Horse Books! National Velvet

National VelvetWell this was a surprise.

National Velvet is not a children’s book.

I’m looking into horse books, of which I remember there being a vast number in our school library, and the first surprise was how much of the output was by a few authors. When you count books by Marguerite Henry (Misty of Chincoteague), Walter Farley (The Black Stallion), Mary O’Hara (My Friend Flicka), and — for those in the Antipodes — Elyne Mitchell (The Silver Brumby), you’ve got the bulk of the classic horse books. (I may be missing a few series’ from England that didn’t cross over.)

I decided to start more or less at the beginning (excluding Black Beauty which is from the 19th century and is basically Down and Out in Paris and London for horses). National Velvet is pretty far back, published in 1935.

From the first page it was obviously not a children’s book. Nothing inappropriate, just not at all geared to children and their interests and aesthetics. It is an unsparing portrait of a rural working-class English family. The father is a butcher with a slaughterhouse sharing a wall with the family sitting-room. The hired hand sleeps in former horse stall with a hole in the middle of the floor. The toddler of the family is obsessed with the idea of killing things.

Why, then, did some kids devour this book? Obviously, because it was A BOOK ABOUT HORSES. That was enough for a certain type of child to plough through the descriptions of scenery and weather, the complicated metaphors, the leaps of inference required, and the obscure regional phrases.

Less easy to explain is the choice of publishers and librarians and teachers to promote this as a children’s book. A sweet children’s book. I mean, check out these covers!

(The second book says “The Classic Story of a Girl and her Horse.” The third one says “Charming Classics” and comes with a necklace.)

Well, publishers were obviously cashing in on the movie, but as for librarians and teachers, I can only guess that they’d heard of the movie and never read the book.

Let me be clear, I think it’s fantastic when a passion for something like horses leads a child to voluntarily try out adult fiction. What I object to is the deceptive packaging, and the adult obsession with getting kids to read “classics” because it must be good for them, regardless of the actual content. (Honestly, why do people believe there’s anything to be gained by reading Robinson Crusoe, unless one is a scholar of the history of the novel?)

It’s too bad that this book has been overwhelmed by it’s movie reputation, because it’s a compelling read, and should be met on its own terms. The book is really about Velvet’s character and how she reacts to fame, coming out the other side unscathed because all she really cared about was the horse.

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