Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Secret Horses of Briar Hill by Megan Shepherd illustrated by Levi Pinfold

"It was late summer when I first arrived at Briar Hill.  Sister Constance took me straight to her office and removed the identification tag pinned to my coat. While she made notes in a ledger, I tried to smooth my tufts of hair in the mirror above her desk. Then completely out of nowhere, completely without warning, a winged horse clomped straight through the mirror-doorway, prim as anything, tail held high, as though Sister Constance's office was the exact place he was looking for."

Some things to notice in the quote above - pieces of this story puzzle.

  • Sister Constance - she is a nun and these women are caring for the children who have been sent far from their homes. They are efficient but also distant.
  • Identification tag - yes think of World War II and the evacuated children.
  • Tufts of hair - Emmaline is ill but there is something more - she has other injuries which I won't explain here lest I spoil the story.
  • The winged horses - no one else it seems can see them - why do they show themselves to Emmaline?

Emmaline sees the winged horses in all the manor house mirrors but she also finds one in the garden and this one has a broken wing.  She gradually gains the trust of this magnificent creature and in one exhilarating scene is even able to ride her.  Emmaline receives a note from the mysterious Horse Lord.  He warns Emmaline that Foxfire is in great danger.  She must be protected from the Black Horse.  The only way to do this is to surround Foxfire with all the colours of the rainbow.

"These objects will create a spectral shield that will hide her from him even during the brightest full moon. I beg you to accept this mission of utmost importance."

Now the race is on.  The full moon is only weeks away.  Emmaline is growing weaker.   Emmaline and all the other children have 'stillwaters' or tuberculosis.  The seriousness of their illness is indicated with a series of tags which are attached to the doors of their rooms.  Blue for patients who are well enough to go outside for exercise and fresh air.  Yellow for those who must stay indoors and Red for those too ill to leave their beds.  Emmaline is given a yellow ticket by Dr Turner but she is desperate to get outside.  She must visit Foxfire.

Her movements are restricted.  The air is filled with fear of the war.  It is now Winter and the world is cold and grey.  It seems almost impossible to find all the colours.  Emmaline has a true friend at Briar Hill.  A girl named Anna.  Anna has a set of pencils and these colours become a guide for Emmaline.  I love this list :

245 - Carmine Red
348 - Blush Pink
479 - Tangerine Orange
563 - Canary Yellow
656 - Emerald Green
781 - Sea Turquoise
868 - Lapis Blue
935 - Heliotrope Purple

Emmaline also needs to befriend the lonely man who works at Briar Hill. He has lost an arm and is quiet and withdrawn. The other children have invented horror stories about Thomas but Emmaline observes him and she is able to uncover the truth. He can also see her horses.  Tension builds as she adds each colour to the bushes surrounding Foxfire.

The Secret Horses of Briar Hill is a complex book with wonderful illustrations. Huge thanks go to a young reader in my school library who shared this book with me.  An interesting discussion point might be all the references to colour in this book which contrast with the gentle black and white pencil illustrations. An older student with reading stamina will be richly rewarded when they step into Emmaline's world at Briar Hill Hospital.   You might also enjoy The Loblolly boy by James Norcliffe,  Angel Creek by Sally Rippin or The unfinished Angel by Sharon Creech.

The right readers will love this to piecesKirkus

Does Emmaline really see the horses, or are they in her imagination? Shepherd effortlessly weaves together fact and fantasy in this poignant novel. Kids Reads

Emmaline is a brave child with a fierce imagination and a formidable strength of character. Misunderstood and alone, she tugs at our heart strings as she battles against her illness. The Book Bag

"She tears through the gate. Her muscles are rippling beneath my legs, her quicksilver hooves pounding the frozen ground. I gasp with the thrill of it. The fields streak around us and I lean into the bitter cold wind. If she is this fast running, what must she be like flying? I think she could outfly the Germans if she wanted to. She could certainly outfly the Black Horse."

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