Native Australian Alison Lester is one of my top five favorite picture book illustrator/authors. Sadly, most of her picture books are not available in the United States, but if you are lucky your library will have a couple on the shelf. Of those available for purchase here, my favorites are Are We There Yet? : A Journey Around Australia, which is about a family's winter-long (which is summer down under) car trip driving around the perimeter of Australia and is only available in hardcover. Magic Beach is a poetic, sunny romp through a child's family vacation at a beach house. Imagine is the perfect rainy day book in which a sister and brother play dress-up while imagining themselves in various animal habitats that include the rain forest, the Australian outback, the African plains, the Arctic and a jurassic setting. Lester provides a list of the all the animals that appear in each detailed illustration in the back of the book. Both of these titles are available in paperback and I suggest you rush out and buy them for your children immediately.
With Horse Crazy, Lester brings us a superbly written series of stories for emerging readers that are beautifully illustrated, in a style very similar to her own, by Roland Harvey. In Australia, the series is titled Bonnie and Sam and there is a great website for the books including section devoted to all the horses who appear in the series. I was not one of those girls who loved horses as a child, so I am not familiar with the cannon of horse stories in children's literature. On a very basic level, I know that horses are noble, hard working, intelligent animals who can express varying levels of personality. In her books, Alison Lester does a magnificent job of bringing the characters of each horse she writes about to life. And they all are different characters. Even though the Horse Crazy book are slightly more than 60 pages long, I came away from both books feeling like I understood more about the nature of horses and the different kinds of work they do with and for humans and because of this I think these books will be interesting to children, whether they have a pre-existing love of horses or not.
Much to my delight, the first two pages in each book in the series are taken up with a wonderful map of the rural town of Currawong Creek where the stories are set. The map also includes a list of all the paddocks and horses in town. Sam and Bonnie are two best friends who share a love of horses above all else. Sam is the owner of a very intelligent dog named Pants, short for Smartie Pants and her father is Bill Cooper, the town police man. Bonnie, who claims she can speak a secret horse language, lives just outside the town with her parents Woo and Chester on Peppermint Plain, a ranch that is big enough to house a horse, but doesn't. When the girls are not with horses they are thinking about them, drawing pictures of them and making scrapbooks devoted to them. Because neither of them own a horse, they are very well acquainted with the horses in town since they volunteer to exercise all of them regularly.
Lester begins the book with the names and descriptions of all nine horses in the girls spend time with then tells the story of the new horse, Drover, and how she came to be Officer Cooper's police horse. Although she is fine horse when she is out of the paddock and being ridden by Officer Cooper, Drover is anxious and fidgety when she is in her paddock. She does not even let Sam and Bonnie get close enough to feed her a treat. Drover was born a brumby, a wild horse (each book has a glossary with definitions for Australian terms like "mate," "brumby," and "double-dinking") but was caught and tamed. One night a herd of brumbies gallops past Drover's paddock and one stops to look at her. The horse is the mirror image of Drover and her history is almost Drover's in reverse. Shadow, as she is called, was born on a farm but became a brumby when her mother escaped through a break in the fence. Scared of thunder and lightning, Shadow years for the safety of a paddock and an owner. When Shadow and Drover switch places, only Bonnie and Sam figure out what has happened. Secretly, they brush the tangles out of Shadow's mane, file down her hooves and have Bonnie's Aunt Birdy give her a few lessons in manners. Soon Shadow, or the New Drover as the girls call her, is working hard for Officer Cooper and enjoying the attentions of Sam and Bonnie. The story ends in a climax that involves a missing toddler, a train and the race to save her. There is even a chapter at the end titled, "One Year Later," in which the girls, double-dinking (riding two to a horse) on Shadow, are wandering through the mountains when they see the herd of brumbies. Drover leaves the group to nuzzle Shadow and the girls notice the black foal at her side.
The Silver Horse Switch was so great I went on to read The Circus Horse, book two in the series. Bonnie and Sam want to perform in the town talent show and spend hours practicing trick riding on Tricky, a very expensive horse who was once owned by the State Games Champion and is now owned (and unappreciated by) local spoiled brat, Michael. Michael lets Bonnie and Sam exercise Tricky who, like his black and white coat, can be either very good or very bad. Tricky loves Bonnie and she adores him and the girls decide to plan a routine for Bonnie and Tricky to perform in the talent show. Things go bad when, after hours and hours of practice, Michael informs the girls that animals are not allowed in the show for insurance reasons and that he intends to win for a second year in a row with his violin playing. However, Bonnie and Tricky get their chance to perform in front of the whole town when Circo Circus rolls into town and Bella Donna, the star trick rider, injures her ankle and desperately needs a replacement to fill in for her. The only thing is, it all has to be a secret and the audience must believe they are watching Bella Donna and Jet, not Bonnie and Tricky, perform in the center ring...
There are two more books in the Horse Crazy series and I think they will be released later this year. Alison lester also has two short yourng adult novels, The Quicksand Pony, available only in hardcover, and the Snow Pony, available in paperback. I hope you will be inspired to seek out the works of Alison Lester. With her work she achieves what all great children's book authors should - she entertains with her engaging illustrations (when she illustrates) and humorous, distinct style of story telling while she exposes readers to something new and something familiar at the same time so that a little stealth learning goes on.