I don't have many regrets from my very happy childhood. But one thing I do still wistfully wish, from time to time, is that I'd had an opportunity to go to Assateague Island when I was a little girl.
That's because I was in love with the books of Marguerite Henry, an author well known for her beloved horse stories. One of her most classic is Misty of Chincoteague, which won a Newbery Honor in 1948. I loved the book in my own childhood, and recently had a chance to revisit this book when I read it aloud to my seven year old. It has definitely stood the test of time.
Assateague, and its sister island of Chincoteague, are small islands that lie of the eastern shores of Virginia and Maryland. Among other things, they're home to wild ponies, believed to be descendants of ponies from a shipwrecked Spanish galleon. Henry relates the legend in the prelude to Misty, but most of the book is devoted to a current-day (1940s) story about Paul and Maureen, two young siblings. They live on Chincoteague Island with their grandparents, who own a horse farm. Paul and Maureen are determined to capture and raise their own wild pony on Assateague Island's annual pony penning day.
The kids have got their hopes and hearts set on Phantom, the wildest of the wild ponies, whom no one believes can ever be caught. Unknown to the islanders, however, this year, the year that Paul is finally old enough to ride with the men on pony penning day, Phantom is indeed catchable. That's because she's got a brand new foal, a beautiful silver-gray filly whom Paul and Maureen name Misty.
Henry's beautiful tale is based on a true story. Her respect for the islands -- both the wild ponies and the people who live there and love them -- is evident throughout. Her descriptions of the islands, and especially of the wild ponies running free through the marshy grasses, are vivid and make you long to be there. I felt that way when I was ten. I still felt that way reading the book now.
The story itself is a simple though beautiful one. And though adults might find its main lesson fairly obvious (if you love a wild creature enough, setting that creature free might be the kindest and best thing you can do) the getting there is pure joy. It also may be the place where many children first encounter this simple profundity for the first time. I think it was for me.
I also want to put in a plug to honor this book as a great read-aloud. I've been reading a lot of books aloud in recent years -- well, I've always read a lot aloud, but since having my daughter almost eight years go, family read-aloud time has increased! When a book works particularly well when read aloud, I like to mention it. Henry not only writes detailed and fascinating descriptions of places, people and animals, but manages to infuse her dialogue with a real authentic ring. Some of that dialogue/dialect might be a bit tricky for young readers tackling this as an independent read, which is another reason I think doing this one as a family read-aloud, and emphasizing the various voices, might really help to bring this wonderful book to life.
The children sound like kids, and their conversations are infused with the passions of childhood, especially their shared love for the wild ponies:
"If you look close," he (Paul) whispered, "you can see that the wild critters have 'No Trespassing' signs tacked up on every pine tree."
And the adults, especially those who have spent their lives on Chincoteague like Paul and Maureen's Grandpa, have their own vivid way of speaking:
"Yer know," he went on, and he began to rub the bristles of his ear, as he always did when he was happy. "Yer know, the best thing about havin' fourteen head of children is ye're bound to get one or two good grandchildren outen the lot."
The love between the children and their grandparents is just one more aspect of the book I really enjoy, and yet another one that keeps the book fresh.
While recently following a poll that ranked readers' favorite children's books of all time, I was saddened that none of Marguerite Henry's books made the top 100. I had felt sure that Misty of Chincoteague would be there. Based on comments I saw about the poll, some other readers felt the same way. Perhaps her books are going through an "out of fashion" season (realistic animal stories did not, in general, fare well in this particular poll) but I can't help believing they will come back around again. Good stories usually do, and Misty most certainly fits that category.
Misty of Chincoteague
by Marguerite Henry
originally published 1947 by Rand MacNally
Newbery Honor book 1948
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