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Multicultural Horse Books?

How do horse books fit into the trending topic of diversity and multiculturalism in children's books? I thought about that recently when asked to have my picture taken with a book I would recommend to children. Because I write horse books, and because it has a gorgeous cover, I thought of King of theWind. This historical children's novel won a Newbery Award in 1948. It's a classic, and I loved it as a child. Perfect!
Except for one thing. I am also revising and updating Storey Publishing's Horselover's Encyclopedia, which is turning me into a horse nerd. The horse history section is especially important to me, and builds on work I did in two earlier books, Hoofprints: Horse Poems, and Horse Crazy!. Because of that, I know that many elements of King of the Wind are simply not true.
The story is about the Godolphin Arabian, a stallion sent as one of several Arabians as a gift to the King of France. He was scorned as skinny and misshapen, and became a draft horse pulling a cart through the streets on Paris, until discovered by a kindly Quaker and shipped to England in 1730, along with the mute slave-boy and the tabby cat who were his constant companions. An illicit mating with the elite mare Roxana produced a foal of such quality that the horse was established as a top breeding stallion, and became one of the three founders of the Thoroughbred. It's a made-for-storybook tale, except—it's not true!
First of all, the horse was probably not an Arabian. He may have been a Barb, or he may have been a very Arabian/Akhal Teke cross, from a strain of horses bred to be given as diplomatic gifts. In 18th century England, as now, of the word Arabian has more romantic power—economic power, too, enabling the horse's owner to charge a higher stud fee.
The horse came from Yemen, not Morocco.
It is highly unlikely that he ever pulled a cart through the streets of Paris.
He never had an accompanying slave-boy as his constant companion.
He was always valued. England was in the process of developing a new breed of race horse, with middle-distance speed coming from a horse once owned by Oliver Cromwell, bearing the name Place's White Turk, imported in 1657. The horse known as the Godolphin Arabian added a fresh infusion of that blood at an important time.
The horse did have a beloved cat companion, who either died of grief following the stallion's death, or vice versa.
To a horse nerd all of that is fascinating, but a master storyteller like Marguerite Henry knew better than to send her narrative down those rabbit holes. She was writing fiction, and she wisely chose the most romantic details, added a boy main character, and wove a novel whose appeal has lasted more than 60 years. And I couldn't bring myself to recommend it that day. I chose another good book, my husband Michael J. Daley's Pinch and Dash Make Soup, which freed me for second thoughts.
I began to remember the beginning of the novel. It's Ramadan, nearing sundown, and the boy Agba is hungry.
“All day long he had eaten nothing. He had not even tasted the jujubes tucked in his turban nor the enormous purple grapes that spilled over the palace wall into the stable yard. He had tried not to sniff the rich, warm fragrance of ripening pomegranates. For this was the sacred month of Ramadan when, day after day, all faithful Mohammedans neither eat nor drink from the dawn before sunrise until the moment after sunset.”
But he runs to the stall of the pregnant mare, his charge. The horses are also observing the fast, and he gives her water before taking even a sip for himself.
In third grade I had never heard of Islam, much less Ramadan. King of the Wind gave me no understanding of the inwardness of the religion, but the images and feelings stayed with me, powerfully. Islam became something I was interested in over the years, in the changing way one is interested in something exotic as one grows up. Because of Marguerite Henry I actually read The Koran in high school, not for a class, but on my own, and a part of the world was opened to me—a little bit, but much more than would have happened ordinarily for a Vermont farm kid.
So—horse stories diverse? Multicultural? Really?
That one was. So were many other horse books published in the 40s and 50s. Huge numbers of them focused on American Indians, and as far as I can tell, some did an excellent job of portraying these minority cultures. I read those books because they had horses in them, which got me interested in American Indians and led me on to other books.
Now I'm an author of horse books, and I wonder; are any of my books multicultural? Do they add to the diversity of children's books?
I'd have to say yes. I write out of a culture that is changing, perhaps vanishing—rural Vermont. It startled me to have my book Sugaring win a social studies award. Isn't social studies about exotic places? Making maple sugar was ordinary to me. But Vermont is an exotic place to most Americans, who vaguely imagine it to be part of Canada. I can put that place on the page, or set stories on the subsistence farms of the 19th and early 20th centuries, because I grew up on a farm like that, with a mother who grew up on a farm like that. I know what it feels like to get shocked on the electric fence. I know the agony and the ecstasy of haying season. I know what too much grass can do to a horse's feet, and what the price of farmland, the price of milk, can do to a rural family.
Some of that deserves to be called diverse and multicultural, doesn't it? I don't know. Some would say the color of my skin automatically disqualifies me and the people I write about. Maybe it's just--'just'!--observation, and the imaginative ability to put myself in someone else's shoes and feel what they might feel. I often write from a horse's point of view. That's not multicultural, since horses don't create cultures, but it may be just as broadening.
When Candlewick approached me about writing an early reader horse series, they were troubled by the perception that horses were for rich white people. I knew the association between wealth and horses is mythical; 34 % of horse owners earn less than $50,000/year. So it was natural for me to portray the world of this hardworking lesson horse who becomes so picky about her prospective new owner that she ends of being advertized as “Horse For Free.”
It was up to illustrator Alison Friend to deal with ethnicity. She is English, and her portrayal of Dad and Maggie has them looking Indian or Pakistani. They live in a coastal suburb, and Bramble's new stable is a made-over garden shed.
I don't know if any of that 'counts.' But I know horse books, some of them, are multicultural. King of the Wind definitely is. Read it, and if you want to know the real story of the Godolphin Arabian, read Storey's Horselover's Encyclopedia when the revised edition comes out next year. Let book lead on to book, lead on to book...

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