The unique characteristic of the "Animal stories" genre is that main character is usually an animal. For their authors, the literary challenge is to win over the human reader by identifying with and developing empathy for the dog, horse, or etc. To what degree the author accomplishes this is the litmus test as to how successful and enduring the story or novel will be. In regards to real cowboy Will James and his Smoky The Cowhorse published in 1926, I can't quibble with either the Newbery Medal committee's decision or what the New York Times concluded, "There have been many horse stories...but not one of them can compare with this book." The author's own memorable forty-two pen and ink sketches have, no doubt, contributed in capturing generations of readers.
Smoky follows the standard formula of animal stories beginning with the protagonist as a wild or abandoned pup or colt. Next, as the animal grows up, it is endangered by a series of suspenseful and perilous events but survives. The reader is then introduced to a human protector or master and a bond and loyalty develop. Unfortunately, because of fate and circumstances, this happy human/animal relationship is abruptly interrupted. The animal suffers difficulties, or maltreatment and abuse from bad humans--tension is heightened and, if the author has been effective, readers vicariously share and experience the predicament--we anxiously keep turning the heart plucking pages desperate for Smoky's rescue.
Surely because of Smoky's free loving spirit and big heart, he will persevere and prevail? But how can he escape from the clutches of bad humans? Will he be rescued and reunited with his cowboy companion, Clint? Yes! Yes! Although worn and battered, Smoky is unbowed. He and Clint rekindle and rediscover the bond between them because "The heart of Smoky had come to life again, and full size."
In the era of "horror" and "fantasy" genre dominance, "animal stories" acquisitions or collection targeting is probably a low priority especially if you've already got the standard titles like Black Beauty, Lassie, Cherokeee Bill, Old Yeller, Winn Dixie, Flicka, the Jim Kjelgaard and Walter Farley books, and etc--perhaps, even James's other horse novels. However, it might be time for an animal shelf update--did you have the 1986 Warhorse book when the the movie came out? How about Wilson's Firehorse (2005), the Alison Hart and Jane Smiley horse books, or the terse and tough Coal Black Horse (2007) (see Abookandahug.com reviews)? I am getting circulation out of Peyton's Blind Beauty (2005) and Blood Red Horse (2005) by Grant. And don't dismiss the old classics such as Lad (1919), Bob, Son Of Battle (1898), Silver Chief (1933) or James Oliver Curwood's Kazan & Baree. If your predecessors weeded them, reprints are available.
Granted, the animal stories genre is low profile and on the book review back burner. However, my guess is after another 86 years there will still be plenty of FFA students, wishful wranglers, future vets or James Herriot wannabes, and animal lovers anxious to rescue and ride this lovable mouse colored horse. (bronc riding, horse training)
336 pages 978-1416949411 Ages 11 and up
Recommended by Robert L. Hicks, Arkansas City High School Librarian, Arkansas City, Kansas USA
Smoky knows only one way of life: freedom. Living on the open range, he is free to go where he wants and to do what he wants. And he knows what he has to do to survive. He can beat any enemy, whether it be a rattlesnake or a hungry wolf. He is as much a part of the Wild West as it is of him, and Smoky can't imagine anything else.
But then he comes across a new enemy, one that walks on two legs and makes funny sounds. Smoky can't beat this enemy the way he has all the others. But does he really want to? Or could giving up some of his freedom mean getting something in return that's even more valuable?--from the publisher