Book Reviews: Junior Fiction Pony Tales
From the whimsy and sparkle to grim reality, you don't have to be a pony obsessive to still love a good pony book! Librarian Chelsea Heap has read up on four recent books in the pony genre and shares her insights into the world of pony books for a range of junior ages and stages.
Spellbound Ponies: Magic and Mischief by Stacy Gregg (HarperCollins)
We all know and love Stacy Gregg (Ngāti Mahuta/ Ngāti Pukeko) as the well-established, award-winning, reigning queen of tween pony books and picture books. I read The Forever Horse a few months ago and it’s still lingering rent-free in my mind. So, is there anything Stacy Gregg can’t do? The answer is no, there isn’t, as she has just released the first two books in a brand-new series aimed at junior readers.
Magic and Mischief starts off the Spellbound Ponies series by jumping headfirst right into the action, with a ghostly encounter in the very first chapter. Our heroine, Olivia, has recently moved from London to a small village with her mum and older sister, following her parent’s divorce. Whilst her sister despairs, Olivia could not be giddier because the countryside means PONIES! However, upon arrival at Pemberley Stables the family find the place deserted. As her mum and sister leave, Olivia hears a horse whinny and to her surprise finds that the stable doors open for her. Slipping inside Olivia quickly realises the stables are indeed abandoned but she does find Eliza. Dressed in old-fashioned billowing clothes and as pale as can be, Eliza is surely odd yet intriguing.
Eliza explains that she is cursed, a ghost trapped in time along with the Pemberley Stables’ ponies until a brave girl can help her lift the spell. Ghosts are usually scary right, but fear not for Eliza could not be less frightening if she tried. She’s warm and kind and you can’t help but want to help her, as Olivia agrees to. The spell, carved into the stable wall reads:
“The deepest magic binds these stables Unless two brave girls can turn the tables. The curse on each horse must be found, Then break their spell to be unbound.”
The curse on each horse you ask? What kind of curse could that be? A curse that exaggerates each horse’s naughty behaviour of course. Which brings us to Bess, the highway pony who loves nothing more than to steal riches from wealthy carriages. Dressed in a velvet cape and mask, Bess is everything a thieving naughty pony should be. How exactly does the logistics of the 200 years past highway robbery shenanigans work I’m not quite sure but it’s magic, so just roll with it. Although Bess is fabulous, stealing is wrong so Olivia and Eliza must work together to convince Bess to change her ways, which in turn will set her free.
One thing I love about Olivia is that she identifies herself as being brave, and indeed she must be to break the spell. Brave is a description I could never really apply to myself as a child but I loved to read of brave characters, imaging they were me and perhaps even gaining some real-life confidence from. I can certainly see Olivia being an inspiring character for young readers, she’s not afraid to be herself, is proactive, and doesn’t give up.
With just enough twists and turns and an ominous villain, I can see this wee book with becoming a firm favourite for many years to come.
Spellbound Ponies: Magic and Mischief
By Stacy Gregg
Spellbound Ponies: Sugar and Spice by Stacy Gregg (HarperCollins)
Sugar and Spice makes for a delicious second helping of Spellbound Ponies. After setting Bess free in Magic and Mischief, Olivia is faced with the predicament of providing hay for Bess to eat. Unlike the enchanted ponies, real ponies need real food to eat! And then there’s Prince, a spellbound racehorse who has become a greedy-guts, guzzling up treats provided by our dastardly (ghostly) villain Horace the Hunt Master. Together these make for two big problems for Olivia and Eliza to solve.
I enjoyed how this book spent more time in Olivia’s real life as she decides to enter a baking competition. With the first prize totaling one hundred pounds in The Great Pemberley Cake-Off, it’s the perfect opportunity for Olivia to make some money to fund the pony’s hay. Whether intentionally or not, Olivia is learning responsibility through having to put in some hard work perfecting her baking skills in order to win that moolah. Spending time learning to bake scones with her older sister Ella is a snippet of family life many readers could relate to. Ella is stereotypically bossy and mean, but she gets her just desserts.
Meanwhile, Prince the racehorse must be convinced to give up his greedy ways in order to be set free, which as any sweet-tooth knows, is no easy task. The girls set up a training regime to get Prince back into shape, but any progress Prince makes is constantly ruined by the scorned ghost Horace and his endless supply of cakes. Because of his grudge against Eliza, Horace is determined to keep the ponies caught in their curse. Also, with Prince being overweight, Horace may finally have a chance to win a horse race…
“Ha ha ha! Fat chance of that!” Olivia and Eliza turned round to see Horace chortling. “The Grand National is in just two weeks,” the Hunt Master crowed. “And, now that witch’s spell has made Prince too fat to run, my own horse, the Mischief Maker, is the hot favourite…”
Horace makes for such a perfectly evil villain for a junior novel, irritating and witty but not scary (although I do find his lopsided head a tad unnerving).
It is worth noting that the Spellbound Ponies illustrations by Crush Creative really make the books magical. They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but the bright colours, sparkles, and cute illustrations certainly drew me in. These illustrations continue every few pages throughout the book and for me, they really helped to portray the character’s emotions and the setting, especially for those not familiar with horses or the fashion of 200 years past.
Another charming addition to the series, I can’t wait to devour the next helping of Spellbound Ponies.
Spellbound Ponies: Sugar and Spice
By Stacy Gregg
Showtym Adventures: Syd, the Muster Pony by Kelly Wilson (Penguin Random House NZ)
For a slightly higher reading level Syd, The Muster Pony is the perfect next read for pony lovers. Written by renowned equestrian and wild horse tamer Kelly Wilson, Syd, The Muster Pony is the eighth and final book in the Showtym Adventures series which is loosely based on Kelly and her two sister’s childhood. Whilst each book in the series flows on nicely to the next, they also read well as individual stories. So even if you’re new to Showtym Adventures, there’s no better time to jump right in.
Any book which opens with an illustrated map instantly draws me in. This is no fantasy map of a faraway land but it is a map of our own New Zealand with cute markers such as ‘’Ernie The Eel’’, ‘’Seals!”, and our title character ‘’Syd’’. This story quickly became my favourite in the Showtym Adventures series as the Wilson family leave their home comforts in the far north. A four-month-long journey across New Zealand awaits them in search of the perfect ponies. With eldest sister Vicki being sponsored for a Grand Prix showjumper and Kelly and Amanda both in the market for a new pony, the family plot a route of horses to meet along the way and set off on an adventure.
Each Showtym Adventures book alternates between the three Wilson sisters' viewpoints. I enjoyed Syd being told from the youngest sister's perspective—nine-year-old Amanda—as she has such a sweet, caring nature with a gutsy streak. She’s also closer in age to readers than her sisters, with Vicki being fourteen. Amanda is the quintessential little sister, bossed around and left to last but she is determined to prove her bravery. Inspired by Hatchet, Amanda coaxes her sisters into foraging for food and sleeping beneath the stars one night. It had the city girl in me wanting to spend time in nature too, although I would be taking my own snacks!
The Wilsons are a relatable Kiwi family which adds to the charm of this book. The sisters squabble but also look out for each other. Their parents seem perhaps too nice and kind at times but it adds to the feel-good vibes. They’re not a wealthy family with each step on their journey carefully budgeted and their reaction to the high cost (up to $40,000!) for a Grand Prix pony is as genuine as any readers would be. Whilst this is certainly not a rags-to-riches story, it’s nice to read about a family where real-life money issues are discussed.
With the actual road trip the Wilson family took happening twenty years ago, Syd strikes a delightful balance between old-fashioned nostalgia and modern life. The girls don’t have their own cellphones or social media but they do have wild outdoor escapades, including a dangerous high-country cattle muster. In a time when we’re being asked to explore our own backyard, Syd feels current and offers inspiration aplenty to saddle up and explore. A lovely conclusion to the Showtym Adventures series.
Showtym Adventures: Syd, the Muster Pony
By Kelly Wilson
Penguin Random House NZ
Dog Tucker by K. Drinkwater (Scholastic)
Some books are so good they deserve to be republished to be enjoyed by a new generation of readers. Dog Tucker by Kathryn Drinkwater is one of those books. Having originally received a Storylines Notable Book Award back in 2010, it’s still worthy of that praise. Dog Tucker tells the story of a boy, a man, and a horse who all need redemption, love, and a second chance in life.
This is not a book filled with magic or big, happy families but it is a story of hope, and I believe there’s a lot of magic to be found there. And there are horses!
Thirteen-year-old Devlin is in foster care, bouncing around different families and schools due to his behaviour. However, on the inside he’s not a bad kid, he’s just hurting. Placed in foster care due to his mum’s poor choices (and lackluster taste in boyfriends) Devlin still yearns to be reunited with his mum and much younger siblings. His foster father George is a gruff man living a no-nonsense rural farm life, but he is also carrying around the burden of some deeply rooted pain and loss. When George is identified as a distant relative, Devlin is placed in his care for a much different life than any he’s used to.
If you were to look up character development in the dictionary you would find Devlin. We first meet him as an angry and defiant boy trying to outrun his problems. Even George’s attempt at kindness and routine are no match for Devlin’s stubbornness. But whilst Devlin doesn’t feel loved or a sense of belonging, he does have a big heart. When he overhears that a chestnut horse is to be sold off as dog tucker, he feels a sense of kinship with the creature and vows to protect it.
‘’Homeless and unwanted,’’ Devlin whispered quietly as he watched the horse walk around the arena. ‘’And right where you don’t want to be.’’
Through caring for this horse, George and Devlin can find some common ground and most importantly for Devlin, a purpose and goals to strive for. Even though by the end of the novel Devlin’s transformation is quite something, it doesn’t come across as cringeworthy. Devlin’s cheeky nature is intact and readers will be able to see the potential was there all along, he just needed to believe in himself.
Suitable for a more mature reading age of 11+, Dog Tucker would work wonders to capture reluctant readers or as a read-aloud with whanau or a class. It strikes a nice balance between the action and exhilaration of horse racing and the real-life issues of foster care and domestic abuse. There is a lot of sadness in this novel yet the story remains age-appropriate, though it is worth noting this story could be triggering for those from domestic abuse situations. In all this was a brilliant read and one that I won’t be forgetting anytime soon.
By K. Drinkwater
Chelsea Heap is a children’s librarian, avid reader, daydreamer, proficient cake eater, and occasional jogger. She carries a book with her wherever she goes and can’t resist the temptation of a bookstore.