Review Blog

Feb 06 2017

The secret horses of Briar Hill by Megan Shepherd

cover image

Ill. by Levi Pinfold. Walker Books, 2016. ISBN 9781406367584
(Age: 10+) Highly recommended. Fantasy. World War Two. Britain. Horses. When other children in London are evacuated to the country, Emmaline is taken to Briar Hill, Shropshire, a place for children with breathing difficulties, their 'stillwaters'. Her friend Anna, is sixteen and confined to bed, while some children are allowed to walk around the halls of the once beautiful building, and sometimes Emmaline is allowed outside. Here she finds a garden, and in that garden, a winged horse. She has already seen these animals in the mirrors in the house, but now one is in the garden with a damaged wing. Emmaline finds a letter left for her from the Horse Lord, asking for her help with the wounded animal, Foxfire, but to be wary of the Black Horse, whose shadow Emmaline has sometimes seen nearby.
A beautiful and touching story, the group of children cared for in this building are all in various stages of illness, and their lung problems come to the fore as the story unfolds. Emmaline is a wonderful character, wanting to be an explorer, knowing her tuberculosis means this is a pipe dream but heartened when Anna tells her that she already is an explorer, seeking out the garden and its secret, keeping the horse safe. The gardener Thomas has also seen the horse and helps Emmaline with her quest, particularly when the Horse Lord tells her that Foxfire is in danger with the coming of the new moon. She is told to collect colours of the rainbow to protect Foxfire, but finding colour in this grey wintry environment needs all of her skills.
A moving fantasy story of a lonely child, traumatised by what has happened to her family in Nottingham, the resolution of the story will bring tears to the readers' eyes as she learns to accept what has happened and comes to see there is more to life than her bleak surroundings.
War and privation is ever present, with the house cut off from the village and therefore the pharmacy and doctor by the weather, the children aware of the bombing raids on the cities, their talk filled with stories of what has happened and sometimes hearing of death.
The illustrations add a mesmerising dimension to the story and offer the reader a visual accompaniment as they read. Several stand out for me: the children sitting in the cellar with their gas masks on, listening to an unsettling story told by the bully, Benny, (pages 39-40) along with Emmaline sleeping with the sheep (pages 146-7) and Emmaline sitting on Anna's bed (pages 182-3). I kept coming back to these as I read. But all the illustrations are deeply moving with their greys reflecting the children's lives. With links to The secret garden and the Narnia stories, this wonderful story will be eagerly sought after by middle to upper primary readers.
Fran Knight

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