Friday, 21 September 2012

It's pink! It sparkles! It must be a pony book!

The 1990s and early years of the 2000s saw many pony books leave behind the realistic covers of the 1950s and 1960s. A substantial proportion of those aimed at the younger reader were badged with pink and sparkles, and winsome straplines. Peter Clover's 1990s Sheltie series was a rare example of a series that succeeded through charm, not sparkles. “Could you,” asks the front covers of Sue Bentley’s Magic Ponies series, “be a little pony’s special friend?” Princess of pink, Katie Price, who first hit fame as the glamour model Jordan, has written (with a ghostwriter) the Perfect Ponies series (2007-2010). Emblazoned in pink and silver, it is about a group of four friends and their adventures at a riding school.



In a world which places so much emphasis now on how girls look, it’s sad to see the riding instructor continually praised because she "was living proof that you could be glam and still be a brilliant horsewoman." This is fair enough, but it is a pity if it is made an issue for the books’ target audience, children of around eight. The pinkification of covers obscured even decent stories: Diana Kimpton’s sparky Pony Mad Princess series (2004-2007) is very much better than its covers would have you believe.


Susanna Forrest, in her equine memoir If Wishes were Horses (2012), discusses the pinkification of the horse world. “Horses used to be an alternative to pink and princesses and playing mother; now horses are pink princesses with Lullabye Nurseries™ and sparkly handbags,” she writes. Horses, and indeed the vast majority of pony books, are now nothing to do with boys. Male membership of the Pony Club has plummeted: down to 389 out of 31,395 branch members this year (2012); a little over 1%.

The twinkly cover appears to be a British phenomenon. American Pulitzer Prize winning author Jane Smiley has written a three book Young Adult horse series. (The Georges and the Jewels/Nobody’s Horse, 2010, A Good Horse/Secret Horse, 2011 and True Blue/Mystery Horse, 2012). The original American editions have straightforward photographic covers. In the UK, Faber, a straight down-the-line publisher if ever there was one, has given them the sparkle factor.





But is the tide turning? The world of equestrian clothing, which a few years ago was awash in a sea of pink, no longer is. Katie Price's KP Equestrian clothing line website says "Put some glamour and sparkle into your riding," which 30 years ago would have been a request to add impulsion, not bling. But it is noticeable, if you study KP's clothing lines, that there is considerably less pink than there once was. I wondered if it was simply that adults prefer a little more sophistication with their bling. Surely children were still keen on pink? I searched, but the mainstream equestrian suppliers (I looked at Derby House and Robinsons) have children's ranges in sober, dirt proof colours. There is a little pink, but it's not the candy variety.

The content of pony books was generally not (with the exception of Katie Price) obsessed by pink, dressing ponies up, or the rider's appearance, and it remains so, but the covers now reflect this. A look at the children's pony book releases in the UK this year reveals a remarkable lack of sparkle. Victoria Eveleigh's Katy appears in a traditional photo cover; Lauren St John's One Dollar Horse has a stylish neutral design (though with shocking pink page edges, which I rather like). Belinda Rapley's  Pony Detectives series has colourful but bling-free cover designs.






Is the retreat of pink sparkles a reflection of the grim economic times in which we find ourselves? Horse and pony owning, like everything else today, is squeezed financially. Perhaps riders now are going for the traditional, duller shades because they reflect a more sober attitude. When money's tight, you concentrate on the basics, not frivolity. But then, you would have thought the frothy pink and glitter would have provided an escape from the drear procession of statistics and the ever-shrinking wallet. Perhaps froth is only really palatable when when viewed from a position of security.

*****




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. 




5 comments:

Christina Wilsdon said...

When my pony-mad girl was little, I remember a boy who was her friend sniffing with disdain when his mom asked him if he'd like to ride a pony. "No way," he sneered. "Horses are girl animals."

Small wonder what with all the pink and sparkles!

Country Cottage Chic said...

I had Sindy & Action Man horses as well as Julips in the 60's & 70's & I most certainly wouldn't have wanted toy horses that were pink & sparkly & didn't look like real horses. Even today's Julips have unrealistic extra long manes & tails.

Jane Badger said...

Sad that he thought horses are girl animals: all that great tradition of boy plus horse stories in the US. Are they still being produced - not reprints of things like the Black Stallion, but new ones?

CCC, no neither would I have wanted horses that were pink and sparkly. I bought a couple of the modern Julips for my children, but I cut their manes. Mind you, it wasn't just horses that went sparkly with Sindy. When my daughter was Sindy age I thought I'd try and buy her some, but was appalled. Cheap, shiny, sparkly and tacky. Not at all that envied big sister figure with the wonderful clothes she was in the sixties and seventies (and the eighties for all I know!)

Miriam Bibby said...

Just catching up here...first time I've read this. Yes, I agree with you about the "pinkification" of horses. For me, the point always was that it was outside, you could get dirty and have fun; hair and nails etc didn't matter. When horse ownership took off in the 80s, along with a selection of weirdly coloured and often unnecessary equestrian items I used to call it the "pink bucket" phenomenon.

Jane Badger said...

It's part of the commodification of life isn't it? Those endless things we never knew we needed...