Susan Hughes,
The Island Horse
(Kids Can Press, 2012)

This is a beautiful story for children ages 7 and up. While it is written for children, I enjoyed it at age 52 and my father enjoyed it at age 87.

This book, written by Susan Hughes and illustrated by Alicia Quist, is well-done in every aspect. It gives us the story of a young girl, Ellie, who is 9 years old and lives with her father in a small village outside of Halifax, Nova Scotia, in the early 19th century. Her mother has recently passed away after a long illness. Her father did not work during the illness, in order to take care of his dying wife. Now, Ellie's father cannot find a job. He finally gets one, but it requires that the two of them move to Sable Island, a long and narrow strip of sandy ground situated about a hundred miles east of Halifax. Ellie does not want to move; she has already lost her mother and does not want to leave the only home she has ever known.

When they arrive on Sable Island after a voyage on a sailing vessel, the island is just as it had been described: very long, very narrow and very sandy. Shipwrecks are very common in the area because of the shallow sandy shoals, and because the island itself is gradually shifting location. The one redeeming factor, for Ellie, is that there are wild horses on the island. There are also a small number of people living there whose job is mainly to rescue sailors from ships that get wrecked along the coast. Among those people is a young girl named Sarah.

I usually started off by talking about a book's strengths but, this time, I am going to start off with its weakness. There is only one point about this book that I could even come close to calling a weakness, and that is the character of Ellie's father. To me, he seemed a bit idealized. However, I have met people in my life who are like that, and this is a children's story after all.

Now, I will go on to the strengths. The list is long. I guess it starts with the image on the dust jacket, a beautiful picture of a beautiful horse with a wind blowing the hair of its mane. Beneath the dust jacket, the front and back covers of this hardcover book are light blue, with repeated small images of a horse that could be the same horses as on the dust jacket. It might seem like a making a big deal of the appearance of the book, and I know the old adage, but an attractive cover is important in a children's book, I think.

Other than the already-mentioned minor quibble, the characters are very credible, the writing is smooth and flows quickly, and there is just the right amount of descriptiveness so the reader can get a clear image of the characters and location, but not so much that the story gets bogged down. The characters ring true in their emotions and actions. The reading level of the text is clearly aimed at younger readers, but the author does not get so simplistic in her writing as to seem condescending to a good reader, even a young one. The word choice, vocabulary and phrasing are all well done. The story has enough suspense to maintain the reader's interest without ever reaching a level that would frighten or overwhelm a child.

Even the details of how the book is put together are impressive. The cover is sturdy, the binding looks solid and the paper itself is not flimsy. At the beginning of each chapter, there is a small sketch by Quist related to what is in that chapter.

book review by
Chris McCallister

22 September 2012

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