Seeking relief from serious, wordy, grown-up books, Erin McCabe finds exactly what she’s looking for in this fun, fast, middle-grade read.
Grown-up Books are Overrated
After last week’s lengthy tome, I needed a bit of a breather, so I dipped my toes into a new-to-me category of fiction: middle grade. It sounds sort of like an insult, but it’s not. It also sort of sounds like it might be for kids in middle school, but that is also not the case.
Middle grade fiction (I learned this week) is a bridge between picture books and YA; it’s the pony you ride once you’ve graduated from a rocking horse but before you’re ready for a full-sized steed. It’s got chapters, but it still has illustrations. It’s long—100-ish pages!— but it’s not crazy long. It’s geared for 8-12 year olds, but I say a good story is a good story, regardless of one’s age (Charlotte’s Web is considered middle grade, for instance). And then too, growing up is kind of overrated (I’m still not happy about giving up my Hello Kitty mini-lunchbox purse—but sippy cups don’t fit in mini-lunchboxes. Boo).
For my first foray into the world of middle grade fiction (seriously—publishers need to come up with a better name for this stuff) I read Pidgy’s Surprise by Jeanne Mellin (whom you might recognize as the illustrator for Shadow, The Curious Morgan Horse). It was originally released in the ’50s (in case you’re into vintage books) and the story is about as wholesome as can be. It features Cindy and her escape-artist Shetland pony Pidgy.
Unfortunately for poor Pidgy, Cindy is horse crazy as opposed to pony crazy. Cindy dreams and daydreams and pesters her parents to get her a horse (hmm, sound familiar anyone?). And therein lies the central conflict of the story: Cindy is unable to enjoy the here-and-now with Pidgy because she’s so busy wishing she had a fancy Thoroughbred like her teenage friend Pete or a spirited Arabian like her neighbor Alice. It’s the old grass-is-greener problem. Luckily for Cindy, Pete is a great role model who lets her live vicariously through him. He invites her to hang out while he schools his young prospect, gives her tips at the local horse show, takes her for trail rides (while riding his own faithful first pony), and encourages her to enjoy Pidgy to some effect. He also tries to help Cindy see the difference between a true horse-person who has sympathy for her mount and someone who rides well but is only interested in ribbons and results.
Throughout the book, Cindy’s exploits with Pidgy (trying to teach her to jump using pots, arbors, and bamboo rakes; swimming in the nearby pond; showing at the local Country Club) all prove that there’s still a lot Pidgy can teach her and she’s not quite ready to move up to a horse. But it takes a big surprise from Pidgy for Cindy to discover that what she really wants is something a little different than she thought. Astute (ahem, adult) readers will probably suspect exactly what Pidgy’s surprise is, based on some foreshadowing, but it’s still a fun read (and a great opportunity to start teaching young readers about making predictions and paying attention to details).
While I doubt this book would appeal much to a non-horsey reader (it’s all horses, all the time), it’s an engaging read for any horse-obsessed young reader. The text is simple but not simplistic. The horse information is all correct, with a variety of breeds and riding styles (hunter, saddleseat, western, bareback) reflected positively in the pages, and I’ve got to give props to any book that includes a horse terms glossary in the back (have I mentioned my weakness for dictionaries, in addition to horse encyclopedias?). And then, of course, there’s the illustrations. The black-and-white, pen-and-ink type drawings are pretty much fabulous. If you know any 8 or 9 year olds who are horse pony crazed, this should pretty much be the next birthday present you give. Assuming a pony isn’t in your budget and that nice ponies aren’t actually mythical creatures that only exist in novels (which is why I just started “window shopping” for my kid’s first pony. I figure by the time he’s 7 I might find one kind of like Pidgy).