Aside from my animals, another of my major passions in life – and one which has similarly been a constant throughout my childhood and adulthood alike – is reading. From as far back as I can remember I have loved to read, and some of my earliest memories are of my earliest books. I remember finally reaching the stage of being able to read by myself as the beginning of a magical era where I could just become lost in another world while I breathed in a whole story from start to finish. From the heart-thudding dashes I made through the caves of Kirrin Island with the Famous Five to the memorable day I was right with Harry, staring wide-eyed at Diagon Alley and Hogwarts for the very first time, I fell fully into the worlds on the pages before me and dreamed of them in games, daydreams and my own stories scribbled in jotters long after they were over.
Some of the books I loved most however, especially in my earliest days of reading, were animal and especially pony books. It’s a genre sometimes belittled or viewed as frivolous or unimportant; when in fact nothing that inspires a passion for reading in any child should be. Reading about animals or children relating to their pets and ponies drew on both my love for those themes and my growing love for being swept up in stories, and some of those books from my primary school years are the very same ones I find myself plucking off the shelf now when I need an escape or want to revisit the long ago worlds I loved so much and that children’s authors took the time to create.
The Hodgeheg – Dick King Smith
This little story was of the first I can remember reading for myself, a beautiful book aimed at maybe ages 6-8ish and with large print but – so excitingly to me and I’m sure so many other children – in “novel style”, a paperback book with that real book smell, thin rustling pages and hidden within them a wonderfully endearing tale of Max, our unforgettable hedgehog-turned-Hodgeheg hero.
Animal Ark books – Lucy Daniels
The Animal Ark books came along at just the right time to be a firm favourite in our house, swapping them between us as children and always marvelling at who would be in what next – Goat in the Garden, Badgers in the Basement and Pony on the Porch becoming contenders for favourites, but nothing comparing to the first discovery of Puppies in the Pantry and Kittens in the Kitchen – the Hope family’s valiant efforts at helping and treating animals over and over again in the small village vets’ surgery as untiring as our appetite for the next book to appear. I remember being more disappointed than I should have been to learn in this modern Wikipedia world that “Lucy Daniels” was in fact a team of writers churning out these titles faster than any one person could – but in the end all that mattered was that, whoever it came from, we were gifted the ammunition for years of imagination-stretching vets’ surgery games in dens with our friends and entranced Christmas holiday reading.
The Animals of Farthing Wood – Colin Dann
The Animals of Farthing Wood – dashing Fox, wise Badger, poor Mole with all his self-esteem issues, Pheasant ever in a flap, and all the rest – had me utterly captivated as a child as they banded together to make their perilous journey onwards towards White Deer Park. In addition to reading first an abridged version of the book and later once I could the full one – and watching the TV show of course – , I collected the weekly Farthing Wood Friends magazines, and learned so much about wildlife as a result. They were always so educational, teaching about animals’ habitats and behaviour in great detail, and had me so interested in the world around me and engaged with all and any wildlife and nature that might cross my path.
The Jill Books – Ruby Ferguson
Jill Crewe, like the Famous Five had before her, arrived recommended from the older generation in my family, and had already been the pony-book heroine of my mum’s childhood when she became mine. Headstrong, kind in spite of her flaws and not afraid to challenge the sometimes elitist world of horse ownership, Jill had me onside from the word go and made me laugh, swell with pride and smile as she navigated school, gymkhanas, ill-fated money-making ventures and general adventures with her faithful ponies Black Boy and Rapide.
The Midnight Fox – Betsy Byars
In The Midnight Fox, Betsy Byars brought to glittering life for me the night sky on the farm, the uncertainty of Tom’s emotional turmoil at the beginning of the book giving way to first the lessons this unfamiliar rural life had to teach him and later completely to his desperate desire to save the black fox from her fate. An absolute treasure of a book, I learned with Tom that if you can find a passion that surpasses everything else, something to believe in and to strive for, you can find courage amidst self-doubt and make a difference against the odds.
Midnight Dancer books – Elizabeth Lindsay
Possibly my very favourite of all, Elizabeth Lindsay’s Midnight Dancer series truly had my heart, in spite of only being six short and relatively uneventful books. Mory and Josh’s childhood and upbringing by their parents and extended family closely resembled my own and I loved the familiar warmth of life at Black Rock. Mory always battled with her worst self but somehow managed to come out on top, appreciating and – when the situation merited it – fiercely defending her family, friends and pets alike. I liked her instantly, before even the world-changing moment when she looked up to the hill and saw the black pony standing there. Mory’s Dancer was everything I dreamed of in a pony and when a few years on I was lucky enough to come to own Charmer, my own midnight black pony, I shared her lack of ability to quite believe it – and in fact still do to this day, the best part of two decades on, often marvelling as we amble out on a post-work hack at how my trusty pony ever came to be mine. The Midnight Dancer books were being published annually in my later years at primary school and were the reason I waited for the book fair to roll in to school, always so excited to pre-order the next adventure, count down the days until the delivery arrived and trace my fingers over the red and gold embossed lettering that stood out on every cover throughout that long school day before I could run home to start reading.
All of these stories – poured into well-thumbed paperbacks, most of which I hold onto tightly to this day – made up such an inspiring chunk of my childhood. They taught me valuable lessons about the world around me, gave scope to my love of the animal world and inspired so many dreams of the future; and I will be forever grateful for them.