I really liked this book, which makes me even sadder that I have an issue with the way in which one of its teenage characters is depicted. In general, this is a well-written, sparky story. The characterisation is spot on, and it’s a joy to read. If the rest of the series is as good as this, it’s going to be a cracker.
Mulberry and the Summer Show is the story of Sam: she’s nervous. Her mum can ride, and her elder sister Amy’s amazing. She wins everything. Sam though is scared. She can cope with riding on her mum’s cob, Velvet, who wouldn’t hurt a fly, but now she’s going to be taking proper riding lessons at the yard. This is not a small, friendly yard either: there’s around 80 horses, and the owner Miss Mildew (really? isn’t this a little obvious?) is a harridan: sharp and unsympathetic. Unfortunately, as is often the way, the yard owner’s character sets the tone for the yard. Amy’s rival Cecilia is jealous of Amy’s riding prowess, and she and her cronies take it out on Sam. While the younger riders are having their first riding lesson (they can all ride, having been taught by their families – this is their first official lesson) the older girls gather round to comment. And to judge.
Poor Sam. Things do not go well for her, and she ends up falling off and ending up on her back, looking up at a deeply unimpressed Miss Mildew. Miss Mildew is not impressed with the performance of Sam’s classmates either, and tells them they must all improve before the yard show in 9 weeks’ time. After Sam takes the pony she’s ridden back to the stable, it’s then that she realises she can hear the ponies talk. The Shetlands (eventually) tell her the best way to fight against Cecilia is to be a better rider than her. The Shetlands are fantastic: Che Golden is obviously a keen observer of horses and ponies, and she gets them absolutely spot on. All the attitude and sheer oofiness of the Shetland pony is there.
The way the Shetlands suggest Sam beats Cecilia is to ride the yard’s most wicked pony: Mulberry. She has such a bad reputation she’s up for sale. Sam, in an act of supreme bravery, agrees to take Mulberry on. At first it’s a disaster. Sam hits the floor of the riding school in every conceivable way, but eventually, she and Mulberry learn from each other.
This story is a really good depiction of the way that nerves can scupper you; the way that your stomach scrunches up, your thoughts whirr, and your riding spirals into sick hopelessness. Added to that the excellent characterisation of everyone else, including the ponies, and you have a fine read. It’s just a pity about the niggles. This book needs a good copy editor, and it didn’t have one. The Oxford University Press really should know the difference between practise and practice.
The thing that really flicked me on the raw was this: one of the baddies is described in such a way it’s plain that the state of her skin reflects her character. Here it is: “... sneered Emma Crosby, a girl who fell just shy of pretty, with make-up pancaked on her face to disguise a rash of spots on her forehead and cheeks.” I actually wrote this review last week, but have left it for a few days to see if my gut reaction was still the same, and it is. If Emma has acne, real acne, not the spots that the skin companies appear to think vanish within a couple of weeks of using their product, acne that she’s suffered for years whilst doctors run the gamut of lotions and antibiotics trying to find something that works, then yes, she will pancake make up on because it is the one thing that makes her feel feel even vaguely normal in a sea of perfect-skinned, flicky haired compatriots. She does it to get through her day. She doesn’t do it because it’s a moral failing. Having spots and acne is not a moral failing. Attempting to cover up your ravaged face in an attempt to feel normal isn’t a moral failing. Acne’s a piece of genetic ill luck and if you have it badly it makes your life hell. Using it to characterise nastiness is a cheap shot. And while I’m at it, is it a crime to fall just short of pretty?
And you may ask, why am I getting so very het up over what is only one sentence in a book of tens of thousands of words? The answer is that I know first hand what acne does to the teenage psyche. I know how appallingly difficult it is to get through a day when you do not look like everyone else does at a time in your life when that is of central importance to you. This may be a throwaway line that the author hasn't really thought about, but believe me, if an acne sufferer reads that, they'll pick up on every single one of the negative connotations that sentence contains.
Update: I was contacted in August 2013 by the OUP editor responsible for children's books. The editor and author agree that the sentence in question shouldn't be there, and when the book's reprinted, it will be removed. Thanks OUP and Che Golden. Not having that section there will make a difference to vulnerable children.
Che Golden: Mulberry and the Summer Show
OUP, 2013, £5.99
Available as an ebook
Suggested age range: older primary
Suggested age range: older primary