Five Long Years

Image of clock face
Time

It took me a long five years to write BURNED, the Pony Club-based middle grade equestrian mystery now available from ShopPonyClub.org and Amazon.com (Be sure to use the SMILE program and designate Pony Club as the recipient!) Even during the first draft of the book, I knew that capturing Sophie’s voice was going to take a lot of effort.

I have been a twelve-year-old girl, but that was a long time ago. Fortunately, there are a lot of Pony Club members I could use as example of how that age thinks and speaks. Many people think that writing a children’s book is easier than writing for adults. I’ve done both. I can say definitively that writing a child’s point of view is much harder to capture once you’ve gotten to full adulthood. It was discouraging, to write that first draft and find that I had to toss the entire thing. Despite my best effort at the time, Sophie sounded too old for the audience, and not at all like someone I would have liked as a friend. Then there was the story itself.

The original problem I set for Sophie was one that I thought all horse kids would relate to: the possibility of losing her horse, Cricket. She was supposed to figure out how to raise the money for her partial lease, something I know in my heart a Pony Club kid could do. (For one thing, Pony Club families support one another, and I suspect her Club or Center would help her through that financial spot in her life.) But when I pitched that story to editors, many of them said they didn’t believe a 12 year old could raise that kind of cash. Little did they know the support of the horse community, or the resourcefulness of a horse-crazy young woman.

After a Big House editor told me that the problem needed to be world-changing, I faced a choice: toss yet another draft of the book and quit, or try a third time.

Sketch of two children flanking a horse bursting out of a burning barn/
Fire!

I went home and burned down the barn. Not literally of course. I’m rather attached to my barn. But one of the barns in the book caught fire. As much as it hurts me to admit it, that pesky editor was right. It made my pulse race to write that scene. Hard work to write the book from the beginning again, but worth it. BURNED is a much more exciting read with that kind of danger added.

Once I made that change in the plot, instead of raising money being the sole problem, Sophie must also grapple with the question of adults behaving badly. When her mother is accused of wrongdoing, the very real threat to Sophie’s relationship with Cricket becomes secondary to her anxiety about her mom. Fortunately, Sophie has great friends, and the full support of her Uncle Charlie, and her father, even though he lives all the way across the country from Sophie’s home in Maryland.

Sophie is smart, and strong, both outside and in, just like the Pony Club members I work with as a Chief Horse Management Judge. Horsemanship teaches all kinds of mad skills, and I gave Sophie many of the ones I see most: ability to put together facts and come out with a logical answer, resourcefulness, and I also added the loyalty to friends that serves so many of our barn families so very well.

As part of the story, I had to test Sophie. I did that by leaving enough clues about several possible bad guys so that she had to work for the solution to her mom’s problem. When I got to the end of the book, it was a relief to find that she was up for the job.

Young riders reading BURNED.At my recent signing at Championships in Kentucky, several young riders came up to tell me how much they enjoyed the book. They liked Sophie’s resilience and her ability to pick herself up and get back on the horse no matter what happened to her. Just like writing this book three times before I got it right, Pony Club kids try, try, and try again until they succeed.

Julie Herman
MysteryGarden.com

This Blog post originally ran on the Pony Club Pizza, where Pony Club piles on the knowledge.

Pachy-what?

My mother planted pachysandra outside the side door of our house in Louisville. There are two varieties I’ve found available, pachysandra procumbens, native to the Alleghanies — the kind you want to plant — and pachysandra terminalis, which is a lovely plant but which can be invasive if it escapes your beds.

Ours was in a straight bed, one that followed the foundation of our house, and the pachysandra was the first thing that actually grew there for longer than ten minutes. The window to the coal cellar lived smack in the middle of that wall, so the amount of accumulated charcoal was tremendous. (I guess this belies the black earth theory of my previous post!)

I used to love the feathery leaves, dancing to who-knows-what tune as I’d skip out the door to school, or a friend’s house, or up to The Loop for a carton of milk for supper. There were some decorative rocks in the bed with the plants, and occasionally we’d rearrange them like furniture for a different look.

Rabbits nested in our pachysandra after I left home. I got the most exquisite letter from my father  during my freshman year in college detailing the young rabbit’s initial forays into the world outside those leaves. Twitching noses and tentative hops disturbed the foliage, then suddenly, there they were, shooting across the sparse grass under the dogwood where anyone could see them.

It’s a funny thing when your prosaic, way-more-intelligent-than-most father gets all poetic on you. I wasn’t sure where that letter came from, but he followed this with more romanticized musings, all based on things he noticed in the natural world. Animals, plants, weather, stars all equally informed his writing.

Life’s pretty darn short — Go out and plant something — and let the poetic bloom.

Pachy-what?

My mother planted pachysandra outside the side door of our house in Louisville. There are two varieties I’ve found available, pachysandra procumbens, native to the Alleghanies — the kind you want to plant — and pachysandra terminalis, which is a lovely plant but which can be invasive if it escapes your beds.

Ours was in a straight bed, one that followed the foundation of our house, and the pachysandra was the first thing that actually grew there for longer than ten minutes. The window to the coal cellar lived smack in the middle of that wall, so the amount of accumulated charcoal was tremendous. (I guess this belies the black earth theory of my previous post!)

I used to love the feathery leaves, dancing to who-knows-what tune as I’d skip out the door to school, or a friend’s house, or up to The Loop for a carton of milk for supper. There were some decorative rocks in the bed with the plants, and occasionally we’d rearrange them like furniture for a different look.

Rabbits nested in our pachysandra after I left home. I got the most exquisite letter from my father  during my freshman year in college detailing the young rabbit’s initial forays into the world outside those leaves. Twitching noses and tentative hops disturbed the foliage, then suddenly, there they were, shooting across the sparse grass under the dogwood where anyone could see them.

It’s a funny thing when your prosaic, way-more-intelligent-than-most father gets all poetic on you. I wasn’t sure where that letter came from, but he followed this with more romanticized musings, all based on things he noticed in the natural world. Animals, plants, weather, stars all equally informed his writing.

Life’s pretty darn short — Go out and plant something — and let the poetic bloom.

Full of Waste Alternative

If you enjoy public parks, walking your dog and alternative/green energy solutions, then this story is for you. That’s an electrifying thought: power through the methane gas produced by waste.

Mr. Buttons

I personally like this because it solves more than one problem at a time. This gives animal owners more than one reason to clean up after their pets. The education of pet owners has come a long way since I was a child — and thank goodness. Picking up pet waste isn’t just for the smell, it also helps keep our local water sources clean. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says pet waste is a significant cause of water body contamination in areas where there are high concentrations of dogs. This is important because we drink the water that is contaminated by animal waste. It isn’t just the large feed lots that produce enough waste to contaminate our local water sources.

Doggie doo harbors coliform bacteria, which includes E. coli, a bacterium that can cause disease, and fecal coliform bacteria, which spread through feces. Dogs also carry salmonella and giardia. Environmental officials use measurements of some of these bacteria as barometers of how much fecal matter has contaminated a body of water.

The American Pet Products Manufacturers Association’s statistics show that Americans owned 54.6 million dogs in 1996 and 68 million dogs in 2000. Of that total, 45% were “large” dogs — 40 pounds or more. Food in;  poo out. If that many people were leaving their waste in public parks, we’d have a riot on our hands.

Bottom line: it’s not fertilizing, it’s polluting. Let that thought power the light bulb that ought to go off the next time you walk your dog so that you bring along a bag to remove and dispose of your pet’s waste in a responsible manner.

Adults from Little Children Grow

I had the opportunity to work at USPC Championships competitions for two weeks this summer — which kept me out of the garden, but exposed me to some wonderful kids, horses, families and volunteers. Children and their horses gathered the last week in July in Lexington, Virginia for USPC Champs – East, and the first week in August in Kansas City, Missouri for USPC Champs – MidWest. The second week of August was USPC Champs – West, but I sat that one out. (Two weeks is about two days over my past due notice for 14 hour days.) I enjoyed working with several very fine Chief Horse Management Judges, all of whom had unique and wonderful management styles. Watching these professionals at work, I gained some very valuable insights into how to manage herds of intelligent, active, competitive children and their parents.

A little background for those who haven’t a clue about what Pony Club/USPC is: We offer our membership the opportunity to learn and demonstrate both riding and care of the horse, both through the rating proficiency tests (similar to the rank program in Scouting) and through the Rally  (Pony Club Horse Show) experience, when parents are asked to work away from their children and the children are asked to take full responsibility for the care of their horse. During Rally, Horse Management judges assess how well — or how poorly — each competitor does their barn work, and how the team of competitors works together to accomplish their work. Horse Management points are deducted for work done on a sliding scale of expectations based on the Standards of Proficiency. (Someone at a lower Rating level is judged more leniently than those who have passed the higher Ratings.)

The majority of Horse Management Judges are  fair, firm, smiling faces. Every now and again you run into a judge lacking a ready smile. This can send some of the competitors into a tailspin as they made assumptions about how they would be treated because he did not begin and end each sentence with a smile.

There was one such judge in one phase of the Championships. During the first day or so of the Rally, I was impatient with this judge, silently wanting him to lighten up. After all, these were kids. However, as I worked with this judge, I saw something that I never expected to see. One young competitor, frustrated by what she saw as unwarranted deduction of points, asked him flat out if she could lodge a protest  — and not expect him to retaliate. His response was, “You’re here to learn how to stand up for yourself, not for us to hand you what you think you’re entitled to.”

I thought quite a bit about that statement. Do we do children a disservice by always providing “happy” interactions? My personal filter was set at “no” for that question. Surely having a smile on one’s face helps kids learn more easily? But the more I thought about it, the happier I was that this man was the way he was. Kids don’t need to be exposed to one kind of interaction and one kind only. They need experience both in a variety of situations and with a variety of personalities. Those competitors who stood up for themselves found it an empowering experience. Perhaps our children need more opportunities to face someone who isn’t outlining how to get around a penalty, someone who makes them do the work. When that happens, then the triumph of winning back those precious points becomes a much more powerful lesson about what it means to know the rules, know where their actions stand with respect to the rules, and what it takes to stand up for themselves. I found myself very happy that those children had the opportunity to fail or succeed under their own initiative — to know that the world doesn’t stop spinning if they lose a point over a dirty bit or hooves that haven’t seen the farrier in a month of Sundays — and to know that even stern folk respond well to arguments presented calmly, respectfully and factually.

What did I learn from these two weeks working with these three excellent judges? Know the rules. Don’t hesitate to look them up to double check your memory. Be fair when handing out penalties. Listen closely to what the person disagreeing with you says and the logic behind their argument. Discuss the issue dispassionately. Smiling has its place in the grand scheme of things, but it is no substitute for all the above. Perhaps most importantly, it proved to me that we are never too old to learn. Smiling folks and Oscar the Grouch both have something to teach us. Each of us has the right and the responsibility to look at the situation from all sides and decide whether we want to carry forward a positive lesson — or not.