I was really saddened yesterday to hear of the death of Josephine Pullein-Thompson. For those who don’t know, Josephine was one of the Pullein-Thompson sisters who wrote the most fabulous pony books, and was one of my childhood heroines. Along with those of her younger sisters, twins Christine and Diana, her books just about filled my bookcase in my little bedroom at home. I remember our school library being choc full with pony books and I used to take armfuls of them home every week, and the vast majority of them were by a Pullein-Thompson.
I posted a comment on Facebook and Twitter, saying how sorry I was that she’d died, and was surprised to find that many people responded saying they’d loved her, too, and had hugely fond memories of the sisters’ books, as well as those by their mother, Joanna Cannan, who wrote the fabulous Jean books, as well as many others, including the very funny They Bought Her A Pony, and is widely credited with inventing the pony book as we understand it today.
I was soon embroiled in a conversation about our other favourite childhood pony books and the memories came flooding back. I confess, here and now, that I was a total book geek when I was a child. My favourite presents at Christmas were, invariably, books and I spent all my pocket money on them, heading into town on the bus every Saturday morning and rushing to WH Smith, my heart fairly pounding in anticipation. In those days, there were shelves and shelves of pony books to choose from and the real problem was trying to choose which one I would buy that day. It used to break my heart, having to leave so many behind and having to wait a whole week before I could return and get another one! Nowadays, there are few pony books on the shelves and I suppose the ones I devoured so eagerly would have a hard time fitting in with the lives of today’s children. And yet, I wonder…
The first book I ever owned was a Noddy book by Enid Blyton. Our neighbours were moving house and I was heartbroken. I can still remember standing by my front gate in tears as they loaded up the removal van and prepared to leave, not just the house next door, but the city. I knew I’d never see them again and I was devastated. The lady of the house came to say goodbye to us and she gave me a farewell present. When I opened it and saw that brightly-coloured book I experienced a wonder I can still recall over forty-five years later – the wonder of owning my very own book; the delight at the beautiful cover, the smell and feel of those pages, the weight of it in my hand. Until that point, books had been things at school that the teacher plonked on the desk and sat with me while I proved that, yes, I understood that it was a very big lorry, and she was quite right, the hen was little and red even though it looked more like a tawny brown, if you asked me. Having my own book was a joy and I read it endlessly.
I was lucky. My parents both read voraciously and considered books to be great gifts, so every Christmas brought three new books – invariably Enid Blyton novels. My mother was quite understanding when I begged her to buy me the book that the teacher was reading to us at school every afternoon – The Cat That Walked A Week by Meindert DeJong – and even though it was a hardback and quite expensive, she duly ordered it from our local bookshop. Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory quickly followed. She even gave in when I begged incessantly for a copy of the fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson which was in the window of our local newsagent. I’d never heard of him, but the cover drew me to it and I stared through the glass every day when I passed the shop, gazing in awe at the picture of a lady dressed all in white and surrounded by snow and ice, wondering who she was.
Enid was by far my favourite author in those days, though. I progressed rapidly through The Three Golliwogs, Mr Pinkwhistle, Mr Twiddle and Brer Rabbit, devoured her stories about Jesus, Robin Hood and King Arthur, her interpretations of Greek mythology, onto the daring adventures of The Secret Seven and The Famous Five and then, one by one, each book in the Malory Towers series. By the time I was reading her Secret books, her Mystery books and her farm books, I was developing another passion…ponies. Enid’s Six Cousins at Mistletoe Farm had a pony scene in it and featured a very horse-mad girl called Jane who lived in jodhpurs. I had no idea what jodhpurs were but it all sounded great fun as she mucked out and groomed and generally had a jolly time with her pony Merrylegs.
At school one day, we were sent to an adjoining classroom for a shared lesson with another class. This afforded me the opportunity to sneak a peek at a different bookcase and my heart almost stopped. A Stable for Jill! A bright yellow cover sporting a picture of a whole string of children riding ponies. There were books, just about ponies? I had no idea. I duly headed to the main school library after class and browsed the shelves, discovering Ruby Ferguson for the first time and quickly taking my very first pony books home. A Stable for Jill was just the start. I also borrowed Ponies Plot by C Northcote Parkinson, and Look At Ponies, a factual book by Pamela Macgregor-Morris which contained some great illustrations and a whole load of information about ponies. I was hooked.
When I moved up to High School at the age of eleven, I already owned shelves full of books, but the school library had all the Jill books and the Collins Pony Library and a whole lot more. While most children in my class struggled to find a single book they wanted to take home with them during the fortnightly library lesson, I would stagger to the desk to check out around eight books at a time. At first, the English teacher was doubtful, questioning that I would actually read them all. I quickly proved that I would and did, and after a few of these lessons he would laugh and shake his head and even help me look for new titles sometimes!
I was never happier than when I had my head stuck in a book, and I remember many times my mother despairing and asking me why I didn’t just go outside and play. How to explain that the world inside those pages was far too interesting and exciting to leave behind? I was fairly galloping through all those pony books now, my shelves were groaning. It was time to move onto the next step. Writing my own.
I’d dabbled with writing before, of course. I wrote a hundred page novel complete with illustrations when I was about eight. It was absolute rubbish and about a rather feeble girl at a ballet school for some strange reason. However, my passion for ponies and my love of Enid Blyton’s adventure stories was stirring me to put pen to paper and come up with my own novel, featuring mystery, adventure and a whole lot of ponies. I can’t remember what I wrote or if I ever managed to complete an entire novel, but I do remember the excitement I felt as inspiration struck me and I rushed to find pen and paper and started to jot down my ideas. I have no idea how many times I wrote “Chapter One”, though I doubt very much that I wrote many “Chapter Two”s.
The point is, those books inspired me to write. They encouraged me to read. They changed my life – literally. I cannot imagine my childhood, or indeed my adult life now, without them, because if I hadn’t discovered those amazing authors like the Pullein-Thompson sisters, Joanna Cannan, Enid Blyton, Ruby Ferguson, Monica Edwards et al, how dull life would have been. I may never have “progressed” to adult books, or taken up writing again, or developed this all-consuming love for a good story. How scary to think of that alternative future!
People think the old-fashioned pony book is something no child would want to read now – seeing it as too far removed from the modern world. Well, let me tell you something. In the mid-seventies, a time of glam rock and platform shoes and trousers a foot wide and with waistbands a foot high, I was eagerly reading about children who wore their hair in plaits, wore jodhpurs that flapped like elephant ears and tweed jackets, and were overcome with delight to open their presents on Christmas morning to find a hunting tie and a hoof pick. They went hunting, mucked out stables and worried about affording a new bridle. They went to livestock auctions and bought ponies with mysterious things called guineas and went to pony club events and were shouted at by people called Major and Colonel. They lived in country cottages with paddocks and orchards and a loosebox in the garden. I lived in a three-bedroomed semi in a small town and the only thing I rode was a turquoise Shopper bike. Nothing about the world of the pony book heroine was anything like mine, yet I never questioned it. I never scorned it. I never doubted it was all perfectly, gloriously possible. It’s called imagination. I think maybe our children are being short-changed somewhere along the line.
All these years later, my shelves still groan with pony books. I made the switch, when I was about fifteen, to adult books – the first one by Catherine Cookson. I immediately loved her gritty, passionate novels and read them with the same devotion I’d shown my favourite childhood authors. When Jilly Cooper brought out Riders it was like everything I’d ever loved was right there in the pages of that book. Horses, passion, humour! I became a massive fan of hers and waited eagerly for every book she brought out. I quickly discovered Fiona Walker, Jo Carnegie and Veronica Henry and that was that…I’d found a whole new genre of fiction. Now I read lots of different books – chick lit, sagas, romcoms, contemporary, crime, thrillers, suspense, supernatural, paranormal…they all fill me with wonder and delight.
Yet I still have A Stable For Jill. In fact, I was delighted to discover that the Jill books are being reprinted by Fidra and I have begun to collect the new editions which have all the original illustrations. Not only that, but there is a whole new generation of pony book writers such as Victoria Eveleigh – whose Katy’s Ponies trilogy, Joe series and The Midnight Stallion are exceptionally well-written and would delight any modern child – and Janet Rising, whose Pony Whisperer series gives the pony book a very unusual twist. In another exciting development, Girls Gone By Publishers are reprinting the Monica Edwards Punchbowl Farm and Romney Marsh stories that I adored; the Follyfoot novels of Monica Dickens have new editions; the Jinny and Shantih books by Patricia Leitch have been reprinted; Fidra are also reprinting books by the wonderful K M Peyton, Joanna Cannon – and also Josephine Pullein-Thompson.
So we’re back to the beginning. My beginning. This post was written as a tribute to Josephine and to all those marvellous authors of children’s books that made my childhood so wonderful. Life as a youngster isn’t always perfect. It can be a scary, lonely time. It can bring sadness and fear and isolation. Entering new realms created by writers can make it all bearable. Stepping through those pages into other worlds can make all the difference – like stepping into a wardrobe and finding yourself in Narnia. Thank you Josephine, Christine, Diana, Joanna, Ruby, Monica, and all the other wonderful weavers of dreams.
Thank you, Enid, who started the whole thing for me. And thank you to all the children’s writers of today who have taken up the baton and are busily taking our children on the most fantastic journeys. Magic exists and it’s to be found in the pages of all those books.
Have a great week xx