As a youngster I regretted the fact that my favorite horse book series, The Black Stallion, had a boy as its main character - and no girls. Perhaps other girls complained to author Walter Farley, because The Black Stallion and the Girl eventually hit the shelves -- too late to satisfy me.
A similar complaint changed the course of Nikki Tate's writing in her popular StableMates series for young readers. A 12-year-old boy approached her at a book signing. "The boy had such a serious look on his face - I knew he wasn't happy," says Tate. Sure enough, he wanted to know why there weren't more boys in the StableMates series, which is about the escapades of a group of riders (mostly girls) on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.
"I'm so glad that young man stepped forward," says Tate. "I would never have written Keeping Secrets at Dark Creek if he hadn't told me off so soundly."
Tate chatted with the boy and discovered that he is a serious hunter/jumper with Olympic aspirations - a perfect character and an overlooked audience. The conversation resulted in the debut of 12-year-old Andrew, a new kid at Kenwood Middle School, where he tries to keep his riding a secret (for obvious reasons, it turns out). It takes a while - and many misunderstandings - before Andrew realizes he is among kindred spirits.
Jessa, the main character, has her own secret. She is embarrassed by the fact she has diabetes, and disturbed that she has outgrown Rebel, a great pony now being ridden by a younger child. Her struggles to get in sync with a talented but sensitive mare make her very grumpy -- and unkind to the kid who now rides Rebel. Jessa and Andrew also get off to a poor start, which complicates the plot. And, of course, Jessa and her best friend are off on an adventure to a long-deserted railroad shed . . . .
This is good stuff - fun reading for children first grade and up. The characters are in middle school, but I recall that I enjoyed reading stories about older kids because I would soon be in their shoes!
Tate's latest book, Jo's Triumph, is an excellent first-person story that captures what it must have been like to live in the American West during the 1850s. After her father's death on the family's journey west by wagon train, Jocelyn's older brothers leave her at the Carson City Home for Unfortunate Girls, a miserable place, and stifling for a headstrong, horse-savvy youngster.
Jocelyn meets a Paiute girl who changes her view of the so-called "savages," and affects the course of her life. Jocelyn ("Jo") crops her hair and, disguised as a boy, becomes a Pony Express rider in an attempt to reach California and discover what has happened to her brothers. Unfortunately, an unscrupulous man discovers her identity and uses her secret to create a life-and-death situation. Jo's path will lead back to the Indian friend she has worried about since their abrupt parting in Carson City.
Horses, historical insights, and a young girl's courage make this a compelling read. Tate felt so strongly about it that she launched the book with a reprise of a Pony Express ride over historic trails, carrying letters from school kids in British Columbia and Nevada and stopping to speak to groups of children along the way.
The StableMates series and Jo's Triumph (along with many other books by Nikki Tate for young readers) are published by Orca Book Publishers in Victoria, British Columbia (800-210-5277). Visit www.stablemates.net to learn about Nikki Tate's books and her schedule as a dramatic speaker and inspirational workshop leader.
To read Dale Leatherman's reviews of Lauraine Snelling's High Hurdles and Golden Filly series, click here.