Horse lovers everywhere are looking forward to the annual Pony Penning on Chincoteague Island next week. Since the 1920s, crowds have gathered to watch the “saltwater cowboys” herd the ponies and lead them across Assateague Channel to the auction site. Even if your kids don’t bid on a pony, the Firemen’s Carnival that goes on all day offers lots of family fun.
The book that made it all famous is Marguerite Henry’s “Misty of Chincoteague,” first published in 1947 and made into a movie in 1961. Misty is the beloved pony who was born wild on Chincoteague but raised by two children, Paul and Maureen, on neighboring Assateague Island. For generations, readers have thrilled to the capture of the elusive wild Phantom and Paul’s dramatic rescue of Misty as she almost drowns in a whirlpool at the Pony Penning. As the author says, her story is real, and all the incidents “happened at one time or another on the little island of Chincoteague.” Best of all, fans of the first book have plenty of sequels to keep them reading: “Sea Star, Orphan of Chincoteague,” “Stormy, Misty’s Foal,” and “Misty’s Twilight.”
Spotsylvania author Candice Ransom retells the legend of the Chincoteague ponies in her new picture book, “Pony Island.” “Big ship wrecks./ Stormy sea./ Cargo horses/ Swimming free,” her story begins, accompanied by a dramatic illustration of the shipwrecked horses swimming through rough seas to the barrier island. Years later, the neighboring island is settled by fishermen who turn to the pony penning as a fundraiser for the fire department. Ransom’s clipped, evocative text is matched by illustrator Wade Zahares’ use of unusual perspectives in strongly colored pastels. Readers and listeners six and up will also appreciate the author’s note with additional details about the ponies’ history.
Susan Jeffers’ new picture book, “My Chincoteague Pony,” tells the story of a little girl who is so enamored with “Misty of Chincoteague” that she persuades her parents to take her to the pony penning to bid on a pony. After working and saving all year, Julie is disappointed when she realizes that she doesn’t have enough money to bid successfully. But, in an incident Jeffers witnessed one year at the event, the crowd spontaneously offers Julie enough money so that she can purchase the horse of her dreams.
Jeffers illustrates her story of hard work and generosity with softly colored drawings that will evoke the water, the sand and the herds of wild horses. “Misty” fans will also appreciate the letter that Jeffers, herself a fan, received from Marguerite Henry and reproduces here. Share this with readers five and up.
Children can pay a visit to Misty’s home through several informational books that describe the ponies and the islands. “Assateague: Island of the Wild Ponies” by Andrea Jauck includes full-color photographs that help explain the fragile ecology of the island and remind children why it’s so important not to feed or bother the wild ponies.
Charlotte Wilcox’s “The Chincoteague Pony” is a fully illustrated guide to the breed, one in the “Learning About Horses” series. As Wilcox explains, the legends surrounding the ponies are “partly true and partly false.” But whether the ponies are survivors of shipwreck or simply arrived safely with the early colonists, their haunting story will continue to inspire authors, illustrators and young readers for years to come.
This article was first published in the Free Lance-Star on 7/21/09.