Book Review: Heroines on Horseback by Jane Badger

Heroines on HorsebackI fell in love with horses when I was eight, and this led me into a world of adventure, of gymkhanas, show jumping, champion horses and rogues, nasty rivals, girls who were given ponies, girls who lost ponies,  and most of all dozens of beautiful ponies and horses. Yes, I had  discovered pony books – in particular,  pony books from the post-WWII era.  I loved them. I still do, I’m not ashamed to say, and have retained most of my childhood collection and even *blush* added to it from time to time when a title by a favourite author has become available. I’m a big, horse-loving kid at heart.

So I was delighted to get my hands on the new release Heroines on Horseback – The Pony Book in Children’s Fiction, by Jane Badger. It’s a MUST for anyone who read pony books as a child.

Jane Badger lives in the UK, and is the world’s leading expert on this genre of fiction. She blogs about pony books, she reviews them, she sells them – find out more here.  If all you remember about pony books is the Pullein-Thompson sisters or Monica Edwards you may be stunned to know there are more than 700 authors referenced on Jane’s site, and thousands of books from the superb to the indifferent.

Heroines on Horseback looks at the evolution of horsy fiction for children from the days of Black Beauty (tissues, anyone? Just the mere thought brings a tear) through to modern series such as The Saddle Club with its soap-opera cliffhangers and standalone books such as the excellent and dark The Scorpio Races (I’ll be reviewing that soon too!), and touches on the horrible reality that these days pony books have pink sparkly covers that may belie the fact that what’s inside is worth reading. At the book’s heart is the period from the 1940s to the 1970s when the British pony book was at its height, selling a middle-class rural idyll fantasy to its pony-mad readers.

Jane is an objective and analytical writer. She reviews both authors and illustrators in this book. I’ll touch on illustrators first as illustrations can add to or detract from a pony book. Grab a copy of a pony book produced up until the 1960s and you’ll probably find it studded with illustrations. As a test, see if the horses in those illustrations match the horses described in the book itself!  Jane tells which ones don’t… you do wonder if the illustrators bothered to read the book they were illustrating very closely.

Older pony books were blessed with artists such as Lionel Edwards contributing beautiful artwork. Anne Bullen’s delicate ponies with their elegant dished faces graced several of the books on my shelves and I used to try and copy her style in my own teen drawings. Mary Gernat’s flowing lines were more timeless; you can look at them today and not date them to the 1950s and 1960s. What a joy to see so many illustrations from pony books reproduced throughout Heroines on Horseback!

Now Jane doesn’t review all 700 authors in this book!  She does, however, review the work, the style and the plots of some of the more popular including:

  • Josephine, Christine and Diana Pullein-Thompson, the prolific trio of sisters whose styles were quite individual in terms of language, characters and story style itself. Josephine more or less taught me how to ride by proxy before I even sat on a horse at age 11! I had read so many of her books I clambered aboard muttering “heels down, toes up, hold the reins in a bridge etc etc”. She was the most educational of the three, particularly with her Noel and Henry series in which the characters train their own horses.
  • Monica Edwards, with her well-drawn families and their horses in the Punchbowl Farm and Romney Marsh series. I confess to not having read much Monica Edwards; I suspect the school library didn’t have any when I was young, or I hadn’t found them if so.
  • Ruby Ferguson’s Jill books, written in the first person with a wicked flash of humour. You can’t help but like Jill with her all-absorbing love for her pony Black Boy, her best friend Susan and her nemesis cousin Cecilia.  Jill ages through the series and when she is finally offered a job with horses settles for the secretarial college and horses as a hobby, much to the disgust and disappointment of Jill’s readers.
  • Mary Gervaise and her G for Georgia series. I loved this series as a child as Georgia is not your typical horsey heroine. She’s frightened of horses and through the series gains confidence in herself as a person as well as a rider. Horses aren’t all-encompassing in this series; there’s not a gymkhana in every book and the stories are as much about Georgia’s relationships with her friends and family as with her pony Spot.
  • Judith Berrisford’s Jackie series, another I haven’t read for forty years and according to Jane I’m not missing a great deal if I don’t re-read them. Re-use of plots if not actual pages of text with the Berrisford books is not unusual! Jane Badger describes them as comfort reading. All I can remember is Jackie and her pal Babs getting into all kinds of strife.
  • Gillian Baxter, one of my personal favourites, who wrote her first first novel Horses and Heather when she was fifteen. My favourite Baxter books, the Bracken House trilogy, are about Roberta (Bobby) Morton and her chestnut mare, Shelta. There’s a hint of romance in a couple of her books as they are aimed at a slightly older teen audience (12-16 year olds). Romance in pony books was often frowned upon by the publishers (they took a dim view of Josephine Pullein-Thompson’s Pony Club Camp when it was clear Noel and Henry fancied each other. Noel is female, by the way).
  • K M Peyton, whose Flambards books I adored and still do, even though they are not strictly ‘pony books’. Fly-By-Night and Sweet Rock however, are, but in typical Peyton style it’s not all warm and fuzzy happy families.  Her 1999 book Blind Beauty skims on the edge of pony bookness, being set in the racing world, but it’s a delight. And a tearjerker. You have been warned.
  • Patricia Leitch – including her Jinny series, written in the 1970s and providing readers at the time with a modern pony book and a modern family to which to relate. Heroine Jinny gradually tames and trains the ill-treated and wild mare Shantih throughout the series; I loved the interaction between Jinny and her friends and family, her mistakes, her hot-headedness and goodheartedness as much as her struggle to understand Shantih and her need for the mare to love her back.
  • Monica Dickens and her Follyfoot series. I have left my absolute favourite until last! These are not typical pony books; the first in the series, Cobbler’s Dream, was written for an adult audience in 1963 to highlight the cruelty horses suffer at the hands of man; and to raise awareness of the life – or otherwise – a working horse can expect after retirement. Cobbler’s Dream was the basis for the popular Yorkshire TV series Follyfoot, on which subsequent books in the series were based. The Follyfoot books aren’t as violent as Cobbler’s Dream; they are written for children and young adults but not dumbed down; they still feature horses who have been mistreated, and never does Dickens preach or talk down to her audience. Her characters are believable, her humour wry, her understanding of horses beautifully captured in these books.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Dozens of authors are discussed including a few who aren’t British, among them Mary O’Hara, Marguerite Henry and Elyne Mitchell.

So what happened to the golden reign (or indeed rein) of the pony book? Through the 1970s and certainly by the 1980s pony books were regarded as elitist. How many families could afford to buy their child a pony and cover the ongoing expenses? Pony books from the post WWII era were typically about middle class families who lived in the country or moved to the country, and often the didn’t have very much money (this is all relative… not having much money often meant for some fictional families they only had one housemaid, or a daily cleaner). Times had changed. Girls still loved horses but the world of the 1950s and 1960s books was one a million miles away and no longer relevant. (And pony books were usually read by girls; there were occasional boys as lead characters but pony books traditionally had girls as their stars.)

The pony book has evolved from its golden heyday (hay day… can’t resist another pun!).  There are still some good books being written, but pony or horse books now have to compete with vampires, fantasy and being saddled (oops! Sorry.) with pink sparkly covers.

If you remember the pony books of your childhood, buy this book. It’s a must. It’s the definitive reference guide and will make you look on some of the books you read as a child and vaguely remember with more knowing adult eyes.  It may make you want to start collecting pony books all over again, chasing down that elusive out-of-print book to make up the final book in a series.

Jane will ship this book anywhere in the world – I’m in Australia and mine arrived within five days, and was read cover to cover in one more!

Finally, if you are after reprints of vintage books, Heroines on Horseback is beautifully published by Girls Gone By Publishers, who are reproducing some classic girls’ fiction from the golden age including Monica Edwards’ books.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Book Review: Heroines on Horseback by Jane Badger

  1. I’m an avid pony book reader and devoured this brilliant book from cover to cover. A great read!

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