Review policy

Due to time pressures, I am unable to commit to reviewing books at the moment. However, please feel free to recommend or discuss by tweeting @MsTick68 or commenting on here. Thank you!

Sunday 25 September 2011

Trotting ponies, swooping dragons

Like many other pre-teen girls, I was obsessed with pony books, and the idea of riding. I grew up near riding stables, and later my more enterprising younger sisters got free lessons in return for mucking out and other chores, but by that time I had become more interested in other things. However, I read a great many pony books between the ages of 9 and 11, and I particularly liked Follyfoot and other Monica Dickens pony books about the farm and ponies. I recently re-read it, and while I found some of the snobbery a little hard to take (the nouveau riche plumbers' wife with gnomes in her front garden and secretaries from London who don't know how to look after ponies are disapproved of; the poor-but-natural rider Toby is semi-adopted as One Of Us) the unabashed physicality and resourcefulness of the girl characters is celebrated; something they have in common with boarding school stories. I mentioned on Twitter that I was reading Follyfoot, and had people tweeting me the theme tune to the TV series, which I remember only vaguely- we couldn't get ITV on our telly until a new mast was built in the mid 70s- but I am determined to find a copy of it!


I was reminded of pony books by reading a couple of books about dragons: Lucinda Hare's Dragonsdome Chronicles, The Dragon Whisperer and Flight to Dragon Isle. The story of Quenelda, illegitimate daughter of Earl Rufus DeWinter of the Stealth Dragon Services and an unknown mother, it combines the best elements of pony stories (the close relationship between child and animal, the power that relationship confers and the feeling of freedom and speed that riding invokes) alongside magic and an epic battle between the Seven Seas Kingdom and the Goblin Hordes. It reminded me strongly of both JRR Tolkein's The Hobbit and Harry Potter, with the themes of a timid outsider (Root Oakley, Quenelda's squire and friend, is a gnome who is terrified of dragons) overcoming his fears and showing heroism, and a slightly arrogant protagonist learning patience and tolerance through a less able friend. There is a terrible betrayal from a character whose arrogance has led him to pursue personal power, corrupting him. The physical hard work of looking after animals and the commitment needed to do so properly is demonstrated through the contrast of Quenelda with her vain and selfish half brother, Darcy, who is nearly killed through his unwillingness to listen to the Dragonmaster. Although the setting is in the fantasy Seven Seas Kingdom, the use of Scottish phrases such as "haar" for a sea fog, and the descriptions of the the Sorcerer's Glen remind me strongly of Kilchurn Castle on Loch Awe.

Image: Lawrence Warren from

At Haringey Children's Literature Festival I met author and storyteller Margaret Bateson-Hill, author of some gorgeous picture books and of Dragon Racer and Dragon Racer- Legacy of Fire.

Joanna Morris is an ordinary school girl from Brixton, South London, who is waiting for her brother opposite Lambeth Town Hall when she notices a small silver dragon crawling down the outside of the building. Excalibur has been bred by the Brixton Dragon Caves to race and compete against the rival Brighton Pavillion Dragon Caves, owned by the sinister Marcus King, who will stop at nothing- even genetic mutations- to win. Like Quenelda, Joanna has a powerful connection with the mischievous XL, and they must train hard and overcome adversity in pursuit of compete. It's a great, exciting read, but for me lacked the intrigue of The Dragon Whisperer; perhaps the modern day setting means that it inevitably misses the epic sweep?

I would recommend all these books for confident readers of 8+. I know that Zoe from Playing By The Book's 6 year old loved having The Dragon Whisperer read to her, to the extent that she is considering dressing up as Quenelda for Children's Book Week!