My desert island pony books
Welcome to the start of a new series in which I ask people which five horse or pony books they'd take away with them on a desert island. (This is all based on Desert Island Discs, a very long running radio programme here in the UK where the great and the good choose which music tracks they'd take with them were they to be cast away on a desert island). We'll assume, for the sake of argument, that the five books are suitably packed in a waterproof container and make it to shore unscathed. And that there are no beasties who would fancy a nibble on the books .…
But moving on, I thought I'd start off by giving you my own choice of books. I did toss up whether the lure of the book loved in childhood would be enough to overcome the fact that, reading with a grownup eye, the book didn't work its old magic, and so the books I've gone for are ones I still pick up.
Ruby Ferguson: Jill's Gymkhana
I had to start with Jill, who still has the same magnetic charm for me she did when I read her as a pony-less child. I've chosen the first one because so much of it encapsulates what I was like: utterly pony obsessed but not able to do anything about it, only too aware that there was a golden strata of riding and horse ownership I didn't belong to, and like Jill, I'd moved somewhere new and strange.
I also liked Jill because when I was growing up, I literally knew no one else whose father had died, or whose father wasn't living with them. Everyone else had a father very much present, so Jill to me was a sort of touchstone. Of course when Ruby wrote the book in 1949, only too many of her readers would have been in Jill's situation, with family who had not come back from the war. But Jill was feisty, sparky and funny, not in the remotest bit self-pitying about her situation, and just incredibly good fun.
Veronica Westlake: The Ten-Pound Pony
The Ten-Pound Pony by Veronica Westlake is the book that is absolutely guaranteed to make me cry every time I read it. I first found it at our local library, and read it pretty much obsessively until the terrible day when the library was 'updated' and all the 1950s books went I know not where. It's about another fatherless family (are you seeing something of a theme emerging here?) who move from London to the New Forest and slog and slog until they can manage to buy their pony. I loved the way that it is a huge effort for them to get the pony, and of course I particularly loved the fairytale ending, where the long lost is found (trying not to give too much of a spoiler here in case you have not read it). Veronica Westlake does give that little bit of edge to the ending too, with the heroine's acid comment on her family. In fact the sharp depiction of family relationships is another of the joys of this book.
Maggie Stiefvater: The Scorpio Races
This is the youngest of the books I've chosen. It's a fantasy about the water horses that live in the seas off the coast of an Irish island. These are not the loving, wafty creatures of the more Disneyfied fairytale. They'll kill you if they can. Many pony books are all about the mythical relationship only you have with your horse, and in many ways this turns that right on its head. Even the hero has to be careful with the horse-that-only-he-can-ride. The book is also brilliantly plotted and gripping from start to finish. If you want a book you can dive into, and emerge from a few hours later having been immersed in a completely believable alternative world, this is the book for you.
Patricia Leitch: The Magic Pony
This book was published when I was in a (temporary) stage of not reading pony books, so I didn't catch up with it until I was well and truly adult. I love all the Jinny series, but this I think is probably my favourite because it tackles death and holding on to those we love absolutely head on. And why, you might well ask, would that make that book so relevant to me? I think because as my father died when I was small, death had always been something familiar, but it wasn't something that was talked about either in my family, or in society as a whole, so I was always aware of being different, and also aware that it wasn't something anyone was particularly keen to talk about. Perhaps that's because, growing up just 20 or so years post-war, people clung to the new normal of families where no one had died. Or perhaps it was symptomatic of changes in healthcare when people survived things they hadn't and death became that much more remote.
That's why I found this book so refreshing, even coming to it as an adult. Patricia Leitch did have a particular gift for tackling subjects no one else did.
Monica Edwards: Black Hunting Whip
It's a real fight to pick just one Monica Edwards, but I think one thing all the books I have chosen have in common is strong family relationships. Whatever state the family is in, you can see the strength of their bonds. The Punchbowl Farm books showed a family pulling together in the early stages of living in their ramshackle farmhouse, and connecting with the history of the place in perhaps surprising ways. I think if any family in a pony book represented an idyll to me, it was the Thorntons. They lived in the country, had plenty of animals, and an obviously warm and loving family. Still one of my favourite winter reads.
And now for the book I'd chuck over the side:
Judith M Berrisford: Jackie on Pony Island
There are so many Jackie books I could pick that infuriate me beyond measure, but this is probably the worst. I had a few Jackies as a child, but they weren't favourites because I found Jackie's endless rushing impetuously on and never learning incredibly infuriating. Jill took on board what she'd done. Jackie did nothing of the sort: just berated herself and carried right on doing it again in the next book.
And as an adult, who has now read all the series, it's the attitude to boys that I find teeth-grindingly infuriating. There are so many of them marching through the series, men and boys, all of them finding Jackie and Babs irritating. Jackie and Babs know this full well, but happiness in the books is only ever found when Jackie and Babs do when the male figures think they should. The series pays lip service to girls' empowerment, but only sees it in terms of doing what the male figures think they should.
Off to the deep dark depths with you, Jackie series.
So that's my books: keep an eye out for the next in the series, when author Cressida Ellen Schofield tells us about her desert island books.