Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Island Horse by Susan Hughes, illustrations by Alicia Quist

This story I am excited about - although I'm not personally a fan of historical fiction. It's exactly the kind of middle grade story I'm looking for - an attractive cover (yes, horses are still popular), a good story that doesn't depend on flashy action, gross-out gore, or whiny brat kids to move the plot, and above all it's a tidy 160 pages, not a 400 page tome that will discourage young readers from even trying.

Set in the early 1800s, it's the story of a girl named Ellie who lives on the coast of Nova Scotia. She's gradually recovering from the death of her beloved mother but then her father gets a job. It requires them to move from the home she's always known, from her close friend Lizzie, from school, and from her mother's grave. They will go to a lonely island, little more than a spit of sand, far away in the ocean where her father will join the men who patrol the shores for shipwrecks and try to save sailors. At first, Ellie is overwhelmed by loneliness and loss, but gradually she comes to see the beauty of the island as she forms a friendship with a wild stallion and a wild island girl. With her father and new friend's help, can she save the stallion from the roundup - and make Sable Island her home?

Two minor quibbles - there's a typo on page 9, not what I expect from Kids Can Press! For younger readers, I think the flashback section on pg 62 should have been set aside or italicized in some way to make it easier to follow the story. However, these are minor details. The story isn't as fast-paced as most fare for "reluctant readers" but that's not the target audience of this book, at least in my mind.

I would hand this beautiful, heartfelt story to kids who really want to read more serious fiction or historical fiction, but can't handle the massive tomes publishers are dumping on their age group. The language is spare but  perfectly conveys Ellie's emotions and the wonder and beauty of the island. It's hard to pick a particular spot, but page 68 has some lovely examples: "She stretched out her arms. Turned them this way and that, making dipping shadows, too. And then, without deciding to, she began walking. She walked so she wouldn't have to stay in any one place. So she would not have to be here." The author's note includes some background information on her own interest in horses and the historical context of the story. Alicia Quist's delicate black and white illustrations are the perfect accompaniment to Hughes' starkly emotional text.

Verdict: This isn't going to be a bestseller, but will find a solid group of readership. Hand this one to kids who like historical fiction and beautiful language and a story that's a little different than the usual plots. Recommended.

ISBN: 9781554535927; Published March 2012 by Kids Can Press; Review copy provided by publisher through Raab Associates; Purchased for the library

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