been any use to me in my campaign of indoctrination, my 12 year old picked them up and curled up with them. So maybe there's hope.
I'm reviewing the three books I have: I can't review Runaway Radish as I sold it, but I can thoroughly recommend it. It is a completely believable portrait of a small pony with a mind of his own, and the illustrations are wonderful. Margot Apple, who did the illustrations for Radish, also illustrates Appaloosa Zebra and Scamper and the Horse Show.
Appaloosa Zebra - a Horse Lover's Alphabet looks delicious. It would have been easy to go for a simple A is for Appaloosa approach, but Jessie Haas is more subtle than that and so we have hard hats and hacks as well as Haflingers; colts and Connemaras as well as Clydesdales. The book works on several levels: it's a delight to read, but it's also a stepping stone onto much more. You can enjoy the pictures and the text, or talk about the different breeds or disciplines mentioned (my daughter asked me about Lipizzaners, and now knows much more than perhaps she wanted to about her Mama's visit to Wembley to see them), or talk about just what the farrier is doing. It's a book that you, the adult reader will find enough in not to start screaming if it becomes the one and only book your lamb will read (and it might).
You might learn something too. The Icelandic Yakut is a new one on me, and I thought I had read and absorbed Elwyn Hartley Edward's Encyclopaedia of the Horse, the reference book cited, in its entirety.
The book does of course reflect the world of American equitation, and some of the breeds mentioned are unfamiliar but there is an article at the back of the book explaining more about the vaquera and the Yakut and all the rest. It is a beautifully pitched piece: not patronising, but giving you just enough information to feel satisfied.
The illustrations work wonderfully with the text: as they do with Scamper and the Horse Show.
I loved this. It's an affectionate, and funny, portrayal of a pony you could walk into any yard and find. Scamper is aimed at slightly older children. Molly and Anna are taking their pony, Scamper, to a show. Scamper, however, has his own ideas of how things should be. I love the economy and wit with which Jessie Haas lets us know just what sort of pony Scamper is:
"Tomorrow is the horse show. Today we're washing Scamper. First we have to catch him. 'Mom!' "Just a few words in and we know Scamper, and we know who is really in charge of things equine in this family.
The story builds beautifully (and unexpectedly - I had the payoff completely wrong). If you're British, don't be put off by the fact the classes and even the colour of the ribbons (rosettes) are unfamiliar: it's immediately apparent from the story what is going on, and there is another another excellent article at the end explaining all, so you too will know what Trail and Pleasure classes are.
Sugaring is less obviously horsey: it's a description of a girl, Nora, collecting maple sap with her grandfather and two draft horses. It took me right back to reading about the Bobsey Twins in the 1960s: I was fascinated by the whole maple syrup business.
Again beautifully illustrated, by Jos. A. Smith this time, it is a gentle tale: it gives you the feeling of someone sitting back and remembering each tiny detail with deep pleasure. I don't know if this is one of Jessie Haas' own childhood memories (she is a Vermonter), but the story certainly has that magical quality of something wonderful remembered. I took it with me to read again as I waited for the children's train. Even sitting in the grey tarmac landscape of Wellingborough Station car park, I could smell the maple syrup and hear the horses' harness. Lovely.
There's great attention to to detail in all these Jessie Haas titles. For me they all pass the most important test of a book for a small child: I could read them over and over with conviction, and not want to suggest to my child that surely, now, it must be time for cbeebies?