The Wheel on the School

The Wheel on the School by Meindert DeJong

1954

Illustrated by Maurice Sendak

When Lina, a young schoolgirl in a tiny Dutch fishing village, wonders why the storks no longer nest in Shora, she and her five schoolmates (all boys) resolve to fasten a wagon wheel onto the roof of the school to tempt their return.  Gently encouraged by their teacher, the children each take one of the roads radiating like spokes from the village, in search of a wheel.  Along their meandering and intersecting journeys, they are joined by a small and eccentric cast of characters, including Janus, the misanthropic and grumpy double amputee who spends his wheelchair-bound existence protecting his cherry tree from predatory birds and children.  Lina, exploring along a dyke, discovers a wagon wheel in the most unlikely of places, under an overturned fishing boat that had been beached by a storm eighty years before.  Aided by Old Douwa, who as a boy had saved his shipwrecked father – trapped beneath this very boat, she works to retrieve the wheel, racing against the incoming flood tide and an approaching storm.  Their subsequent rescue presages the later rescue of a pair of exhausted storm-battered storks, marooned on a sand bar, threatened by the rising tide – storks who become the first to nest on the wheel on the school.

The book quietly celebrates the power of children, ever resourceful, to change the world.  The book is also a quiet celebration of the European white stork (Ciconia ciconia), which has largely disappeared from many of its traditional breeding grounds in western Europe.  The population of breeding pairs in Holland at the advent of the twentieth century was over 500: by the time DeJong was writing The Wheel on the School, the number was in the 50’s, and nests which had seen continuous occupation for hundreds of years were empty.  Most Dutch today are more likely to see a stork, symbol of fertility, deliverer of babies in a sling, on a birth announcement than in the sky overhead.  The storks still fly north to breed but they now head for eastern Europe, particularly Poland.  Theirs is a remarkable migration: in flocks of 10,000 or more, they make the journey from their wintering grounds in Africa, splitting east and west at the Mediterranean Sea to avail themselves of the warm thermals that rise from the land.  The roundtrip is over 10,000 miles.  With their stark tuxedo plumage, impressive stature, and bizarre bill clattering (they cannot sing), it is easy to imagine how their miraculous return to a rooftop year after year came to be considered an auspicious sign.

Maurice Sendak illustrated six of Meindert DeJong’s books, including The Wheel on the School.  Their shared spirit of humanity made for a harmonious marriage of talents.  They also shared the honor of each being a recipient of the Hans Christian Andersen Award, the highest international recognition for creators of children’s literature.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

1876

In one of the most famous scenes in American literature, Tom Sawyer is condemned to whitewashing the front fence as a Saturday morning punishment inflicted by Aunt Polly.  Taking stock of his pocket treasures, he realizes he cannot buy his way out.  Desperate for freedom, he has a sudden flash of inspiration.  Combining an acute understanding of human nature with masterful acting skills, he soon finds himself seated on a barrel in the shade eating an apple, his first booty, while his friend Ben paints away.  Tom “planned the slaughter of more innocents.  There was no lack of material…”  By the end of the afternoon, Tom has amassed a fortune (including a dead rat and a string, twelve marbles, a one-eyed kitten, and four pieces of orange-peel.)  And the fence has been whitewashed thrice over.

There is a reason that classics are classics.  The delight in discovering Mark Twain’s droll wit, pitch-perfect ear for colloquial speech, acerbic social commentary, and deft portrayal of boyhood along the Mississippi River is reason enough to read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.  There is also the imperative of reading a common literary canon.  Families are bound by shared memories, and cultures are bound by a common vocabulary of images.  Mark Twain is the quintessential American author and Tom Sawyer should be a familiar icon to all.  Every child can benefit by Tom’s epiphany that Saturday morning.  “He had discovered a great law of human action – without knowing it – namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.”

Among literary characters, Tom is one of the greats.  He is a good-natured adventurous romantic who combines ingenuity, courage, humor, honor, and a strong penchant for mischief.  Consider the following.  Spurned by Becky Thatcher, Tom takes to the Mississippi River where he leads a pirate’s life on Jackson Island with Huck Finn and Joe Harper.  The boys watch the townsfolk search the river for their drowned bodies.  That night, Tom slips away, thinking to leave a note for his Aunt Polly to ease her anguish.  Overhearing plans for the impending memorial service, he desists, and the three runaways make their triumphant return at their own funeral.  Tom is a prankster, but a lovable one, and the feelings between the boy and his guardian aunt run deep.

There is more.  For anyone who gets hooked on Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the incomparable sequel. The Prince and the Pauper and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court can follow.

The illustrations above are by an unknown artist from the Association of Illustrators, True Williams – the wonderfully-named illustrator for the original edition, and Richard Rogers.

Classic Poetry: An Illustrated Collection

Classic Poetry: An Illustrated Collection selected by Michael Rosen

1998

Illustrated by Paul Howard

Many of us may be philistines when it comes to poetry, but children are not.  They delight in the musicality of meter, the humor of limericks, the wordplay of rhyme.  They are adept at memorization – poems are easily engraved in memory in the young and, once owned, are there for a lifetime.  A poem memorized in childhood can be recited on a deathbed.

There are countless anthologies, many excellent, none exhaustive.  It is good to have a number on hand.  Classic Poetry has a particularly rich selection with stylistically diverse illustrations to accompany the poems along with portraits, both visual and text, of the poets.

Some are silly, as only Edward Lear can be.

Far and few, far and few
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.

Some are musical, none more so than Banjo Paterson’s lyrics that were written as a bush ballad.

Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong, 
Under the shade of a coolibah-tree, 
And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled, 
‘Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?....’

Some celebrate the exoticisms of language, as in John Masefield’s “Cargoes”.

Quinquireme of Ninevah from Distant Ophir
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine
With a cargo of ivory
And apes and peacocks
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

We should never underestimate the intelligence of children. They might not know a quinquireme from a Spanish galleon on first pass, but they will figure it out.  Their ears will respond even in the presence of nonsense.  Try a poem a day.  Or sit down with an anthology and read it from start to finish. 

Big Tiger and Christian

Big Tiger and Christian by Fritz Muhlenweg

1950

Illustrated by Rafaello Busoni

 

Out of print for many years, this is a book that happens into hands by chance. It is read in appreciation and amazement and continues to haunt the reader for decades more. It is a book that has inspired travels and changed lives. Yet it is almost completely unknown.

 

The story begins, in part, with Sven Hedin, a renowned Swedish explorer in the grand tradition, who did much to fill in the white patches on the map of Central Asia. In the 20’s and 30’s, he lead the Sino-Swedish Expedition to Mongolia, the Gobi Desert, and Xinjiang, accompanied by an international bevy of archeologists, geologists, meteorologists, geographers, astronomers, botanists, zoologists. He was honored along the way by having a glacier, a lunar crater, and a butterfly (among other things) named after him.  My Life as an Explorer is a riveting travelogue.

The story continues, in part, with Fritz Muhlenweg. He was working as a young accountant with the new German airline, Lufthansa, when he was posted to Hedin’s expedition (Lufthansa’s interest was a proposed Peking-Berlin air route). He made three trips to Mongolia before settling into a career as a painter and writer.

Muhlenweg’s reverence for Mongolian culture is palpable in the tale that was inspired by his travels, and few books provide a deeper sense of place.  There are yurts, camel caravans, dunes, tamarisk trees, roasted barley, and language (try “zook, zook” if you want your camel to kneel). This is the backdrop that gives texture and depth to an adventure story that quietly enthralls. Two 12-year old boys, one European and one Chinese, go kite-flying in Peking and end up as secret couriers for General Wu. They embark on a 1,500 mile mission to Urumchi, on the far side of the Gobi Desert, by train, truck, horse, camel, and foot.  They encounter lamas, honorable bandits, dishonorable thieves, shepherds, traders, soldiers, warlords, wild monks, a nomadic girl, and a black poodle who have names like Dog, Sevenstars, Good Fortune, Affliction, Moonlight, and Thunderbolt. There is an evil villain named Greencoat and his nemesis, an outlaw king referred to as The Venerable Chief, a kind of Mongolian Robin Hood, and there is a hidden treasure in an abandoned desert city. Apart from the villain, who is irredeemably wicked, the characters are nuanced. Muhlenweg is sympathetic to even the roughest scallywags and in his hands they tend to rise to the occasion to reveal a hidden goodness.

 

 

 

 

Grandpa Toad’s Secrets

 

Grandpa Toad’s Secrets by Keiko Kasza

1995

Illustrated by Keiko Kasza

Funny picture books run the gamut: they can be zany, sly, silly, ironic, clever, joyful, nonsensical, slapstick. The responses they elicit run a comparable gamut. Surprisingly, there are relatively few great ones that elicit gleeful laugh-out-loud delight. Punch in New York, Lottie’s New Beach Towel, and Max’s Chocolate Chicken are three. A fourth is Grandpa Toad’s Secrets.

Grandpa Toad and Little Toad walk through the forest. Confronted by a hungry snake, Grandpa Toad blows himself up to balloon size and the snake, intimidated, slinks away. He then outwits a hungry snapping turtle by tempting him with the prospect of a snake feast in lieu of a measly toad snack. But when he happens upon a humongous monster, Grandpa Toad freezes and he gets snatched up for the makings of a toad sandwich. Little Toad, in a genius move, grabs red berries from a plant and pelts the brute. Looking down with horror on the red spots erupting on his legs and tail, the monster drops Grandpa Toad and runs.

This never fails: kids find this uproariously funny. There is the intrinsic delight in the child besting the monster, but the glee comes from the simplicity of the weapon – with harmless berries, Little Toad deceives the monster into believing himself mortally poisoned. Keiko Kasza’s watercolor illustrations capture Little Toad shivering with fear in his hiding place, then emboldened with outrage as he throws the berry grenades.   Toads (like chickens) are intrinsically funny so the author chose her protagonist well.

Kasza has written and illustrated almost twenty books, many of which involve a victim outwitting a foe through cleverness. My Lucky Day is one of the most inspired. A piglet arrives at the door of a fox. He enjoys a warm soapy bath (to get nice and clean), a filling meal with fresh cookies (to get fattened up), and a massage (to get tenderized). The fox, exhausted by his ministrations, falls asleep, leaving the rejuvenated piglet to skip off in eager anticipation of tricking his next carnivore.

 

The Box of Delights

 

 

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The Box of Delights or When the Wolves Were Running by John Masefield

1935

Illustrated by Judith Masefield

John Masefield’s upbringing reads like something out of Dickens. Orphaned at a young age (his mother died in childbirth, his father in an asylum), he was taken in by a domineering and despised aunt who quickly packed him off to a boarding school where he was miserable and then to a maritime school (on the HMS Conway) where he was more miserable still. After weathering (badly) a month-long ice storm of51Z5+yo35bL._AC_UL320_SR208,320_f Cape Horn, he landed in a Chilean hospital with sunstroke and a nervous breakdown before being deemed unfit and sent home. His aunt arranged for his next apprenticeship on a ship out of New York. Masefield failed to report for duty and, age 16, became a vagabond in America, determined to be a writer. The high point of his teen sailing years must have been the sighting of a lunar rainbow. Despite his traumatic experiences on ocean voyages, he is best known for his poems Sea-Fever (“I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky….”) and Cargoes (“Quinquereme of Ninevah from distant Ophir/ Rowing home to haven in Sunny Palestine.”) He was a prolific writer – of poems, novels, and plays – and was celebrated in the U.K. where he was Poet Laureate for almost forty years. Along the way, he
wrote the two Kay Harker books for children, The Midnight Folk (1927) and The Box of Delights (1935), and these are strange gems indeed.

Kay Harker, like the author, is an orphan. Returning to his home and guardian for the winter holidays, he encounters a Punch and Judy showman on a station platform. This is Cole Hawlings, who gives Kay a message to deliver (“The Wolves are Running”) and the Box of Delights for safekeeping. The Box can make Kay swift or small, as well as open doors to the past. All of which comes in handy as he grapples with the nefarious and mercurial Abner Brown and his gang – their standard disguise is in the ecclesiastical robes of seminarians, but they can also morph into wolves or pirates or dive-bombing toy airplanes. The Brotherhood scrobbles (kidnaps) the Punch and Judy man, Kay’s beloved guardian, his friends Maria and Peter, the Bishop of Tatchester, and all the cathedral staff down to the choir boys. At the denouement, as the water is rising menacingly in the dungeon cells, it is up to Kay to overcome the sinister villains. And he must do so in time for the Christmas Eve celebration at the Tatchester Cathedral to take place at midnight.

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The book is richly complex with an inspired confusion of elements. There are unicorn-drawn sleighs, stags, talking rats and mice, fairies, Roman legionnaires, jousting knights, Christmas parties, carol singers, incompetent police inspectors, and innocent diversions like building snowmen or sailing toy ships a la Christopher Columbus. It’s an unusual mix but it all combines to create an odd off-kilter universe that accommodates the real world and the fantastic. Kay is the unflappable center – good natured, matter-of-factly courageous, intrepid, honorable, decent. Masefield’s genius was to combine Magic and Crime. What other master jewel thief can you think of who could collapse his soothsaying boy assistant (his head telescoping into his chest) to punish him for insolence?

Masefield, with his poet’s eye, was a master of atmospherics. Try this.

“It was a dark, lowering afternoon, with a whine in the wind, and little dry pellets of snow blowing horizontally. In the gutters, these had begun to fall into little white layers and heaps….. Kay went on alone into the street. He thought that he had never been out in a more evil-looking afternoon. The marketplace had emptied, people had packed their booths, and wheeled away their barrows. As he went down towards Dr. Gubbinses, the carved beasts in the woodwork of the old houses seemed crouching against the weather. Darkness was already closing in. There was a kind of glare in the evil heaven. The wind moaned about the lanes. All the sky above the roofs was grim with menace, and the darkness of the afternoon gave a strangeness to the fire-light that glowed in the many windows.”

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There is an uneasy eerie undercurrent of the ominous, the sinister, the creepy that runs through the story, but there are also passages of innocent delight. When read in December, it is a book that will give the reader the fantods on a wintry evening (as Peter would say) but also be a joyful harbinger of Christmas celebrations.

The endpapers and the diminutive illustrations, provided by Masefield’s daughter, reflect this odd and original tone.

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Aside:

“Jolly good chaps, the Romans,” Kay said.

“Oh, I don’t know, said Peter. “They were rather a mouldy lot. They were lucky chaps not to have to learn Latin grammar, but to know it naturally.”

Along Came a Dog

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Along Came a Dog by Meindert Dejong

1958

Illustrated by Maurice Sendak

Along Came a Dog is the unlikely story of a man, a homeless dog, and a little red hen. On the first day of spring, the man enters the hen house and greets the red hen, a bright and adventurous creature when compared to the timid bird-brained white chickens and the unimaginative rooster. The little red hen’s toes have frozen and fallen off during the cold winter and she is left with an awkward ungainly gait that makes her the target of the flock’s nastiness. The man fashions rubber flippers and sews them onto his jacket: when he plants the hen’s knuckle bones into the socket holes, she can perch on his shoulder. A black stray dog, meek and starving, appears in the barnyard and becomes the little red hen’s protector. Twice banished by the man, he twice manages to find his way back to continue his mission as the hen’s guardian. By the end, he earns himself the gratitude of the man and the home he so craves.

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Dejong’s style appears simple, deceptively so. No breathless prose here – Dejong’s Dutch Calvinist background is evidenced by straightforward plots, methodically written. Behind the plain-spokenness, however, is an uncanny ability to convey the essence of character, whether it be the stupidity and meanness of a flock of chickens or the cringing self-effacement of a miserable dog desperate for an owner. In DeJong’s books, the overriding sense is one of honesty.

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In a long and prolific career, Meindert DeJong was repeatedly acknowledged for his unusual gift as a writer for children. He was the first American (he immigrated to Michigan from Holland at the age of eight) to be honored with the Hans Christian Andersen Award. He set a record when he was awarded one Newberry Medal and four Newberry Honors in a five year stretch. The Newberry Medal went to The Wheel on the School, a story of a group of young children in a Dutch village who wonder why the storks have disappeared and carry out a plan to attract their return. The Newberry Honors went to Shadrach, Hurry Home Candy, The House of Sixty Fathers, and Along Came a Dog. A decade later, he received the National Book Award for Journey from Peppermint Street.

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The Children of Green Knowe

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The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston

1954

Illustrated by Peter Boston

“A little boy was sitting in the corner of a railway carriage looking out at the rain, which was splashing against the windows and blotching downward in an ugly dirty way. He was not the only person in the carriage, but the others were strangers to him. He was alone as usual. There were two women opposite him, a fat one and a thin one, and they talked without stopping, smacking their lips in between sentences and seeming to enjoy what they said as much as if it were something to eat. They were knitting all the time, and whenever the train stopped the click-clack of their needles was loud and clear like two clocks. It was a stopping train – more stop than go – and it had been crawling along through flat flooded country for a long time. Everywhere there was water – not sea or rivers or lakes, but just senseless flood water with the rain splashing into it. Sometimes the railway lines were covered by it, and then the train noise was quite different, softer than a boat.”

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So begins The Children of Green Knowe. And already we are witness to a rare exquisite prose and a gift for conveying character, describing nature, and creating mood. Lucy Boston penned this, her first manuscript, at the age of 62, and she proceeded to write six volumes of the Green Knowe chronicles, inspired by the 12th century Norman house that was her home.

Tolly is en route from his lonely boarding school existence to spend the Christmas holidays with his great grandmother in the ancient castle of Green Knowe. Mrs Oldknow provides the kindness, wisdom, and solace that is lacking in his life, his father and step-mother being off in remote Burma. She shares with him the stories of three children who lived at Green Knowe in the 17th century, and gradually Toby, Alexander, and Linnet come to people Tolly’s world. Lucy Boston is able to convey perfectly the palpable richness that accompanies the spirit children, even when they are invisible and silent, contrasted with the flat emptiness when they are absent.

The beautiful blend of reality and fantasy that is introduced in The Children of Green Knowe is continued in The Treasure of Green Knowe, every bit as good as the first. This time “the others”, who come from the turn of the 19th century, are Susan, a young girl blind from birth, and Jacob, a slave boy from Barbados brought to England to be her eyes. The Green Knowe chronicles, with their breathtaking writing, are a treasure of children’s literature, and it is a shame that they are so little known.

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Box:   “At one side there was a beautiful old rocking horse – not a “safety” rocking horse hanging on iron swings from a centre shaft, but a horse whose legs were stretched to full gallop, fixed to long rockers so that it could, if you rode it violently, both rear and kick.”

Box: “At school he was learning to ride real horses. They were not, alas, at all like Feste, Toby’s horse. Their coats were not shining silk but rough like railway upholstery, and when one patted them, clouds of dust came out.”

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The Story of Little Black Sambo

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The Story of Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman

1899

Illustrated by Helen Bannerman

Of the 100’s or 1000’s of picture books that a child is read in childhood, few make a permanent imprint. Enjoyed in the moment, they disappear like an Etch-a-Sketch picture when the book is closed. Every once in a while there is one that creates an indelible image and The Story of Little Black Sambo is one of these few. Read at the age of 3 or 5, many adults remember decades later the surreal scene of the tigers joined mouth to tail, whirling around the palm tree so fast that their bodies blur and they melt into butter. It is this remarkable scene that anchors the story in memory.

Helen Bannerman grew up in Madeira where she was home schooled, along with her six siblings, by her father, a minister who was more interested in the natural history of mollusks (his passion) than in his parishioners. After her marriage, she spent 30 years in India where her husband, a physician, devoted himself to combating bubonic plague. She wrote and illustrated The Story of Little Black Sambo for the amusement of her two young daughters, never imagining it for publication. Alice Boyd, a friend who was going on home leave, persuaded Bannerman to relinquish her manuscript. Unfortunately, Mrs. Boyd sold the copyright to a publisher for 5 pounds, contrary to Bannerman’s instructions, thus robbing the author of considerable financial rewards as well as control over subsequent editions.

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The book was an immediate success in 1899 and continues to fascinate children a century later. The hero is a joyous character who combines bravery with artless ingenuity when confronted with four fierce tigers who are ultimately brought low by hubris. Bannerman wrote and drew with effortless simplicity, a quality that she applied to ten subsequent books. Her first remains her masterpiece.

The Story of Little Black Sambo is set in India and has Indian characters, but the illustrators of the many unauthorized editions often relocated the story to the American South or to Africa, sometimes with offensive caricatures in the picaninny or golliwog style. Accusations of racism in the 1960’s and 1970’s resulted in the book being banned from many libraries. Revised and rewritten editions appeared with renamed characters, altered locales, and self-consciously respectful images. Although these books were perhaps motivated by good intentions, they are singularly lacking. For the magic, seek out the original.

There is a certain randomness to outrage and censorship: take a look at Dr. Seuss’s If I Ran the Zoo or Jean de Brunhoff’s The Travels of Babar, both of which remain on library shelves with nary a whisper.

 

 

Black Beauty

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Black Beauty: The Autobiography of a Horse by Anna Sewell

1887

Black Beauty chronicles the life of a horse in Victorian England, from birth to final home. Born into the world of the landed gentry, he works as a riding and carriage horse until a drunken coachman recklessly gallops him to a fall, thus irrevocably damaging his knees. In an inexorable downward spiral, he is sold from one owner to the next until he ends up as a London cab horse, whipped by a cruel driver who pushes him past the limits of endurance until he drops in his traces. By a fortuitous twist, he is sold to someone who perceives his good blood lines and he ends up not far from his ancestral home, cared for by a coachman who had looked after him when they were both young.

Written in 1887, Anna Sewell intended her book “to induce kindness, sympathy, and an understanding treatment of horses”. She wrote it as an instructional treatise for those who worked with horses, rather than a children’s book. After working on it for six years while a housebound invalid, she sold it to a publisher for 20 pounds and it had an initial run of 100 books. It has since sold over 50 million copies and has never been out of print, a run-away success that was wholly unanticipated. Sewell, unfortunately, never witnessed her success, since she died only a few months after publication. Her aims were certainly realized, however, since Black Beauty was instrumental in effecting improvements in the treatment of horses and in the abolition of the use of bearing reins, a cruel practice in vogue at the time which forced carriage horses to keep their heads high.

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Black Beauty was written as a first-person (or rather first-horse) narrative and it is a tribute to Anna Sewell’s knowledge and sensitivity that she so realistically and empathetically captures both the pleasures and tribulations of a horse. Every reader can feel Black Beauty’s distress when the cold bit is forced into his mouth when he is broken in, or Ginger’s angry desperation at having her head pulled back tight by the bearing reins. It is this getting inside the experience of a horse that is the book’s real strength. And Anna Sewell’s earnest sermonizing (her Quaker background and anti-temperance activities are much in evidence) is interspersed with enough exciting adventures (the broken flooded bridge over which Black Beauty refuses to take his master, the fire in the stable, the midnight ride for the doctor, the lady on a runaway horse) to keep children enthralled.