Yesterday I was reading this blog about pony stories – and it immediately made me think of one of my own absolute favourites – A Pony for Jean. It’s an old story – my copy is a hand-me-down – but it’s in bookshops in this new edition.
It is a real Rags to Riches story. Jean has grown up with wealth, in a grand house in London with a nanny and governess. She has never ridden anything other than a seaside donkey. But then her parents lose all their money and the family goes to live in a tumble-down cottage in the country. Jean isn’t sure about this but soon starts to find her new life exciting – especially when she meets her new pony, Cavalier.
Cavalier belongs to Jean’s stuck-up cousins, who live close by – and who, unlike her, are still rich with nice clothes, boarding school educations and plenty of grooms to look after their immaculate stables and ponies. Cavalier (they call him Toastrack because his ribs stick out) is a neglected, starving pony that their dad has rescued from cruel owners. The cousins just make fun of him, and of un-horsey Jean. But Jean has hidden depths, and when their back is turned jumps on one of her cousin’s ponies and rides straight at a fence…
It is this rash act (ending in concussion) that leads Jean’s mother to remark “One crowded hour of glorious life is worth an age without a name” – a quote that has always stayed with me. But it also results in the cousins giving Cavalier to Jean. And guess what? Under her care, he soon reveals himself to be a beautiful and gifted pony, and Jean (with the help of a few library books on riding) becomes an expert on horse care and a talented show jumper. Not very likely? Well, maybe not, but it’s terrific fun to read.
Along the way, they have many adventures. Perhaps my favourite is when the cottage is burgled and Jean slides down the thatched roof from her bedroom and then gallops on Cavalier to fetch help from a nearby farm (jumping a five-bar gate along the way). OK, so that’s not so likely either. But it’s lovely to imagine.
It is the character of Jean, and her slightly subversive outlook on life, that I most enjoy. I also love the illustrations by Anne Bullen. I’m not sure whether they will appeal to today’s readers, but I think they have terrific charm.
I always think writers are very much shaped by the books they read. So has A Pony for Jean had an influence on me? I haven’t chosen to write about ponies – perhaps because I’ve never owned one. (Although my sister – far more pony-mad than me – did have a brief loan of a pony when we were growing up and my parents, very aware of the cost, were delighted when it bit her and put her off ponies for good!)
On the other hand, A Pony for Jean is about how owning an animal can change somebody’s life. In my book Wolfie, a lonely girl, Lucie, (like Jean an only child who has recently moved house) is given an animal by a relative. In Lucie’s case, it’s a magical wolf. As with Jean, the companionship of an animal makes all the difference for Lucie, letting her conquer enemies and make new friends. And, like Jean, Lucie has to work hard to look after her pet and to persuade the adults around to let her keep him.
Crucially Wolfie gives Lucie not only companionship but freedom. The fantastic thing about ponies is that you can go anywhere, and adults can’t stop you. Wolfie is able to transport Lucie too: in fact, at one key part of the story, they are able to fly. For an urban child, maybe a magic wolf is the nearest thing to a pony.
Which would you choose?
To find out more about Emma Barnes visit her web-site.