Literary scholars and historians of the future will, I think, have a lot to say about the sea-change in young adult fiction marked by the Harry Potter series. I am, technically, of the “first” Harry Potter generation, and this means that I have some memory of what things were like before — the sort of stuff we kids read, or were expected to read.
Now, granted, we might say Harry Potter is in some sense a culmination of the more ambitious strains of YA (I’m thinking here of HP’s most immediate antecedent, K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs) and post-HP we’ve seen YA lit orbit around similar themes: systemic oppression, war, and so on. Part of this is because HP (quite ingeniously) was plotted to age with its first generation of readers, accompanying them into early adulthood. I recall reading Deathly Hallows the summer after my high school graduation with a great sense of finality about quite a number of things.
What this built-in aging process also meant was that, as the books scaled up, so did their readership, with significant crossover with adults as the books matured. From these two perspectives — adult and young adult — the epic sensibilities of Harry Potter are perfect: they guide the younger reader into thinking more critically and seriously about the world, and they allow the older reader an escapism that nevertheless feels relevant to “adult” concerns. I’m not saying HP is revolutionary or that it hasn’t warped the minds of a certain sort of person who is now incapable of thinking of politics outside of Voldemort analogies — indeed, the politics of the series are tepid at best — but I think it’s a fact that HP caught on the way it did precisely because of this long structural gambit within the confines of YA lit.
The series that have followed Harry Potter, the most successful of these being Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, have all taken to heart the speculative paradigm HP started. Whereas everything was once magicians and myths and magic, there was a turn toward the future, dystopia, and science fiction. The uniting factor is that YA lit — the most popular elements of it, at least — are resoundingly generic, in the nerdy sense. What we might forget here — what I remember from a time before Harry Potter — is the mode of young adult fiction that we might call “social realist.”
Before the speculative turn YA was rife with series — less meticulously plotted, designed to extend indefinitely in the manner of Japanese shonen manga — that were above all geared toward highly specific audiences with very particular interests in a fairly down-to-earth way. I’m thinking here of Anne M. Martin’s The Baby-Sitters Club or Sweet Valley High, which use the (inter)personal lives of a cast of characters in a soap-opera-esque format to investigate a streamlined and dramatized version of their projected readers’ social reality, while also occasionally interfacing with things like divorce, peer pressure, or having diabetes.
Notably my key examples here — and the example I will discuss later in this essay, Glory in Danger, part of Joanna Campbell’s Thoroughbred series — are definitely gendered feminine. These are stories about social conflict solved through the navigation of personal relationships and interior emotional states, which of course grubby little boys don’t care about at all (he said, having read multiple Baby-Sitters Club books). I want to bring this up because I don’t think this is a necessary precondition for this sort of fiction, but simply the way the market played out along pre-gendered lines. Indeed, what makes something like Animorphs work is the way it combines these emotional concerns with the parameters of its larger adventure story (rather than “what do you do when your parents are getting divorced?” the question becomes “what would you do if your mom was an alien war criminal?”). YA has often been troubled by the fact that certain types of books are “for girls” while everything else, rather than being just “for boys,” is often seen as “for everyone” — hence why Katherine Applegate and Joanne Rowling had to masculinize their names for market appeal.
Enter Joanna Campbell’s Thoroughbred Series, which is essentially Sweet Valley High but for girls who love horses rather than classroom drama. This makes it distinct from Jeanne Betancourt’s Pony Pals, which is more like the Baby-Sitters Club. Anyway, the book I read in Campbell’s series is the 16th, Glory in Danger, written by Karen Bentley (the other thing about these old series: the brand and concept were often developed by a single writer and then continued by a series of ghostwriters). When I say the Thoroughbred series is like Sweet Valley High, what I mean is an inordinate amount of the plot is given over to the various alliances, jealousies, and problems faced by a young girl on a racehorse farm near Lexington, Kentucky.
The book — in a phrase — is confusing as hell. The reason for this is because there are so many named characters that I literally had to start keeping notes, and then I stopped keeping notes because the book is only 170 pages long and most of these characters don’t do anything despite being continuously referenced.
This is partly on me, since I came in at book 16 and most of the characters discussed are established more fully in earlier volumes. Nevertheless, the book is also continually trying to remind and/or inform the reader about things that have previously happened. I’m going to do my best to give you the elevator pitch of this book’s plot, along with some of the series background.
Glory in Danger is about a twelve-year-old girl named Cindy Blake McClean, who lives with her family on Whitebrook Farm, surrounded by various equine professionals and personnel. Cindy’s best friend is a racehorse named March to Glory, or “Glory” for short, and she is allowed not only to groom but occasionally ride this racehorse despite being twelve. Racehorses are some of the most expensive animals in the world and the absurdity of this kid being allowed to just casually take him out for trail rides is a bit of poetic license which we’ll accept for the purposes of the premise.
The plot of the book, insofar as there is one, is that Glory is doing particularly well in his races and is a strong contender for winning the Belmont. The equestrian world is all abuzz, until he tests positive for procaine, a light anesthetic often used to dull the pain of penicillin shots for horses and which, because it reduces the animal’s sensation of muscle strain, also is illicitly used for performance enhancement. Since Glory wasn’t scheduled for a shot, this is suspicious to Cindy and her family, but meanwhile everyone else thinks they’ve drugged the horse intentionally. Later, when Glory somehow ingests heroin, it becomes clear that someone is working to sabotage Whitebrook and possibly kill Glory. But who?
Part of the reason there are so many characters is, I think, so we can have plenty of suspects. But also, there are so many characters because there are just a fuckton of characters. The plot I just described to you encompasses probably the last fifty pages of the book; the other 120 is set-dressing and buildup. So here’s the deal: Cindy, it is mentioned in passing early on, is an orphan. She apparently ran away from an abusive foster home (the specifics here are never touched upon) and apparently… ended up hiding out at Whitebrook, or something. At any rate she was eventually adopted by the Whitebrook trainer and his wife.
Parallel to all this (or maybe just after? it’s unclear), Cindy also noticed some men abusing a very fine colt, somehow, somewhere. Through some prior-book hijinks, she eventually 1) got these men arrested, and 2) discovered that this colt was part of a prized bloodline and was actually stolen from his rightful owners. This colt is none other than March to Glory himself, and it’s made explicit that Cindy feels kinship with the animal because of their similar backgrounds.
Anyway, the rightful owners of the horse are from a neighboring farm that’s fallen on hard times, but they’re eager to restore their names as breeders and so they allow Cindy/Whitebrook to keep and train Glory. Now, also, Whitebrook Farm is in a frosty competition with another farm called Townsend Acres, owned by the wealthy, haughty Brad and Lavinia Townsend, who (it is established early on) tend to see their horses as merely instruments for winning races and more often than not injure them (Lavinia apparently thinks nothing of breaking her horse’s legs while racing recklessly, which again outside the fiction, is absurd given how expensive racing horses are). The reason for this competition is because the Griffens, a family of trainers and riders at Whitebrook, used to work for the Townsends (who, I think, are distantly related to them?) after a viral infection killed all the horses at the Griffens’ farm. It’s not clear how they eventually parted ways, but it was obviously not friendly. Got that? Okay.
I could go on and name the half-dozen or so vets and trainers that also show up in this story but I’m pushing the limits of my remembrance. What we have established, however, are the most important things for this essay, namely, the extent and complexity of the narrative’s interpersonal dynamics, and the fact that the horses are almost always on the verge of utter destruction. For Cindy specifically the precarious health of the horses (and her horse in particular) signifies the contingency she feels underlies her adopted life at Whitebrook, though this is only touched on in passing. More to the point, however, horses in these books become mediators for and sites of human conflict.
So already we see a slight turn from what I earlier theorized about the animal as a locus of transhistorical affect in children’s fiction; the horses in these books act more or less like horses, never speaking, demanding treats, showing affection to the people who groom them. At the same time, however, horses embody affect and materialize social relations. Caring for horses and racing them is the most important thing in the world. All the characters constantly launch into short, unusually informative monologues on, say, what it means when a horse has navicular, or how a horse might metabolize a brick of heroin. Cindy is interviewed by the local paper about her horse, she is constantly allowed time off from school to attend events, and literally every other child who appears in the book (and, in their way, every adult) just cannot stop talking or thinking about horses. That is, the weird melding of human and horse is not just a thing that children do, but a thing everyone does, and a person’s moral character is reliably demonstrated by their attitude toward horses.
The following scene, which occurs shortly after Glory tests positive for procaine, is exemplary:
Cindy noticed the stares they were getting. Most of the looks were openly cold and hostile. She couldn’t believe how quickly Glory had gone from being the wonder horse to being in total disgrace.
“Well, now we know how March to Glory ran so fast in his first two races,” she heard an older man say.
“The trainer probably uses drugs, too,” said his companion, a well-dressed young woman. “He’d have to, or he wouldn’t think of trying something like this.” (97)
Only a human drug user would give a horse drugs! Of course! This is perfect 90s drug PSA logic, and indicates not so much how adults think but how a child might think adults think. With this in mind — that the book is setting out not to replicate reality but build a plausible model for how a twelve year old perceives, or would like to perceive, reality — certain odd aspects of the series become clear. The constant flows of information about people, their histories, and horse diseases are basically reconstructing the world, both for first-time readers and for returning readers. Rather than taking the Harry Potter approach — where the Wizarding World is established and successively elaborated upon in each book — the attraction for the world of Kentucky horse-racing here is not one of escalating discovery, exactly, but one of a kind of level familiarity.
My partner, who read these books as a kid, has told me that this was indeed what was enthralling about them: the dynastic lines sketched as the series progressed (Cindy is the third main character of the series; as the protagonists age they become supporting characters and the next youngest girl becomes the new protagonist) coupled with the horses’ trials and travails provided a sense of continuity and stability alongside the necessary machinery to generate occasional conflict.
Most importantly, however, by keeping the protagonists’ ages locked in at the tweens, the series devises a clever way to make this fictional world seem dynamic and evolving without these changes ever really constituting “aging.”
One of the things YA fiction must do is set up a world wherein the normal structures of and strictures on children’s agency are modified in subtle or not-so-subtle ways. They can do this to greater and lesser degrees. In Harry Potter, for example, adults are generally ignorant or incompetent (unless they’re Dumbledore, in which case they’re letting it all play out According to Plan while looking extremely incompetent and ignorant to the other adult characters). The Hunger Games is built around the idea of the government forcing kids into a Hobbesian war of all where laws no longer apply.
In the world of Thoroughbred, however, rather than making children smarter than adults or forced into exigencies by adults, instead everyone is just a twelve-year-old at heart, because many of the older characters are familiar to the reader as married versions of characters whose points of view they were inhabiting three-to-five books ago. In this sense, Kentucky in this series is like Neverland, if it were crossed with Hogwarts: a weird other-world where different sorts of rules apply, where different feelings and ways of acting and thinking are prized than in the reader’s “real” world. And yet, much like Hogwarts, this is a place weighted with history and lineage, a place that becomes “real” as time passes and narrative accrues; but while the reader presumably ages with the world of Harry Potter (much as one ages with the world one actually lives in) the Thoroughbred series allows one to experience the aging of the world while remaining young.
Eventually, the identity of Glory’s would-be assassin is revealed: it’s the new veterinary assistant who was obviously the culprit from the beginning because he had “cold eyes” and was mean to Cindy. I’m not saying, here, that a kid reading this book wouldn’t know this guy was bad news from the get-go — though a few red herrings suggest the Townsends, in their jealousy, might be involved. And the Townsends at least have a ready motive (they hate Whitebrook), whereas this guy doesn’t. But the final twist is that he is actually the son of one of the men Cindy got sent to jail for stealing and abusing Glory, and his thwarting of Glory’s career is intended as revenge.
By this gesture he is incorporated into the semi-eternal flows of animosity and friendship that the world of this series is built upon. Indeed, the fact that his revenge is to try and kill the horse rather than, say, go after Cindy herself demonstrates exactly how everyone in this story is at heart a twelve-year-old who loves horses — since the worst possible thing that could happen would be for a horse to get hurt.
Despite their lack of epic scope, and the total absence of magic or dystopia, these novels in their way approximate another generic aspect of myth: a natural world, a familiar world, that courses with rhythms of seasons. Glory is saved, thankfully, and within a few books Cindy will have grown up enough to become the jockey she dreams of being. Meanwhile Ashleigh Griffen, the current Whitebrook jockey and the first Thoroughbred protagonist, is pregnant and will soon give birth to another future protagonist.
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