of the Center for Children's Books
|The Big Picture, a
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Runaway Radish; illus. by Margot Apple. Greenwillow, 2001. 56p|
|Library ed. ISBN 0-06-0291591 $15.89|
|Trade ed. ISBN 0-688-16688-1 $15.95 Gr. 2-4|
Where are the horse and pony books of yesteryear? Not only were there stirring tales of Olympic-bound girls and horse-taming boys, there were endearing, accessible tales of kids goofing around with their own little fuzzballs, Billy riding down the trail on Blaze, that allowed the deprived to wallow in the alluring details of barn perfume and horsey ways. Equibibliophiles nowadays mostly have to resort to fantasy, which gives them the chance to slay dragons but deprives them of the homelier thrill of real possibilities.
Stubbornly and almost single-handedly bucking that trend is Jessie Haas, a knowledgeable equestrienne in her own right who's been contributing not only longer horse books (Working Trot) but also genuine middle-grade titles for those not yet into triple-digit pages (Beware the Mare, BCCB 7/93, etc.). Now she turns her attention to younger readers still, that underserved population that's beyond easy readers but desperately hoping for pictures, big print, and actual events, and she's given them the present about which many of them dream: a pony.
Radish is pretty much the quintessential pony, in fact, sassy and smart and small. He first belongs to young Judy, acting as her most important instructor ("He taught her that if she asked nicely, he would almost always do what she wanted"), but he's eventually outgrown and replaced by Horton, a full-sized horse ("Radish bit Horton, but Horton didn't care"). He is then passed on to little Nina, whom he also educates ("The school taught Nina how to ride. Radish taught Nina other things"), until, inevitably, she also outgrows him and replaces him with Count, a full-sized horse ("Radish tried to chase Count away. But Count was too big. He didn't even notice"). Unsuited for retirement, Radish causes a bit of havoc (he takes off for his old home at Judy's) that brings his former riders together; Judy and Nina put their heads together, trying to figure out how to keep Radish from a life as eternal hand-me-down ("But in a few years the next little girl will be too big too. . . . Little girls always grow up"), and realize that he'd be perfect for a summer camp. There he provides the important lessons he has taught Judy and Nina to years of campers, including, finally, Judy's young daughter.
This is a proper pony book, scratching all the horse-yearning itches just right. Radish isn't anthropomorphized, and he doesn't need to be-he's a desirable and memorable character in his own equine right, whose personality shapes his owners' schedules and habits ("He made Nina win whether she wanted to or not. After a while Nina got used to winning. After a while she even learned to like it") and who enjoys pushing his young charges beyond their limits ("Most of the time she couldn't even catch him. Radish liked that"). The pony-bonding depicted will cause barn rats to sigh in recognition ("She smelled his warm smell. She listened to him eat") or slaver in envy ("They swam in the pond. Radish was the diving board"; "Sometimes she hated everybody, and they hated her too. Then she went away on Radish"). The smooth-gaited text has a simplicity so deft and careful that it's easy to underestimate; it will entice young readers trembling at the move beyond early-reader series, and the rhythm will help make the book a pleasing readaloud (Radish's different pleasurable successes at eluding his owners' authority turn "Radish liked that" into a repeated refrain).
Apple (perhaps chosen for her name, in the absence of capable illustrators named Carrot) hasn't been known for her equines before, but she takes to the task like a duck to a horse trough. Her soft pencil illustrations (there's usually one per page) have Garth Williams textures with Wesley Dennis expressiveness, giving Radish, the "good bad pony," plenty of perky oomph whether he's gunning with laid-back ears for an indifferent Count or bouncing down the road; he's got that roly-poly-pony look even when he's shined up for a show, and it's particularly evident when he's fuzzed up with his winter coat.
There is, of course, an inherent risk in this kind of book, in that even as it satisfies it induces yearning (and for parents, even as it satisfies it induces begging). It's a delicious quandary, and it's nice that young readers will again have a chance to experience it.
-- Deborah Stevenson, Associate Editor
This page was last updated on July 1, 2001.
July's Bulletin cover illustration by Margot Apple
from Runaway Radish,
Copyright 2001. Used by permission of Greenwillow Books.
This page was last updated on July 1, 2001.