Thursday, July 28, 2011

Happiness is...a good book. (Summer Reading edition #32)

Running with the Horses
Author and Illustrator: Alison Lester 
Pages: 32
Age Range: 6+
Published: 2011 (first published in 2009 in Australia)
Genre: Historical Fiction/Picture Book
Cover Score: ****
Overall Grade: ****
Rating: PG

Inspired by the rescue of the Lipizzaner stallions from Austria during WWII, this is a good book that was almost great but missed the mark by not being quite as accurate as I’d hoped. Never does it claim to be anything but ‘inspired by’ it was just my own hope for a little more history than fiction that left me disappointed.
Nina is a young girl whose father works for the Royal Academy of Dancing Horses. Her mother had been a rider/dancer with their own troupe before she died and her father had found a more secure lifestyle for himself and his little daughter while still working with the horses he loved so dearly. But war is moving through the city and Nina and her father will be leaving to drive the horses across the mountains to the safety of her grandparent’s farm. Just before they are to leave Nina finds Zelda, an old cab horse, abandoned in the street and is determined to save her too.
During a desperate race through the city the old mare leads the group down dark streets and alleyways away from the smoke and gunfire and eventually out to the safety of a hillside. When daylight comes both horse and girl are a bit worse for the wear but also determined to go on. When they all come to a stone bridge Nina’s father urges the horses to cross but Zelda pushes past them driving them back off the bridge. When the moonlight shines out from behind the clouds the gaping hole in the bridge becomes visible. Zelda has saved the band again.
And finally as they cross the mountains the snow becomes so deep that even the strong horses struggle but the brave old mare stumbles and at first refuses to get up. Only after the strongest of urgings and physical pushing/lifting does she stand again and is able to make the rest of the journey to the safe house.
The tale is truly heroic and inspiring and there is an author’s note at the back that explains the inspiration behind it, but again I wished it was a bit more fact-based. As an adult I can Google information to my little heart’s content, but kids aren’t going to do that, or possibly even realize that it was a true event that they might want to know more about. A little back-matter, some additional information, timelines etc. could have added a whole new dimension and made it even more powerful.
The illustrations are absolutely gorgeous. There is a mixture of photographs (the city streets, some of the mountain scenes and images of what I assume are the Winter Palace/Riding School in Vienna) and watercolor scenery cunningly combined in a sort of layered collage making it impossible at points to tell what is real and what is drawn/painted. The characters of the girl, her father and stable hands and the horses are all rendered in black and white pencil sketches, contrasting beautifully against the deeply colored backgrounds.
Read it. Marvel at the beautiful images and be inspired by the acts of bravery. And then go learn about what really happened.
Try this site or this one.
And if that's not enough, take a look at this video with a little bit of the history as well as the horses themselves in action. Beautiful!

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