Friday, 31 August 2012

The 1980s and the Pony Book

By the 1980s, the number of old titles being re-published in paperback obscured the fact that the number of new titles published had plummeted: only half as many were printed in the 1980s as in the 1960s. 

This was the decade that saw the publication of Michael Morpurgo's War Horse (1982), though it made little impact at the time.  The new authors who appeared in the 1980s tended to produce the standard pony adventure that had been so popular over the preceding decades. Jo Furminger carried on her Blackbirds series, the adventures of a group of children and their ponies, and her daughter Justine Furminger contributed two books of her own: Bobbie Takes the Reins (1981) and Bobbie's Sponsored Ride (1982). Wendy Douthwaite wrote about girls and their ponies.

And what of existing authors? Patricia Leitch finished off her Jinny series, with the last volume, Running Wild, appearing in 1988.  The Pullein-Thompsons were all still writing. Christine mostly stuck to adventure, adding new titles to the Phantom  Horse and Black Pony Inn series. Diana wrote a series about a dealing yard, and Josephine wrote more of the Moors series, before returning to triumphant form with another instructional series dealing with the Pony Club: the Woodbury Pony Club series. 

But children's literature as a whole was changing. Middle class children had been the kings and queens of children's books, but, from the 1960s, books appeared which reflected very different backgrounds. Authors like Leila Berg started to write books which moved away from the comfortable middle class world of Janet and John, and showed one where houses had no internal water and children played on dumps.   

In the 1960s, Berg wrote the Nippers series for Macmillan. There was outrage from the schools and local authorities sent advance copies of the series:  this world could not exist.  Housing reports produced at the time proved that it did.   Children were suddenly presented with a vivid picture of the world they actually lived in.  Leila Berg found, reading her book in schools: “"I was having to read through laughter all the time, continuous, constant laughter, not ordinary laughter. The children were hugging themselves and jumping up and down, hugging their neighbours in this warm, physical, clutching way. As I watched them they were getting loose and limp in front of me. I was quite shaken."

All children need to read about their own worlds, and a change was long overdue. However, as critical opinion swung behind the new movement, a corresponding move arose against the perceived elitism of some children’s books. Pony books were an obvious target. Only if the reader had money would they be fully able to enter the world of the pony. The working class hero of the pony book was almost vanishingly rare; her ascent to the pony-owning world maybe a dream too far. 

But the dream of ponies is not particular about whom it afflicts. For the vast majority of us, owning a pony was never an option, but we lived the dream through books. Critics may not have approved, but the strong minded, independent rider was still out there, if in smaller numbers than before.  Caroline Akrill’s fine Eventers series (Eventer’s Dream (1981), A Hoof in the Door (1982), Ticket to Ride (1983), brought Elaine, pursuing a career in eventing against all the odds, and the wildly eccentric Fanes, her employers, to the pony book world.

Caroline Akrill was an important figure in the pony book world of the 1980s and 1990s. Her Flying Changes, (1985) gave critics all the anguish they could desire. Its hero, Oliver, is a dressage rider, whose perfectionism and ruthlessness drive him to destruction. Publishers Arlington were aghast when Caroline delivered the book.  In an interview with me, Caroline said:   “It was far, far darker when it was delivered to Arlington Books.  They were simply horrified by it because it was not at all what they were expecting... They took out all the darker bits.”  Whatever the publishers thought, Oliver’s teenage readers loved him. One wrote: “I look for him everywhere, everywhere I go, every show, every dressage event, I look for him. I just know he’s there somewhere.’    

Caroline Akrill became a publisher, working for equestrian house J A Allen. They were known for publishing non-fiction, but Caroline introduced a children’s fiction line, the Junior Equestrian Fiction series: a well-written set of books aimed at the teenage reader. Despite covering difficult topics like rape (Susan Millard’s Against the Odds, 1995), suicide (Akrill’s own Flying Changes, reprinted in 1989) and illiteracy (Diana Pullein-Thompson’s This Pony is Dangerous, 1990), libraries would not stock what they saw as elitist fiction. 

The J A Allen books were a rare excursion into more challenging fare for the pony book.What the pony book world acquired instead was series.


If you'd like to read more of my posts on the history of the pony book, this is what's appeared so far:

I have a book coming out early next year on pony books - you can follow me on Facebook for more on how that's going. 

Morning walks

Apologies for yet more silence.... this was caused by my very wise decision to put the camera battery recharger somewhere safe. And then not being able to remember where the somewhere safe was. As I have an awful lot of old book stock I want to shift, I've been husbanding the battery power for photographing books, though did do a quick sortie because I wanted to photograph the crows.

And where was the sensible place where I had stored the battery charger? The shoe cleaning box. There are two conclusions you can draw from this:

1. I do not clean my shoes very often (and neither does anyone else in the family, come to that.)

2. I inhabit an odd parallel universe where the shoe cleaning box counts as a sensible storage option for a battery charger. Unfortunately I do not inhabit that universe all the time.

Wednesday 29th August


Friday 31st August
Long shadows. And ploughing.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Pony books in the 1970s

The number of new pony books published in the 1970s was half that of the 1960s.  Plenty of titles were still appearing, but many of them were reprints. The Jill books appeared in a new guise with covers by W D Underwood.  Pullein-Thompson titles appeared on a regular basis, towards the end of the decade with a new feature: the photographic cover.  Changing the cover was a quick and easy way to make a book appear up to date, even if it had originally seen the light of day in the 1940s. The quality of the covers was variable: some took little notice of the actual content, and there were plenty that although intended to reflect the story, were awkwardly posed.

Of those new books which did appear, many were pony adventures.  Perhaps this was in response to a generation more likely to watch  fast-moving adventures on television than read a book. Even authors like the Pullein-Thompsons moved away from the instructional model of story, and began to write adventure stories.  Josephine Pullein-Thompson’s Race Horse Holiday (1971), Moors series (1976-1986) and Christine Pullein-Thompson’s Phantom Horse series, the first title of which appeared in 1955, but had four books added to it in the 1970s and 1980s, the Pony Patrol (1977-1980) and  Black Pony Inn series (1978-1989), were all fast-moving and readable, but without the depth of some of their previous work.

The 1970s were tough times economically, with much industrial unrest.  I remember the three day week, when the country experienced rolling power cuts during the miners’ strike. We huddled into one room with the paraffin lamp my father had bought as an ornament, but which did valiant service while we had no electricity. I used to creep as close as I could to the lamp to get enough light to read, but it is remarkably difficult to be surreptitious when the entire family is in a small room and they want the light too. I was not supposed to read by paraffin lamp as it was supposed to be bad for my eyes.

Christine Pullein-Thompson made an active, though not always successful, attempt to reflect changes in society. Throughout the 1960s she had written stories about working class children: the David and Pat, Janice and Mick and Riding School series.  Her Riders on the March (1970)and its sequel They Rode to Victory (1972)are the stories of a group of children from a comprehensive school who battle the loss of their riding school to development. Although more successful than her earlier For Want of a Saddle (1960)where the characters' real achievements in entering the world of the horse are obscured by their melodramatic swoops of emotion, the books are still an uncomfortable read. Christine Pullein-Thompson was at her best when writing about characters with similar backgrounds to her own, as was seen with her I Rode a Winner (1973)which tackles another feature of 1970s life: the rising divorce rate.

As the optimism of the 1960s gave way to the grittier 1970s, one author wrote a series which took a (sometimes grim) look at life beyond the pony book dream. What happened to the pony once he was too old for gymkhanas? To the horse when he was too old to race?  In 1963, Monica Dickens had written Cobbler’s Dream, an uncompromising and at times bleak adult novel about a home of rest for horses, Follyfoot. In the early 1970s, a television series called Follyfoot appeared which took the characters, and some of the storylines from Cobbler’s Dream, and developed it into a series which still has devoted fans today. Monica Dickens wrote four books – the Follyfoot series – to tie in with the television programmes, telling stories of the cruelties, both unthinking and deliberate which the human race visits upon the horse, and another series, World’s End, about the struggles of a family to survive on their own with little parental input. Neither series features comfortable middle- class children and neat pony adventures; the difficulty of surviving without a steady source of income is a theme of both series, as is the mistreatment of animals.

Television looked to literature for another series, The Adventures of Black Beauty, but this was not a dark look at the horrors the Victorian horse experienced: it took a Beauty now living a blissful life with a country doctor and his family, and made the horse into an equine action hero: whatever was wrong, Beauty would sort it, together with his human friends. Although it’s easy to be dismissive about it now, I loved it at the time. It was another, and a kinder, gentler, world, filled with certainties, where good always triumphed and the bad were punished.  This world of certainty was a long way from my experiences as a grammar school girl whose school went comprehensive when she was half way up it. My school was combined with the girls’ secondary modern. The two schools had a long tradition of loathing each other, and the new comprehensive regime celebrated this, and the union of the two schools, by introducing a no discipline experiment. The girls were to discipline themselves. Except we didn’t, and it was chaos, and hell for those like my younger sister, caught up in the maelstrom of bullying and vindictiveness that swept the school.

Patricia Leitch’s Jinny was at school in a comprehensive system that had settled down, though that didn’t mean to say she enjoyed it. The one thing Jinny liked at school was art. The Jinny books (1976-1988) combined mysticism, a teenage heroine completely in tune with her readers, and a wild Arabian mare. It was an intoxicating mix, and one which is attracting new readers today.  The Jinny series came after Patricia Leitch had written fifteen books, perceptive and often amusing, with her Dream of Fair Horses being a tour-de-force, examining what it really means to possess an animal.

Leitch had a particular interest in looking at the passionate need some girls have to possess a horse, and carried on throughout the Jinny series having Jinny crash up time and time again against her need to say “It’s mine,” when she has to share her world with both people and animals. In her hands, the pony book became something more than a simple girl-gets-pony tale. It became an examination of what getting that pony really means.

From 24th - 31st August, there's 30% off all 1970s pony books on my sales site.

If you'd like to read more of my posts on the history of the pony book, this is what's appeared so far:

I have a book coming out early next year on pony books - you can follow me on Facebook for more on how that's going. 

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Review: Belinda Raply - Phantom, One Last Chance

Belinda Rapley:  Phantom, One Last Chance (The Pony Detectives)
Templar Publishing, 2012, £4.99
Kindle, £3.55

Thank you to the publishers for sending me a copy of this book

Has fantasy flapped its way out of the pony book world? It's been a while since a new series popped up with unicorns or magical ponies. Maybe the way is set now for a return to pony-based adventure, like Belinda Rapley's Pony Detectives series. It's a series of eminently readable pony books, based on a small yard where all the girls are friends. Phantom, One Last Chance, is the fourth of the series, all of which have been issued this year. Charlie has outgrown her little bay pony, Pirate, and she has a new horse on loan, Phantom. Things had been going well with Phantom: so well in fact that she'd competed on him. Matters have taken a nose dive, however. Phantom's not engaging with Charlie, and she's certainly not engaging with him. Neither of them trust each other, and if truth be told, Charlie is scared of Phantom. She really wants an easy, trustworthy pony like Pirate, but she has to put Pirate out on loan, and she only wants to do that if the right person comes along, and so far they haven't.  She's a girl with problems.

And matters don't get better: they get worse. Phantom runs away with Charlie, and she falls off. She is too scared to get back on him, and begins to think he'll have to go back. But when they meet tragic Neve, who has come to live with her grandparents now that her mother has died, Neve can handle Phantom with no problems. Maybe the problem isn't Phantom after all? And what is the mystery that surrounds Neve? Has she met Phantom before? And who is the mysterious person who visits the yard when the girls are out?

There are plenty of mysteries for Charlie, Mia, Rosie and Alice to solve, and plenty for them to learn too. Belinda Rapley observes her characters well, and I particularly enjoyed the way Charlie slowly starts to sort out her relationship with Phantom. Fear can easily scupper a relationship between horse and rider, but Belinda Rapley doesn't offer any pat solutions. Charlie has to work at it, and she does, by observing what Phantom does, and giving him time. The other girls' reactions to this are neatly done. They know full well what's going on with Charlie, but they don't make life difficult for her. The inter-actions of this group of girls are interesting. The group is strong enough to absorb newcomer Neve, who is suffering as she mourns her mother, and misses her home. The girls' basic affection for each other is what comes over, and this makes the book a comfortable place for the reader to learn more about ponies, and have fun along the way.

I hope Belinda Rapley goes on to write more of this series. I don't think you'd go far wrong giving any of the books to a pony-loving child from seven upwards.

Morning walks, 21st, 22nd August 2012

The planning committee met to decide Barwoods' planning application for the field, and it was rejected. The expectation is that Barwoods will appeal. So, for the moment at least, our walk is safe.

21st August


22nd August

Monday, 20 August 2012

Interview: Maggie Dana

I'm delighted to welcome Maggie Dana to the interview spot. Maggie is the author of the excellent Timber Ridge Riders series, which she's re-issuing, and re-writing. She has some fascinating things to say about the process of updating books, and the differences in readers now and when she originally wrote the books. Book three, Riding for the Stars, is now out, and Maggie's working on book four.

Can you tell me something about where you were born and brought up?

I was born in Harrow and brought up in Uxbridge, about 20 miles west of London. This was in the 1950s and our neighbourhood was still fairly rural with a dairy farm across the street (thankfully, it’s still there) and plenty of space between houses. My father owned a small fencing company, and after I’d persuaded him to buy me a pony (I was almost 12 and had been begging him for 5 years) he fenced in our back paddock and built a run-in shed for Smokey, a black New Forest who loved to drink tea and eat custard. There were lots of woods, fields, and bridle paths nearby; also a golf course. I used to ride Smokey down the main path and look longingly at the fairways and greens, so inviting to canter over. Smokey and I competed in Pony Club rallies and went to camp in the summer. We attended lots of small horse shows and won our fair share of ribbons; even once, a small silver cup in the Family Pony class.

What was it like, moving countries at a relatively young age?

It was a great adventure. I was young (21) and impulsive and I really had no idea what a momentous step I was taking by emigrating to the US. I had family and close friends in England and had no burning desire to leave home, but I’d fallen in love with an American fighter pilot whose tour of duty in Germany was about to end. We had three kids and are long divorced but remain on good terms. So there I was, a single mom with a massive mortgage and a full-time job … and I added to my debt by taking out a loan so I could buy a Morgan mare for my then 13-year-old daughter because she was badgering me just as vigorously as I had badgered my father for a pony. And I’m so glad she prevailed. We owned that beautiful mare for 28 memorable years.

What was your first book?

My first book, The Golden Horse of Willow Farm, was published in 1980. It’s about a chestnut Morgan mare with a flaxen mane and tail, and the teenage girl who loves her. Here’s how I came to write it …

I was an editorial assistant at Weekly Reader (a US children’s publisher) in their super secret New Products Department. It was so secret that nobody else in the company knew what we did. Half the time, we didn’t either, but it involved lots of closed-door meetings and much speculation around the water cooler. When my boss was in the office, I was busy. When he wasn’t there, I had nothing to do.

So when he was laid up in bed for three weeks with a slipped disc, I was bored witless. To keep from going crazy, I asked if I could help out in other departments which were overloaded with work.

But my boss refused. He was convinced that if I mingled with the other editorial assistants I’d divulge our top secret project – a series of index cards on beauty tips for teens by a celebrity model with legs like a giraffe and teeth that were whiter than they needed to be. When I pointed out that having me sit outside his office doing nothing would reflect badly on him, he told me to look busy, to pretend I was working. “I don’t care what you do,” he said. “Write letters, a shopping list … you can write a book if you want.”

So I did. On their time, their typewriter, and their paper. And then, sweet irony, I sold it to them for $1,500—a princely sum in those far-off days.

Where did the idea for the Timber Ridge Riders series come from?

It grew out of my old Best Friends series that I wrote in the mid-1980s. And here’s how that happened …

I wrote another book (with no horses this time) for Weekly Reader and this led to my getting a literary agent in New York. She introduced me to Jane Stine (her husband, RL Stine, wrote the “Goosebumps” series). Jane was a children’s book producer and she wanted an author to write a series for girls aged 8 to 12. Her only stipulation was that it be called “Best Friends.” I asked if she’d be okay with a series about horses, and she was fine with it. So I dashed off a bunch of outlines, Jane sold them on proposal to a publisher, and I got busy writing the actual stories. They would be just the sort of books I read as a horse-crazy girl. I also love to ski, so I set them in Vermont near a ski resort so I could incorporate winter sports as well as equestrian, to add a little more diversity in the hopes of attracting a wider audience. In the end, we only produced four books. They were sold via the school book club market; they were also translated into several languages including Swedish and Norwegian. I have no idea how well (or poorly) they sold in Europe, but recently I was delighted to be able to give my new Swedish neighbour a set of Best Friends (in Swedish) for her grandchildren to enjoy.

And why did you decide to re-issue it?

The rights to Best Friends reverted to me several years ago when the orignal publisher was swallowed up by Scholastic (the US publisher of the Harry Potter books). At that point, I was busy writing women’s fiction and didn’t give my horse books another thought. Then, last summer an author friend suggested I release them as e-books on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Not having any electronic files, I would have to re-type them. No problem. I’m a fast typist and this would be easy – just mindless copying, right? Word for word.

I propped the first book, No Time for Secrets, on my copy stand and got going, only to realize this book needed a serious re-write. It demanded a complete overhaul from the ground up, so basically I started pretty much from scratch. I treated the original stories as detailed outlines and went from there.

Today’s young readers want snappier dialogue, less description, and more action in the books they read. To gain this generation’s attention, authors have to compete with video games, cell phones, and Facebook, as well as film and TV. That said, I used the same characters but changed a few names, and I kept to the basic framework of the original stories; I also had lots of fun introducing new plot twists and characters that weren’t in the original books. I also more fully explored the nature of Holly’s character and her being in a wheelchair. [Note: I also changed the titles because of Amazon’s automatic matching system. If I hadn’t, Amazon would’ve matched my old books (still circulating in the used-book market) to the new ones and we’d have wound up with two different paperbacks and one e-book for each title!]

What’s it like, revisiting your characters? 

In some ways it was quite a surprise. I hadn’t read the Best Friends books in ages and had forgotten so much of what I’d written. In the years since I wrote those books I’ve matured as a writer. I’ve learned a great deal from editors and workshops and other authors, and I knew I could do a much better job this time around. Judging by the comments and reviews, I think I’ve succeeded in improving the stories and the way I’ve told them. I’ve also been contacted by several people who read Best Friends when they were young and have now read Timber Ridge Riders with their horse-loving children. It’s been great fun, hearing from them and they all say that while they loved the old series, they’re enjoying this one even more.

Have the characters changed since you wrote about them last?

Kate (formerly Kerry) really hasn’t changed. She’s still a solid, dependable girl whose life is totally focused on horses. But Holly has changed. In the new series she’s turned into a more interesting girl who not only loves horses, but also loves feminine things such as glittery nail polish and pretty clothes. That said, she’s also become a lot stronger and I’ve enjoyed getting into her head for some of the scenes and telling them from her point of view. Even Angela (formerly Whitney) has changed a little. She’s still the character we all love to hate, but by giving the reader small glimpses (via Kate’s observation) of what Angela’s life is like with her overbearing and demanding mother, I hope it provokes a little sympathy and understanding of her situation.

Have you had to alter the plots at all?

The basic plots have remained the same but I’ve added several side plots and new twists to keep the stories fresh and engaging. I’ve also added new characters including Jennifer West who wears bizarre clothes and rides like a dream, several new horses, and the teenage movie stars who appear in Book 3. Then there’s Adam Randolph. By adding boys to the mix (especially one who rides!), the books will appeal to teens as well as younger readers.

Where do you see the series going once you’ve published the fourth book, which was as far as the series got last time?

I have plans for a fifth book. At the end of book 2 (Racing into Trouble) you may remember that Kate and Holly are invited to spend the next summer in England with Jennifer West’s grandmother at her world-class equestrian facility, Beaumont Park. This will form the basis for book 5. The girls will fly to England and will, I hope, have enough adventures to keep readers turning the pages. The tentative title is Flying Changes, but this isn’t definite.

How do you think the publishing industry has changed since the first version of Timber Ridge Riders (Best Friends) appeared?

The changes are so huge I hardly know where to begin, but I’ll try to point out one or two. The obvious one is the e-book revolution. It’s made (and continues to make) as much of an impact in the book world as did Gutenberg’s moveable type and printing press in the 15th century.

Another change is the way books are distributed and sold. In the very old days, some publishers had their own book shops and sold their books directly to customers. Now, they sell to distributors (Baker & Taylor and Ingram in the US) who sell to book retailers. This means that publishers such as Random House, HarperCollins, and Macmillan are several steps removed from the people (readers) who are consuming their product.

Amazon’s Kindle and their KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) program have moved the goalposts … a lot. Authors can now sell directly to the consumer. The middlemen (publishers and distributors) have been bypassed. This is a huge change. But is it a good change? In some ways, yes. Many niche books whose audience is too small for a publisher to bother with are now finding readers. But in other ways, no, because it’s allowed writers to upload e-books that aren’t ready for prime time; i.e., they lack editing, are riddled with errors, and often so poorly written, most readers will give up on page three. Then again, there are more than a few gems hidden among the rocks.

Right now, it’s a bit of a free-for-all. Books that would never have seen the light of day with traditional publishing are being unleashed in vast numbers, which makes it hard for readers to find what they want. Online browsing is a different experience than browsing in a book shop. It’s not as spontaneous or intuitive or as easy to lay your hand on just the right book, but I’m sure this will change. In a few years, virtual book shops will be a whole lot more interactive than they are now. They may even sell you a cup of coffee while you’re browsing on your smart phone or your laptop!

Do you think conventional publishing has a future?

These days there’s a lot of shouting and arguments from people who condemn self-publishing and those who’d like to see traditional publishing collapse and die. I believe they can co-exist side-by-side, and sincerely hope that they do. Like quite a lot of other authors, I’m a hybrid in that I self-publish my children’s horse books while my women’s fiction is traditionally published.

My debut novel, Beachcombing, was published in trade paperback by Macmillan, UK, in 2009. When the rights reverted to me last year, my agent sold e-book rights to Momentum, Macmillan’s digital arm in Australia (e-publishing knows no boundaries, which is fabulous for everyone!). The e-book version was released on August 1, 2012 for worldwide distribution under a new title, Painting Naked, with a brand new cover, and is available in all e-book formats from most online e-book retailers.

And bringing things full circle do you ever get back to England?

I’ve been in the US for many years and I live on the Connecticut shoreline about halfway between Boston and New York. I don’t have a horse any more but I do get to enjoy my daughter’s horses (a bay gelding and a devastatingly cute brown Shetland named Webster) during frequent visits when I also muck stalls, feed chickens, and help repair fences. Whenever funds allow, I fly back to England. So much has changed since I left all those years ago, but it’s still the place I call home.

Thank you Maggie!

You can find out more about Maggie on her sites: and  There's a full listing of her books, together with cover shots, on my website page on Maggie.

Morning walks, August 2012

Another series of catch up posts. 

9th August
Before I went away, harvest hadn't happened.

10th August
Whoever lighted this fire at the edge of the field was lucky the ground was still sodden. We weren't so lucky a couple of years ago when someone started a fire in our field and we lost the whole of the top two acres. It's supposed to be re-generating as a flower-rich meadow, and the fire put it back several years.

 And the church clock is now finished!

17th August


20th August

Bales that you could lug along by yourself are a thing of the past. Dog obligingly trotted by this one so I could get the scale.

There's still a few lone, unharvested, plants at the edge of the field.

I love these great, leaning, towers. Temporary architecture.