Title(s): The Word on the Yard, Team Challenge, and Secret Pony Society
Author: Janet Rising
Publisher: Sourcebooks Jabberwocky
Series: The Pony Whisperer #1, #2, and #3
Other Reviews for This Author: None
Ah. This is a middle grade series that I would have never guessed I would be reading. I have to admit that even I do have a bit of a public limit. Mostly because it's just creepy for some people to see a male read a book for girls. What can you do? Sigh. Putting all of that societal muck aside, I really was interested in the premise of this series. Middle grade books can be fun and frothy, and I'm always on the look-out for stuff that I can recommend to people who are looking for that particular age level of book. I loved the middle grade debut The Time Traveling Fashionista, and was thus looking for the same kind of read that uses the appealing subject to its advantage. What I didn't expect was to find a series that did that, but also managed to put a spin on some classic middle-grade plotlines and make the characters so realistic.
The Word on the Yard: Pia and her mother have moved into a new, smaller house and a new town. Her father left them for a new woman, saying it caught him by surprise - yet he was madly in love. Pia is extremely annoyed at her new position. She now has to take her pony, Drummer, to a new stable. Like her pony, she also has to deal with new surroundings at school. The transition is weird, and it doesn't help that she quickly makes an enemy with Cat, the stable's self-proclaimed go-to person for horses. When Pia finds a statue of an ancient Celtic goddess that allows her to speak to horses, her life at Laurel Stables is turned upside down.
Team Challenge: Now the resident Horse Whisperer, Pia is starting to find friends at Laurel Stables. She and a group of other riders - Bean, James, and Katy - decide to enter as a group in a special horse competition going on. They'll each compete in different categories like show jumping, dressage, and a wild-card category, using their top three scores to get placements. If they can make it to the finals and place there, the team will win clothes from one of the biggest brands in riding gear. Pia's team also has to compete against an all-star team that Cat put together. Her ability to talk to the team's horses promises to be a real boon, but Pia and the crew can't help but wonder if it puts them at an unfair advantage.
Secret Pony Society: Laurel Stables gets a visiting group of travelers that make their camp up near the stables. Pia's never had much experience with them before, but one of the local stable horses used to be a traveling horse. Its checkered past with the group of people is just one reason that many of Pia's friends and their parents seem to be prejudiced against the gypsy-like travelers. Pia can believe why when she sees the way they race their horses to exhaustion, but her meeting with a traveler girl named Jazz and her horse, Falling Snow, changes her perception of the travelers. When Jazz gets in a bad situation, Pia may be the only person at Laurel Stables to offer her a helping hand.
Rising gives readers a really solid protagonist with Pia. She is a consistent character that has some growth, but at the same time stays the same enough that she changes completely between the book. Her personality type also works well for the books being able to stand alone. Each time, her voice is firmly established to the reader. She talks like a middle schooler, and there didn't feel like an ounce of fakeness in how she was presented. If you read middle grade books, you know what I'm talking about. Some authors write characters that feel like they parrot a message or idea, not an actual character. Pia is not one of those people. Middle-grade aged girls will especially take to her charms. She speaks bluntly of her mother's experiences with dating, how her dad's younger girlfriend is probably anorexic, and other things. She has that voice that is of a younger kid. Very honest and forthcoming about the issues going on in her life, but with more annoyance than outright angst. The honesty and knowledge was refreshing to read about. Pia knows she has to do the right thing and support her mother - and is in many ways mature in that respect - but she still freely does and says things that show she has her doubts and biases. Pia is a character that works well for this series, and she was really fun to read about.
Pia's friends and family are just as interesting, and they have the same quality of character as she does. No one felt like they were written to preach a point or represent a character type/experience. Pia has friends that are really friends, even if she doesn't analyze them the way a teenage main character would. There are people like Katy and Bean that are there for her for the most part, but occasionally disagree with her on things. Katy is respectful and just a little bit moralistic, and Bean is a smart girl who just happens to be a bit of an airhead. Bean especially is really funny, but it never feels like it's done just for comedic effect. James is Pia's 'love interest', although her crush on him is thankfully pretty minimal to the plot. The second book actually saw his tendency to be controlling and a little bit haughty. It was cool to see an author of middle grade work willing to be brave and make a character who wasn't so completely likable. She also does a good job of making Cat a believable villain. Cat's mean and vindictive, but she has reasons for what she does, and the reader can tell that her meanness stems from something. The 'villain' characters in middle grade tend to feel very sporadic. One minute real people, the next minute monsters of mean. Cat's understandable. You may not like her, but you get her. Pia's parents are also really interesting. Her father is a bit dim when it comes to his new girl-toy, and the same goes for the new girl-toy in question. That relationship combined with her mother's new venture into the dating scheme surprisingly feel real, though. Rising manages to capture the situation in a fairly real light, and Pia is clearly shown to admit that she has to support her parents in their decisions because she loves them. Good message, but not a wooden one. All of the characters just work well like this. They are a well-oiled machine that kept me interested in the reading experience.
Rising's writing in each of the three books is quality. She does a great job with character voice - heck, even the ponies have defined and unique personalities that don't feel tired - and she doesn't ever feel like she's dumbing down the worldview or situations for her audience. She also avoids info-dumping about horses. A basic knowledge of what they call things like tack and some horse show terms may help, but it's fairly simple to pick up. It never feels like she's force-feeding her readers information. The Word on the Yard and Team Challenge were both equally perfect in their plotting. Both had great senses of action, character relationships, and surprising takes on certain things. I never would have guessed how Pia's horse whispering would be taken, and even though the stories were predictable, they didn't feel predictable. It takes a good story to effectively say, "This is my plot, but it won't feel like you know this already." I loved them both. They were worthy of a perfect grade considering how much I purely enjoyed them. Secret Pony Society had the most interesting and unique plot of the three, and it continued in the vein of taking a plot that had a bit of a lesson subtly added into it, but it was a little too involved for the limited page count. The travelers are interesting and have their own culture. They weren't really explained very much, though, and I thought it could have used more in terms of establishing why they traveled, what their cultural origins were, and what their culture was about. I felt a little too clueless at the end of the book to be comfortable with the execution.
This series is highly recommended. Each book is very good and entertaining, and I liked all of them. The characters felt wonderful, and the plots (for the most part) felt smooth and concise. I don't know how younger readers would take this series, but I would be majorly delighted to give them the chance to read about Pia and her adventures in pony whispering. The horses themselves become an integral, respected, and funny part of the cast. Horse lovers especially will gobble these books up. I know I really look forward to continuing on with Pia's adventures.
Covers: These covers are cute. I enjoy the color scheme and the designs. I think the twinkle in the horse's eye looks awkward, though.
Rating: 5.0 stars, 5.0 stars, and 4.0 stars respectively
Copy: Received from publicist/publisher for review. (Thanks so much, Sourcebooks!!)