Friday, February 27, 2015

The Books that Crossed the Pond

When I was growing up in Britain, there was no such thing as an ebook. No one had computers. Amazon hadn’t been thought of. I didn’t even have a book shop. I had to rely on toyshops (never a hardship to go in, of course), Boots the Chemist, who then had a large toy and book department, and the library.

I was lucky with our library. When I first started going there, it was quite obvious that many of the children’s books had been there for decades. It hadn’t yet been pruned of the old and familiar (that was to come). There were rows of blue Chalet School books and tatty Dr Dolittles. Enid Blyton had an entire bookcase to herself. And there were rows of American books too. The Bobbsey twins lived in a whole new exciting universe. Maple syrup! Who knew such a thing existed? It certainly didn’t in 1970s Britain, where a new flavour of Angel Delight was a major excitement.

The library also had Rutherford G Montgomery’s Golden Stallion series. They lived tucked out of the way behind a stone pillar, on the bottom shelf. No one else in our town seemed interested in them; no one else ever stopped me from sinking into the world of Charlie, his stallion Golden Boy, and the Bar L Ranch. This world was just as far away from me as the Bobbseys and their maple syrup, but the horses made it connect with me on a completely different level. I may not have had the faintest idea what it was like to round up cattle, who round us lived calmly in hedge-surrounded fields, but I knew what it was like to ride, and through Rutherford G Montgomery I lived in that world.

Walter Farley’s world was a whole new level of exotic. Boots provided where the library failed; a British publisher, Knight, issued a few of the Black Stallion series in paperback, and I bought them. I longed, more than anything else, for a pony, and I read book after book where girls managed to get hold of one, generally through considerable sacrifice, or sheer, blinding, luck. Alec got his horse because they were ship wrecked together. And what a horse. Like Golden Boy, the Black was no scruffy riding school pony, slopping round the ring half asleep on his third lesson of the day. The Black was hot stuff. He was dangerous. He raced. 

Even where American books did involve ponies, like Marguerite Henry’s Misty series, there was still the environment to contend with. In Britain we are lucky in having weather that is generally pretty benign. Epic floods are thankfully rare. The Chincoteague and Assateague Islands and their dramatic floods again had that gloss of the alien and exciting. But the hero and heroine here, Paul and Maureen Beeby, led a life much more familiar to me. I sympathised with their longing for a pony, and cheered when they got one. 

All these American series fed that great desire so many children have to have a horse or pony of their own, but their settings made them almost impossibly exotic. New York, the Bar L Ranch and Chincoteague were as far away from my small, muddy Midlands town as it was possible to be. I now know that there were many, many American horse stories written in the way I was familiar with. A fair few were published in the UK, but they never made it out as far as the Midlands. It was the gallopingly exotic that seemed to sell here. And it still does. The Black Stallion and Misty books are still in print, enchanting new readers with a world to which the horse provides the key.

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  1. Thanks for posting these vintage covers, Jane. I love looking at old horse books. It stirs up fond memories from my childhood, when my goal was to read every single horse book in the entire library! Whenever I see older versions of some of my favorites at garage sales, I almost always come home with one or two. I just can't help myself!

  2. Yes, me too! I now need to prune the collection because I really don't need several editions of some titles.

  3. Yes, me too! I now need to prune the collection because I really don't need several editions of some titles.