Thursday, April 25, 2013

Where Has All the Horse Racing Fiction Gone?

by Carly Silver

When I was young, my book of choice was always something equine.. The more it dealt with horse racing, the more satisfied I was. I started with C.W. Anderson’s Twenty Gallant Horses, which introduced me to the likes of Fair Play and Tom Fool via Anderson’s stunning drawings and charming text.

As I grew older, I picked up Walter Farley’s The Black Stallion and its companion books, including my personal favorite - the Island Stallion titles. After devouring those, I moved on to the Thoroughbred series, starring a homebred--and Kentucky Derby-winning--filly named Wonder, her co-owner, Ashleigh, and a host of other horses.

When I look around at what horse-crazy kids--all of whom are potential racing fans--are reading today, I’m bewildered. Where are the new racing books for kids? Where are the latest Walter Farleys, the Marguerite Henrys, the Joanna Campbells? There are plenty of new books about girls and their riding horses, but not about children and racehorses. While there are a few books that feature racehorses and are aimed at younger audiences, they are few and far between.

There are still a number of horse books for kids on the market. They’re just not about racing. For example, Georgina Bloomberg has written a series about show-jumping. But there’s nary a racehorse in sight. Has racing fallen so out of touch with modern children’s literature that it’s become an "adults-only" topic?

Yes, horse racing can have mature themes. Drugs, injuries, and death all play a part of Thoroughbred racing. They also pop up in every other major sport - at least in racing, there are fewer scandals about if a horse is sleeping with another who’s not his or her spouse. Moreover, many children’s books deal with such tropes, but in a safe and educational way. Books like the Thoroughbred series featured horses breaking down or dying. Unfortunately, these issues are the tragic realities of the game. But the way in which the novels handle these topics can be sensitive, in ways that don’t malign or demean addiction or injury, but teach young ones about such issues.

In The Cambridge Companion to Horse Racing, Jane Smiley writes about the sport and its place in fiction. She cites its "exotic" nature, since not all readers are familiar with the game, which is one "awash in money" and often reeking of corruption (45-46). She also correctly notes that much children’s fiction about racing hinges on the attachment between child and horse (51). That trope is quite common - witness Alec’s bond with the Black Stallion and Ashleigh’s with Wonder.

But kids’ books about racing aren’t just tales of "a boy/girl and his/her horse." They expose children to new worlds - indeed, as Smiley states, they are pedagogical, teaching readers about situations and characters they have not encountered before (51). Why not teach them about the good and bad, the trials and tribulations, that those in racing face? After all, drugs and doping, injuries and casualties, are unfortunate presences in most sports. There’s no reason kids can’t be taught about the dangers of such practices - within the safe confines of literature, of course. No one is suggesting that the seediest parts of racing be exposed, but kids should get to know the track, the people surrounding it, and, most importantly, become acquainted with the majestic animals frequenting it.

The emergence of New Adult fiction as a popular genre for readers in their teens and older might serve as a place for racing to find a hoof-hold. These novels feature older characters--twenties and beyond--as well as romance, sex, and intrigue. They appeal to readers that, as the above USA Today article cites, grew up reading YA--perhaps the Thoroughbred series--but are looking for heroes their own age, who are involved in something a bit more spicy or mature.

It seems there is a problem of too little racing-centric fiction for twenty-somethings and younger. If we want to attract younger, newer fans, we have to speak to them in a language they understand--and that’s not just through social media. Young people are reading books more than ever--albeit in many different formats--and we should provide a supply for their demand.

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