I wasn’t a pony girl growing up. Ponies didn’t appeal. Sure, I desired the requisite My Little Pony that seemed to be required of my generation. But this was based far more in the delight of owning something that everyone else did, rather than any real love for horses. Horses were rather scary, no matter how small and cute they might be. Still, I suspect that I may have been the exception rather than the rule here. There are lots of girls and boys out there who think ponies and horses are fairly hot stuff. They’re the kids who will one day tackle Black Beauty, The Black Stallion, and Misty of Chincoteague. But before they get to Misty they may want to know a little more about some real ponies out there. So it is that author Candice Ransom has found a real life pony story worth the telling. Pony Island tells in verse the true story of how a group of ponies came to the island of Assateague, and how their presence helped a community and began a grand tradition.
In the midst of a frightening storm, a cargo of horses swims free of a sinking ship, finding a hardscrabble home on an empty island. Years and years later, “Neighbor island / Settlers stay / Town grows, men work / Ocean, bay.” People inhabit the nearby island of Chincoteague and their towns grow. One night a fire breaks out and the people realize how much the fire department needs a new pumper. The solution? The ponies on their island are rounded up, driven across the bay for the first official Pony Penning and Firemen’s Carnival where some of them are sold. The rest are let free on their island once more. Since then the tradition has continued. “Morning sunrise / By the sea / Ponies gallop / Wild and free.” Backmatter includes an Author’s Note and a small bibliography of books and websites for further reading.
Poetry is difficult to do well in a picture book. This sounds untrue since I’m sure you’ve seen it done well time and time again. But it tends to go well for those authors with just the right ear. Your Dr. Seusses. Your Tasha Tudors. Your Adam Rexes. Ms. Ransom, fortunately, is one of their ilk. The words in this book are actually quite short and to the point. They do not dilly-dally and often a scene will be described in a mere eleven words, but every syllable will be necessary in telling this tale.
To understand the story fully, it is necessary to read the Author’s Note at the back first. Once clear on terms like “stick not moving”, adults will be able to read this book with kids and explain what’s going on from scene to scene. Reading it without an explanation works to some extent, but I found the tale far more interesting once I had a little background on the events. Perhaps a brief note at the beginning would have worked, but I suspect that the explanation would have bogged the story down before it even began. Plus the sparse, simple words of the text are intent upon telling their story, not explaining every little detail along the way. There was probably an alternate solution that could have worked, but I feel that reading the matter in the end of a book is a small price to pay for such a fun story.
As Ransom says in her Author’s Note “The ponies’ origin is a mystery”. She mentions several theories, everything from pirates to tax evasion, but it is clear that for the purposes of this story she has chosen to go with the tale preferred by the “Teagers”, also known as Chincoteague islanders. So while the story presents as fact the tale of horses escaping a shipwreck, this is due less to poor research and more out of respect for the islanders’ wishes. Those of you wishing to label the book as non-fiction, however, will probably find this sufficient cause to place the title in your picture book stacks instead.
I initially wasn’t fond of the cover image of this book. This has a lot to do with my own preference for delicate lines and intricate details. Huge swaths of color put me on edge. In this case, however, I found myself quite take with the pictures as I flipped through the book. The endpapers display the two islands, bathed in the pink/peach rays of an early morning sunrise. Then we are plunged into the depths of a storm. The horses are outlined in a light that has clearly come from lightning, though the bolt is off-screen (so to speak) to the right of us. As a result, the backs of waves and the chins of the horses, that are not touched by the blast of light, curve into the darkness of the cold dangerous water. It’s a striking way to begin, and the choice of lime green alongside purples, blues, and whites is bold. There’s even an enormous raindrop that falls just in front of the reader’s nose, dwarfing the distant ponies behind it. In this way, artist Wade Zahares really sets the stage for the rest of the book. Colors change and images are displayed with a hat tip to lighting in all its forms. Ransom’s words find purchase with this expressive picture book artist.
So while I am not a pony person myself, and never will be, I appreciate those picture book author/illustrators that take the time to find interesting stories worth reproducing for children. Both Ransom and Zahares have done a good job of making this book friendly to even the smallest child and horse fans of every age will take pleasure in the job done here. A fun and informative tale.
On shelves March 31st.
Other Online Reviews: School Library Journal
Misc: Be sure to read this great interview with artist Wade Zahares at Wild Rose Reader.
And, while you’re at it, this interview from around the same time with Candice Random at Cynsations.