Thursday, 22 October 2009

Sue Bentley - Magic Ponies Series

Sue Bentley - Magic Ponies 2: A Special Wish (Puffin, £4.99)
Sue Bentley - Magic Ponies 6: Riding Rescue (Puffin, £4.99)

Sue Bentley on Puffin Books
There is a particular school of cover design for children’s books which it’s almost impossible to escape at the moment. The covers of Sue Bentley’s new Magic Ponies series are of the twinkle, twinkle fairydust school which now seems to infest even quite serious non fantasy pony books, like Michelle Bates’ Sandy Lane Stables series, now re-badged with the obligatory sparkles. The animal on each and every cover has those deliberately huge appealing eyes meant to tug at their infant readers’ heartstrings. Worse even than the covers are the strap lines. The kittens series has a fairly inoffensive “... kitten needs a friend;” the puppy series moves on to “A little puppy, a sprinkling of magic, a forever friend” and ponies have “Could you be a little pony’s special friend?” slobbered on each and every cover. I hope whoever was responsible for thinking up this winsome garbage is stopped, soon. I shudder to think what new depths they will reach if the series moves on to bunnies. I could not help but think of that American pet cemetery in Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One where at The Anniversary of the Death, the grieving Mr Joyboy is sent a little card saying “Your little Aimée is wagging her tail in heaven tonight, thinking of you.” Time was when the infant Brit would have been taught to laugh at this sort of thing, but alas no more it seems.



This eight book series is about Comet and his herd, who live on Rainbow Mist Island. His twin sister, Destiny, playfully borrowed the Stone of Power, which is supposed to protect the herd from the dark horses, and then she and her brother lost it when they were playing in the clouds. Destiny then ran away, thinking she would be in trouble. Comet found the Stone and brought it back but by that time Destiny was miles away, on Earth, so Comet sets off to bring her back, helped by the ability to change into a normal pony, rather than one with wings. In both the stories I’ve read, Comet meets a girl and helps her with her problems while she helps him find Destiny (he doesn’t of course, and then has to move on to another girl and another book...)

In neither story does Destiny get any closer than some recently left hoofprints, and the villainous dark horses are similarly distant. Most fantasy blends elements of good and bad, but the wicked dark horses being restricted to just the briefest of mentions makes them seem a rather bloodless threat, and the great quest to find Destiny doesn’t appear to get anywhere either. I think Sue Bentley’s heart is in her portrayal of the families. The non-fantastic elements of the stories are well constructed: I like Sue Bentley’s believable and down to earth characters. I love the way Marcie and her mum do a little dance together down the hall when Marcie’s father gets a new job.

But oh, that fantasy grates. Comet of course is a shining beacon of wisdom: “...Friendship is important. Is it not worth fighting for?” but the fact the morals and advice of the stories are delivered in this portentous fashion by a character who never, ever, gets anything wrong makes the stories strangely disjointed – veering from the well observed to the unlikely and back again.



And there is something that puzzles me about the current breed of fantasy ponies. Why is it that whenever one appears, its creator appears to lose all ability to use contractions of speech? It happens with Jenny Oldfield in her My Magical Pony series, and it happens here too. ‘“I do not think she came this way,” Comet said.’ is just one example. Any other character in this book would have said “I don’t” but poor old Comet is lumbered with cranking his speech out, syllable by painful syllable. I was thinking about this, and wondered how other authors coped with differentiating the fantastical from the normal so sloped off to the shelves to check: Tolkien’s Gandalf doesn’t appear to suffer from contractionitis in The Hobbit, and neither does Hwin, the talking horse in C S Lewis’ The Horse and His Boy. You might argue that both these are set in entirely fantastical worlds, but neither Bilbo nor Shasta, although both live in worlds alien to us, consider those worlds at all fantastic. Their worlds to them are entirely normal, and when things happen to them they and we consider fantastic, it’s not clothed in awkward speech.

I appear to have convinced the world that I hate fantasy: I don’t. I love it, and that’s why it irks me so when it’s badly done. I found these stories immensely frustrating: Sue Bentley writes well when she’s out of the coils of fantasy but no sooner was I enjoying a nicely observed little bit of family life then in came Comet again, him with his wisdom and his shining eyes.

7 comments:

Val said...

I so love your reviews ...they capture that "please pass the bucket I feel ill" feeling you get when authors unnecessarily wander off into the land of syrup and pink
I think doe eyes and glitter are the fashion of the moment..

(I remember a fashion for gory covers on Agatha Christie's that used to be similarly annoying and was tempted to write to the publishers to point out that I brought the book inspite of the cover not because of it..)

it's a shame but I can cope with pretty pretty covers if the story is decent ... Nonsense is just so hard to read out loud...We're having a phase of Milly Molly Mandy, My Naughty Little Sister and Mrs Piggle Wiggle at the moment but I quite fancy a nice horse read... I thought we might try "No Mistaking Corker" by Monica Edwards. It's a nice old collins edition with not a doe eye or spark of glitter to be seen lol

Goldielover said...

Yuck - looks like Jill's mother is alive and well. I would have loathed these as a kid, even although I was completely horse crazy. My favourites at that age would have been anything by C.W. Anderson, or perhaps Walter Farley's Little Black, A Pony.

Jane Badger said...

ha ha Val - "Please pass the bucket I feel ill" is EXACTLY what I feel! Do you mean the paperback Agatha Christie's that were all dripping with blood? I was never keen on those either. Good luck with Corker - a splendid and unsparkly book, though I think maybe the sainted Monica missed a trick there and the family should have turned the caravan into a travelling spa and nail parlour.

Goldielover - yes, I am with you there. I wish we had had the Andersons here. They are just beautiful, and I can't think why British publishers didn't take up the ones directed at younger readers. Maybe it's because they saw pony books as being for older girls - how very different to now!

Val said...

Now how am I supposed to read the darn thing at bedtime with visions of a traveling spa and nail parlour ???? it's not like I've read it before and have any images in my woolly brain to hold on to....now I'm going to picture it all pink and sparkly....lol

Goldielover said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Goldielover said...

Unfortunately, only some of the Billy & Blaze books are currently in print. I don't know why - most pony mad little girls growing up in the 1950s and 1960s absolutely adored A Pony For Linda. Good copies of it with dust jackets are getting a bit expensive now, and Linda & The Indians is even pricier. I'd love to see more of his stuff reprinted - hopefully without those awful colourized covers. I don't know why the British publishers didn't release them over there. Maybe they thought they were too American?

Jane Badger said...

Sorry Val.....

Goldielover - but we had The Black Stallion, and The Golden Stallion over here, as well as Misty, and Dana Faralla and some of Anderson's work for older children. Maybe the Andersons didn't sell that well and that was why.