3 Middle Grade Novels Explore the Bond Between Horse and Human

By Sarah Maslin Nir

By R. J. Palacio

By Sharon M. Draper

By J. Anderson Coats

A truly good horse book, whether read late into the night under covers, clasped to the chest on the school bus or nestled dog-eared in a knapsack, can bring horses whinnying and galloping through a childhood bedroom, a school cafeteria, a soul.

“Black Beauty,” “The Black Stallion” and “Misty of Chincoteague” are the paradigms of this genre, each gripping in a different way. Beauty’s story haunts because the gelding tells it through his own eyes; the Black’s tale grips because he and his boy face epic adventure; Misty is unforgettable because the story is almost true. What makes these seminal horse books so compelling, so nearly as good as the real fur-covered thing, is that they not only get at the bond between horse and human, but they also look deeply into the soul of the animal itself.

So it is surprising that “Pony,” the eagerly anticipated new novel by R. J. Palacio (“Wonder,” “White Bird”), does little justice to the animal it is named for, whose white-splashed face peers off the cover. “Wonder,” a quiet masterwork about a boy with extreme facial anomalies, confines its drama to the quotidian halls of Auggie Pullman’s middle school. The action of “Pony” takes place on a grander scale, with higher stakes, following its young protagonist, Silas, as he makes a harrowing trek across a haunted forest and dangerous ravines. He is searching for his father, recently kidnapped by counterfeiters because of a case — so Silas believes — of mistaken identity.

Silas is afflicted by whatever it is that ails the child in “The Sixth Sense”: He’s followed by ghosts, including a shoeless guardian spirit called Mittenwool, some of whom ask for help with their problems. But aggression and unkindness sour the enjoyment of several relationships in “Pony,” from the U.S. marshal who links up with Silas and spends most of the time berating him, to a reunion with an estranged grandmother that is full of bitterness.

As Silas closes in on his father’s whereabouts, the action is gripping, and the spooky hum of the paranormal tracing through the story, combined with daguerreotypes and ambrotypes featuring old-timey people that front the chapters, will stir young readers. The book shines when it digs into the motivations of its many characters. There is a ghost stuck in purgatory because she feels guilty about stealing her brother’s plum pudding, a kindly war hero who lost the man he loves, and the star-crossed tale of Silas’s parents. Mittenwool’s back story is movingly revealed, but the book’s tenderness is juxtaposed throughout with a fair amount of gore, both human and horse.

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    Speaking of horses, it is inexplicable to me why a whole book is named after a four-legged character, Pony, who feels like an afterthought. Other than a few pats from Silas, there is no elucidation of a bond with this renegade animal whom he rides to find his father. (He couldn’t even come up with a real name for him.) So when Pony miraculously saves Silas, by becoming a phantasmagoric fighting machine, the boy-horse loyalty feels unearned.

    A better title might have been “Camera.” As explained in an author’s note — one of the best moments in the book — the novel grew out of Palacio’s obsession with the wet collodion photographic printing process. Silas’s father’s expertise in this area is the motive for his kidnapping by the counterfeiters.

    Like “Wonder,” “Out of My Heart,” by Sharon M. Draper (a follow-up to her best-selling “Out of My Mind”), is told from the perspective of a physically disabled child. Melody Brooks uses a wheelchair and a digital voice, as a result of debilitating cerebral palsy. “Out of My Mind” movingly chronicled her struggle to communicate — few realized she was a blinding intellect, trapped in her own body. In this stand-alone sequel, Melody has mastered her “speaking board,” a device she calls Elvira, and is taking on a new challenge: summer camp.

    Nearly the entire book takes place during one week at Camp Green Glades, which specializes in campers like Melody. She describes each day in her quippy, hip voice. The details of her meals are striking, immersing readers in her reality: Because she can’t chew well, her “pizza” is served as a bowl of melted cheese and her hot dogs are ground to mush.

    Given this vividly imagined world, it is disappointing that Draper does not flesh out Melody’s bunkmates, each of whom has a different disability. Save one who speaks words in threes, they seem interchangeable. Any tween who has attended camp will tell you that housing four girls in one bunk creates all sorts of palace intrigue, but Melody’s new pals are almost always cheerful foils.

    A horseback riding excursion that goes horribly wrong provides the main drama of Melody’s experience at Green Glades. Melody’s uncontrollable kicking, a symptom of her disorder, sends her and the placid therapy horse to which she is strapped bolting into a forest in a storm. (This enormous inaccuracy regarding therapeutic riding mars the story: Buckling a rider to a horse is forbidden, according to the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International.)

    But it is another trek into the woods that I find most arresting: Melody and her bunkmates escape their well-meaning counselors, who wash them and dress them as well as feed them, to do what girls testing the bounds of childhood (in wheelchairs or no) always do: break some rules.

    When they are discovered and scolded, Melody cranks up Elvira’s volume to yell out an explanation of the 12-year-old girls’ behavior: “We’re almost teenagers!” A moving reminder, to their counselors and the reader, to define these humans not by their disabilities but by who they are.

    J. Anderson Coats’s “The Night Ride,” set in a medieval-ish city called Mael Dunn, takes its lead from the classic horse book formula: Girl meets horse, girl falls in love with horse, girl’s mettle is tested when beloved horse is taken from her.

    The adored steed is Ricochet, one of the king’s horses whom young Sonnia cares for. When he is brought to the racetrack to babysit a flighty golden racehorse, she follows, snagging a job as a stablehand. Swiftly, she finds out that her colleagues have a dangerous pastime: sneaking away to race the animals in their care at night, for a pot of cash. Sonnia must choose — put the creatures she worships at risk in a dangerous race, in hopes of a win that would allow her to buy Ricochet, or sit it out and lose him forever.

    There are splashes of insight. When she meets the only other female stablehand, Astrid, Sonnia realizes she can’t hate her, even if the girl is snotty. “She’s done the hard work of making it easier for girls to be stablehands here. Astrid has made a path that all I have to do is follow.” Things get interesting when Sonnia makes the morally dubious choice to join the Night Ride, and finds out just how expendable the animals she loves are, in the eyes of the world.

    Horses here are given identities richer than even the cadre of stablehands in the barn — and names.

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