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Book One of the Horses of Oak Valley Ranch

Written by Jane SmileyAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Jane Smiley


List Price: $6.99


On Sale: September 08, 2009
Pages: 240 | ISBN: 978-0-375-89414-5
Published by : Knopf Books for Young Readers RH Childrens Books
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A Pulitzer Prize winner makes her debut for young readers.

Abby Lovitt has been riding horses for as long as she can remember, but Daddy hasn't let her name a single one. He calls all their geldings George and their mares Jewel and warns her not to get attached. The horses are there on the ranch to be sold, plain and simple.

But with all the stress at school (the Big Four—Linda, Mary A., Mary N., Joan—have turned against her) and home (nothing feels right with her brother, Danny, gone), Abby can't help but seek comfort in the Georges and the Jewels, who greet her every day with soft nickers. Except for one: the horse who won't meet her gaze, the horse who bucks her off, the horse Daddy insists she ride and train. Abby knows not to cross her father, but she knows, too, that she can't get back on Ornery George. And suddenly the horses seem like no refuge at all.

From Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley comes an emotionally charged and action-filled novel for young readers, set in the vibrant landscape of 1960s California horse country.


Chapter 1

Sometimes when you fall off your horse, you just don't want to get right back on. Let's say he started bucking and you did all the things you knew to do, like pull his head up from between his knees and make him go forward, then use a pulley rein on the left to stop him. Most horses would settle at that point and come down to a walk. Then you could turn him again and trot off--it's always harder for the horse to buck at the trot than at the lope. But if, right when you let up on the reins, your horse put his head between his knees again and took off bucking, kicking higher and higher until he finally dropped you and went tearing off to the other end of the ring, well, you might lie there, as I did, with the wind knocked out of you and think about how nice it would be not to get back on, because that horse is just dedicated to bucking you off.

So I did lie there, looking up at the branches of the oak tree that grew beside the ring, and I did wait for Daddy to come trotting over with that horse by the bridle, and I did stare up at both their faces, the face of that horse flicking his ears back and forth and snorting a little bit, and the face of my father, red-cheeked and blue-eyed, and I did listen to him say, "Abby? You okay, honey? Sure you are. I saw you bounce! Get up, now."

I sighed.

"How am I going to tell those folks who are looking to buy these horses that a little girl can ride them, if you don't get up and ride them?"

I sat up. I said, "I don't know, Daddy." My elbow hurt, but not too badly. Otherwise I was okay.

"Well, then."

I stood up, and he brushed off the back of my jeans. Then he tossed me on the horse again.

Some horses buck you off. Some horses spook you off--they see something scary and drop a shoulder and spin and run away. Some horses stop all of a sudden, and there you are, head over heels and sitting on the ground. I had a horse rear so high once that I just slid down over her tail and landed in the grass easy as you please, watching her run back to the barn. I started riding when I was three. I started training horses for my dad when I was eight. I wasn't the only one--my brother, Danny, was thirteen at the time, and he did most of the riding (Kid's Horse for Sale), but I'm the only one now.

Which is not to say that there aren't good horses and fun horses. I ride plenty of those, too. But they don't last, because Daddy turns those over fast. I had one a year ago, a sweet bay mare. We got her because her owner had died and Daddy picked her up for a song from the bank. I rode her every day, and she never put a foot wrong. Her lope was as easy as flying. One of the days she was with us, I had a twenty-four-hour virus, so when I went out to ride, I tacked her up and took her down to the crick at the bottom of the pasture, out of sight of the house.

I knew Daddy had to go into town and would be gone for the afternoon, so when I got down there, I just took off the saddle and hung it over a tree limb, and the bridle, too, and I lay down in the grass and fell asleep. I knew she would graze, and she did for a while, I suppose. But when I woke up (and feeling much better, thank you), there she was, curled up next to me like a dog, kind of pressed against me but sweet and large and soft. I lay there feeling how warm she was and smelling her fragrance, and I thought, I never heard of this before. I don't know why she did that, but now when Daddy tells me that horses only know two things, the carrot and the stick, and not to fill my head with silly ideas about them, I just remember that mare (she had a star shaped like a triangle and a little snip down by her left nostril). We sold her for a nice piece of change within a month, and I wish I knew where she was.

But Daddy names all the mares Jewel and all the geldings George, and I can hardly remember which was which after a while.

The particular George who bucked me off had a hard mouth. I did the best I could with him for another twenty minutes, but Daddy said that probably he was going to have to get on him himself, which meant that we weren't going to turn this one over fast, because a little girl couldn't ride him yet. Which meant that Daddy was in bad mood for the rest of the day.

We took the George back up to the barn, and while Daddy threw out the hay, I brushed the George off. He didn't mind, but he didn't love it like some of them do. Then I picked out his feet and took him out and put him into one of the big corrals. We didn't keep horses in stalls unless we had to, because Daddy said that they did better outside anyway, and if you kept them in stalls, well, then, you spent your life cleaning stalls rather than riding. Was that what I wanted?

I always said, "No, Daddy," and he ruffled my hair.

In the winter, though, it bothered me to think of them huddled out in the rain, their tails into the wind and their heads down. Of course that was what horses were meant to do, and ours had heavy coats, but I would lie awake when it rained in the night, wishing for it to stop.

It was worse in Oklahoma.

Oklahoma was where we came from, where Daddy and Mom grew up and had Danny, then me. We moved to California in 1957, when I was four and a half. I could barely remember living there, though we went back once or twice a year to see my grandparents and buy some horses. In Oklahoma, there could be real rain, and real snow, and real ice. Daddy had seen a horse slide right down a hill once, just couldn't stop himself, went down like he was on skis and right over the edge of a crick, fell on the ice, and had to be pulled out with a tractor. Couldn't be saved. At least in California we didn't have ice.

From the Hardcover edition.
Jane Smiley|Author Q&A

About Jane Smiley

Jane Smiley - The Georges and the Jewels

Photo © Elena Seibert

Jane Smiley is the author of numerous novels, including A Thousand Acres, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, as well as five works of nonfiction and a series of books for young adults. In 2001 she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and in 2006 she received the PEN USA Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature. She lives in Northern California.
Jane Smiley is available for select readings and lectures. To inquire about a possible appearance, please contact Penguin Random House Speakers Bureau at speakers@penguinrandomhouse.com or visit www.prhspeakers.com.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Jane Smiley
(From Publishers Weekly's "Children's Bookshelf," 8/13/09)
By Joy Bean
You obviously love horses. Is this the kind of book that you would have liked to have read as a child?

JS: Well, it's more or less the kind of book I did read. When I was a child in 1960 – I was 10 and 11 that year – there were plenty of horse book series. I loved them all and read them all. I read the Black Stallion series, and other Walter Farley books. There were others more geared to girls, like Silver Birch, about a troop of Girl Scouts in Wisconsin. I ate them up. I also read Nancy Drew and other series. That was what kids' literature was back then.

Did you have or ride horses while growing up?

JS: When I was really little in suburban St. Louis, there was a pony riding area. The people there would stick me on a pony and make it move. I started doing that when I was five and then after that I made my mom take me to a particular stable and we would ride there. When I was 11, I started taking lessons. I was always doing something horsey.

What made you want to write for a younger audience?

JS: My editor, Joan Slattery, pointed out to me that there were no horse books for girls anymore. As soon as she said it, it opened up this whole world to me. It was time to return to my roots.

I thought of the fact that where I live in California, it is the center of a different type of horse training that is going on. I had recently seen the film My Friend Flicka, in which they break the horse the old-fashioned way. They wear the horse down until it can't fight anymore. They consider the horse "broke" then. But where I live, it is the center of a different kind of training that was started by two men, Bill and Tom Dorrance. Starting in the 1960s, they were observing horses and they saw how they relate to one another. They inferred what the horse's body language was saying to each other. They are hierarchical and they saw how one might bring himself to be the boss of the group. The two of them, especially Tom, took these lessons they learned from horses and applied it to horse training.

This type of training, the encouraging of horses to cooperate, hasn't been portrayed in a book for girls before. I also read a wonderful book about the domestication of animals called The Covenant of the Wild by Stephen Budiansky and the author talks about how domesticated animals retain their play instincts. You can train them to do a job that's fun, not just do a job. Horses will jump jumps because it's play for them.

The character of Jem Jarrow is based on Tom Dorrance. I met him once. He was a small, modest guy who was a genius with horses.

Abby has to deal with a strong-willed father as well as a strong-willed horse. Did you set out to write the book with these two relationships changing side-by-side throughout the novel?

The book is part of a series of three or more books. The horses come and go and it just happened that I wanted to talk about the Tom Dorrance way of training in the first book. I wanted to talk about the contrast between the old way of training and the new way. I've already written volume two and working on volume three now. Other aspects of Abby's life are in future books. A new trainer comes in. Abby has to learn how to jump, but I did want to get Jem Jarrow in there so that his ideas could influence the way the readers would see horses.

Abby has a tense relationship with her father. She continually stands up for herself, even though she is scared to do so. The father seems to be a little more lenient with Abby than he was with her older brother. Is that because she is a daughter, or because she has proved herself as being smart and level-headed with the horses?

It's because she's the daughter. The father relies on Abby to get the job done and she does get the job done. When challenged by his son, the father isn't able to handle it. At some point in the book, I mention that the son and father get along, that they're cut from the same cloth. Then it's no surprise that when the son decides to be his own boss, the father can't handle it. All those men—the father, the son, the uncle who comes to visit—their relationship is uneasy. With all of them, no one is going to be told what to do. We all know families like that, where the girls get a pass.

You add a lot of horse care information into the book, without it reading like a how-to book. Was this intentional? Did you want readers to come away from the book knowing about the dynamics between a horse and a person?

JS: One of the things that the father and Uncle Luke epitomized was that a horse was mechanical. If you said back in the 1960s that a horse had thoughts or could be like a person, people would just laugh at you. When I was a child, my parents bought me the World Book Encyclopedia set. The article on the horse had a chart of animal intelligence, and horses' intelligence was on the bottom and I really resented that. Pigs were at the top. My experience with horses is that they're really smart and they're thinking all the time. What I want to do throughout the whole series was to have Abby see the horses as individuals and not machines and that the world they live in is interesting and the way they see the world is interesting.

Did you know all of the horse information you wrote about from your experience with horses, or did you have to do research for the book?

JS: I knew most of it because I've been working with trainers for 15 years or so. Since I moved to California in 1996, I've had these trainers that were trained by Tom Dorrance himself. In writing the book, I asked them to do what Tom would have done. They were able to help me by telling me certain lessons I should write about.

I found it impressive that Abby has a lot of work to do every day and she seems to do her work without any fuss.

JS: She does! I set the book in the 1960s because things have changed a bit. I don't know if a child today would do so much work. Maybe they would, but I felt like this was normal for a child back then. I don't think living on ranches is so much a part of our world anymore and that's why I set it in the 1960s.

Have you ever had a horse like Ornery George? How did you deal with him?

JS: Yes, and I did not deal with it very well. I had made quite a sophisticated analysis of him, but that didn't protect me from being dumped by him. I worked with him for four years. It was like living with a man who had an abusive childhood. He loves you and was attentive to you, but there is always the moment when he could betray you because he has to protect himself. A horse can have a bad childhood, but fortunately their childhoods are much shorter than ours.

Do you plan on writing any more books for younger readers? Any ideas about what you might like to write about?

JS: This series has got my interest now, so I'm not really thinking of that. But I did try to sell a book to my editor about yawning, and it would put kids to sleep all over the world. She thought it was boring.

From the Hardcover edition.



Starred Review, Publishers Weekly, July 20, 2009:
"A lyrical meditation on horses, families, and the vicissitudes of peer relationships among girls."

Review, Booklist, September 15, 2009:
"[A] quiet, psychologically attuned youth debut."

Review, The Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY), October 3, 2009:
"'The Georges and the Jewels' is filled with fascinating details about the care and training of horses, and Abby is a refreshing heroine in today's snark-filled times."

Review, Chicago Sun-Times, October 18, 2009:
"Smiley’s intricate and sophisticated knowledge of horses shines throughout this book, making it a guaranteed winner for horse-loving youngsters."

Review, LATimes.com, September 27, 2009:
"I have never admired [Smiley's] writing as much as I do in the first of what promises to be a series of books for children...'The Georges and the Jewels' can easily take its place on the shelf along with the great horse stories of childhood."

Review, The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, October 2009:
"Readers...will be happy to mount up and ride along."

From the Hardcover edition.
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Jane Smiley - The Georges and the Jewels

Photo © Elena Seibert


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