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Charming Ponies: A Perfect Pony Paperback – October 18, 2005
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About the Author
Lois Szymanski has written two other books for young people, including A New Kind Of Magic and Patches, which is also set on Chincoteague Island. She lives on a small farm in Westminster, Maryland, with her husband and two daughters.
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The good news is that A PERFECT PONY is a great book! In the story, Niki has been saving up for a horse for a long time, and it's finally time to purchase one at the local horse auction that she and her dad have attended every week for many years. Niki sees, and is enamored by, a proud and beautiful, "perfect" white mare. She just knows this is the horse for her, and has even chosen the name "Princess" in her mind, until... she sees a horse that has been horribly neglected and has little life left in him. When the sickly horse is auctioned off, with the horse meat / dog food man showing interest, Niki becomes angry at the injustice of the horse's plight and her compassion kicks in - she outbids the dog food man by almost double, stunning the auctioneer and audience into prolonged silence, as none of them believe the horse is worth it. Meanwhile, the beautiful white horse is won by Billy, a schoolmate of Niki's who often bullies her, making fun of her on the school bus they ride together. There are several speculations mentioned in the book of a bad home life for Billy.
The vet basically says that Blackberry, as Niki comes to name her horse, just needs lots of tender, loving care, and Niki certainly showers plenty of love and attention on him. She attends to his case of thrush (wikipedia helped on that one), brushes him, feeds him properly, keeps him and his stall clean, and speaks gently to him. He responds, quickly becoming stronger and beautiful, and he heads straight to Niki whenever she appears. When she finally climbs on his back, Blackberry seems puzzled - he obviously hasn't been ridden before.
When Niki happens across Billy, hiding in the bushes in her yard with tears in his eyes, he tells her his horse, "Warrior" (as he's named her), threw him when he whacked her with a riding crop, and then ran off. He asks Niki what she's done to bring about Blackberry's transformation so quickly. Niki is wary at first, knowing what a bully Billy has always been, but he seems genuinely interested as Niki tells and shows him about how well horses respond to TLC and gentle nudges rather than whacks or kicks. As Niki begins to teach Billy about dealing with horses, reinforced by another throw from Warrior when he continues doing it wrongly, we see Billy begin to make a positive transformation parallel to that of Blackberry. Soon, Billy and Niki are even planning to go riding together, and as Billy's dad watches the two interact at Billy's house, even he seems to start absorbing the TLC lesson.
The characters are well developed (with the exception of Billy's father), even the two horses. The story is believable and we see the progression of positive change in both Blackberry and Billy. We also see Niki's sense of justice and sympathy, along with her hard work, rewarded as Blackberry responds to her care. There are many positive lessons to be learned from this book. It's certainly got lots of heart without getting mushy (despite what the cover might lead you to believe). A young reader could not help but come away from this book changed for the better.
A book with a similar message, though higher reading level, is FOLLOWING MY OWN FOOTSTEPS, by Mary Downing Hahn, second in a trilogy of books starting with STEPPING ON THE CRACKS. FOOTSTEPS is 5th or 6th grade reading level, and I rated it a 10 - what a powerful book!
AR lists the reading level of A PERFECT PONY as RL 4.4 - I would say that's about right, or maybe a bit lower. The print is fairly large and well-spaced, and there are no illustrations. The "Charming Pony" version of the book comes with a horse necklack taped to it, inside and out, which has left the book with some minor damage. It's very gimmicky, which this book doesn't need.
I would rate this book a 9 on a scale of 1-10.