I remember my junior-high library well. The low building with lots of windows. The tables and chairs where I spent many an hour poring over favorite books. The shelves from which I checked out certain books over and over again, especially those written by the authors I loved. One of the authors who especially captured my heart all those long years ago was Marguerite Henry of Misty of Chincoteague fame.
Henry made a career out of writing books about horses for young readers. When I was growing up, mostly in the 1970s, it seemed almost a given that a girl in the 9-11 year old age range would love horses, whether she’d ever seen one up-close or not. I lived in the suburbs, nowhere near a farm, but Marguerite Henry had me convinced that horses were the most intelligent, noblest creatures who ever lived.
She still convinces me of that every time I re-read one of her books. I’ve been re-reading several of them lately with my nine year old daughter. She’s not horse crazy like her mom was (the craze doesn’t seem to have persisted, or perhaps our much more urban address has something to do with it) and yet she too has fallen under the spell of Henry’s books. It’s hard not to since they’re written with such descriptive charm and simple joy.
Although a number of Henry books remain close to my heart, I’m still especially fond of the Misty series. These are a series of books set on Chincoteague Island off the coast of Virginia. The main characters are a brother and sister, Paul and Maureen Beebe, who live with their grandparents. The Beebes own Pony Ranch, and every year they take part in the annual pony-penning of the wild ponies on Assateague Island (a real event). One year they capture a wild mare and her foal Misty, and they end up keeping Misty and bringing her up as their own. That’s the story of the original book in the series that bears Misty’s name. But other books followed, including Stormy: Misty’s Foal, and Sea Star: Orphan of Chincoteague.
Sea Star is a particularly beautiful entry in the series, and one that I’m surprised I didn’t remember. I think I must have read it once upon a time. One good thing about middle-aged memory, I guess, is that it allows you revisit some childhood books as though you’re reading them for the first time!
Paul and Maureen love Misty dearly. She’s a member of the family, a fact attested to in the second book when Misty got moved into the kitchen during a terrible storm. Any young readers who fell in love with the Misty, the Beebe family, and Pony Ranch during the first two books will be completely unprepared – and quite possibly dismayed – to find that some men have come from the mainland to purchase Misty. They want to make a film about her and take her on tour to share her with children all over the country, especially children who have never had the pleasure of meeting a real live horse.
Despite Paul and Maureen’s altruistic natures, and the appeal of seeing Misty as an ambassador for their island (and equines everywhere!) their first response is to say no. Only when they discover that by selling Misty they can help their Uncle go to college do Paul and Maureen decide it’s the right thing to do. Still, it just about breaks their hearts – and written in Henry’s heartwarming prose, it just about breaks the reader’s heart too.
That’s why it’s so providential, and so gently miraculous, when Paul and Maureen find an orphan pony the day after Misty leaves home. Left behind in the excitement of Pony Penning Day, the beautiful little creature with the white star on his head is as wild as the sea foam. Paul and Maureen capture him, gentle him, and bring him home. Their grandparents are charmed with their discovery. Just when it looks as though everything is set, and Paul and Maureen have a new member of the family, they realize they have a problem. Sea Star had not yet been weaned from his mother, and he’s refusing to eat. Could there be another blessing in the seeming coincidence of a wounded mare, caught during Pony Penning, whose baby has just been separated from her for sale? Will Paul and Maureen, with the help of their grandfather, be able to get these two wild creatures to bond before it’s too late?
I think what makes Sea Star so lovely is the music of its prose. Henry has a delicate, detailed hand when it comes to description, and an especially fine ear for dialogue. Paul and Maureen and their grandparents talk like Chincoteague Islanders, an interesting kind of dialect. I’ve never heard it in person, and yet Henry captures it so well on the page that I find I can “hear” it as I read. I love reading these books aloud because it’s so easy to create believable voices for the characters. The fact that they were based on real people that Henry spent time with (she also knew the real Misty) may have something to do with their authenticity, though her artistry seems to be a bigger part of the equation. Wesley Dennis’ beautiful pencil drawings also add a great deal to these stories, and somehow seem to be a perfectly natural fit with Henry’s words.
Although the horses and the islands themselves are the story’s center, Paul stands at the heart of everything. Maureen’s role is almost equal to his, but I still give Paul the edge as a protagonist. Still, the inclusion of both a boy and a girl in such central roles (and the development of their sibling relationship) makes Sea Star, and the other books in the series, excellent choices for both boy and girl mid-grade readers.
I’m so glad to be sharing Marguerite Henry with a new generation!
Sea Star: Orphan of Chincoteague
originally published 1949
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