Pony Club Diaries (Kelly McKain) and A Pony Called Magic (Sheryn Dee)

School holidays have started here (I could fulminate about the strangeness of the "standard school year" with which we are now cursed, and its divorce from Easter, but won't) so my fellow critic has been released from the servitude of vicious maths tests and is now here ready to start reviewing.

We're going to start with books aimed at those who are starting to read for themselves, or are reasonably confident readers.

Magic and the Best Day, by Sheryn Dee
Happy Cat Books, £3.99

Aimed at children of around 5 and upwards, this book contains two short stories about Magic and Jessie. It’s an Australian series about Jessie, who is 7 and lives on an Australian sheep station. For her seventh birthday Jessie is given Magic the pony, and the book contains two short stories about them and the farm. The first, Magic and the Best Day, is about the great day when Jessie is given Magic. Her parents teach her to tack him up and groom him, and Jessie has her first ride. A Big Day Out has Jessie and Magic going on an illicit ride out, and Jessie loses Magic and herself. This is a story with a moral - no going off anywhere without asking Mum and Dad - but it doesn't clobber the reader with good behaviour rules too hard.

These are gentle stories for reading before bed; and we both liked them. They have a lot of charm and some gentle humour, and farm and family life is nicely observed. Jessie, in these stories at least, is a remarkably equable child: bright and sunny all the time, but these are comfortable stories, not meant to challenge and not the worse for that.

What does let them down is their see-sawing between accuracy and the unbelievable in a way that’s quite breathtaking. Tacking up Magic is well and carefully described, but learning to trot, and indeed ride, is apparently instant. The illustrations suffer from the same bizarre mixture of accuracy and oddity, so that on one page you have an accurate picture of the underside of a horse’s hoof, and on the next a pony whose legs look as if they need a very long session with the hose. Depending on what sort of parent you are, these will either drive you demented and leave your child pleading with you to shut up and get on with the story, or you will swallow nobly and carry on, enjoying what is a sweet and gentle read.

Pony Camp Diaries: Kelly McKain
Stripes Publishing, 2007. £3.99
A series: so far there are 5 books
Kelly McKain's website

A homegrown series, it’s written in diary form, and each book is about the adventures of one of the girls who on holiday at Sunnyside Stables, where they have a pony allotted to them for the week. It's aimed, we thought, at children of 8 upwards - certainly primary age and no older.

We read the first in the series, Sophie and Shine. Sophie doesn't have a pony of her own, and is given Shine to look after for the week. The other campers are all girls, and they have the usual parade of lessons, outings and an end-of-camp gymkhana, plus a well pitched mystery.

What happens with the ponies is good and accurate (which is more than can be said for the illustrations). We disagreed about the way the technical bits are described. Miranda said "if you weren't horsey, you wouldn't have a clue about what was going on. If you're not horsey, how are you supposed to know what transitions and dressage are?" I thought Kelly McKain had wisely resisted the temptation to explain what would be incomprehensible to a non-rider and clutter up the story. The one thing that did prickle at me was the letter from the stable owner that starts the whole thing off. "Your pony can't wait to meet you!" it says. Most of the riding school ponies I've known, when I led them out to greet their bumpety beginner, were plainly thinking "Oh gawd, here we go again."

Miranda liked the style in which it was written, and the diary format. For her the style is normal. For her fussy mama, it was plain irritating, and at one point I was so infuriated by the relentless use of the exclamation mark I was reduced to counting them to see if there were any pages on which they'd been missed out. I think my daughter was rather more taken by the book than her comment here would suggest. “It’s not something I’d pick up again – well, I would, but I’d only pick it up if there was nothing else to read.” So, our verdict. Well, I'd agree with Miranda. It's a good enough read, but is there something about the characters that grabs you, that gives you that sense that yes, you know how this feels, and you want more? No.


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