At last I had a world of my very own — a writing world, and soon it would be populated by all the creatures of my imagination.
–Marguerite Henry, Dear Readers and Riders
Stricken with rheumatic fever at the age of six, Marguerite Henry was bedridden until the age of twelve. She wasn’t allowed to go to school with her peers. Instead she discovered a love of books. When one Christmas, Henry’s parents presented her with a writing desk, she also fell in love with the writing world.
At age eleven, Henry contributed a story a story to one of her mother’s magazines. It invited readers to write about the four seasons. Henry choose to write about autumn, because it was October and she had just returned from a friend’s birthday party. At the party, everyone played hide-and-seek. Henry hid in a pile of fallen leaves, a location where maybe no one would have found her if not for her friend’s dog. When her piece was accepted, Henry decided writing was a pleasant way to earn a living and spent her lifetime as an author.
You can read more about Henry’s life as an author in her book Dear Readers and Riders, a collection of letters between Henry and her fans, published in 1969 and filling over two hundred pages. For years, Henry compiled answers to readers in a newsletter, but she could never keep up with all the questions. When more than one fan suggested a Question and Answer book, Henry responded with Dear Readers and Riders. In it, you’ll find a behind-the-scenes look at “the making of” many of her most popular books, as well as tips on general horse care, and even tidbits of insights into Henry’s personal life.
ALBUM OF HORSES
Henry grew up in a city and found it heaven to discover animals as an adult. City-bred as she was, she couldn’t tell a blue jay from a bluebird. Knowing that the quickest way to learn about a subject is to write a bird, she set out to write a book about birds. As part of her research, Henry essentially turned the couple’s cottage into a workshop for making bird foods, using their bathtubs to make mealworms. Even their refrigerator became a storehouse for bird food. It took her a year of watching, working, and listening to write her bird book.
And, once the bird book was published, it ignited another passion with her. All during her school life, and even before, Henry has wanted to know about horses. Again, there was only one way for her to find out how to tell the breeds apart, learn which country they were bred, and what their purposes were in life. She had to write a book!
First came an intensive study in libraries. Then armed with a bundle of notebooks and a camera, she dogged the footsteps of famous trainers. During the day, she met jockeys and horseshoers, cowpunchers and prospectors, mule skinners and mounted policeman, and even circus trainers. At night, she sent of scores of letters to experts. Finally, her husband encouraged her to start actually producing something from all her research. The result was a book of twenty-two chapters about twenty-two horses.
Incidentally, in the Polo chapter, the boy who grew up to be a polo player was Wesley Dennis. He was also the illustrator of Henry’s books. His favorite polo pony was Lucky, because he was lucky to have him.
JUSTIN MORGAN HAD A HORSE
What do you do when a horse runs away with your heart? For Henry, the answer was simple. While writing Album of Horses, Henry became entranced with the small bay stallions known as the Morgan and wanted to know about the first one. She started by trying to search for old letters and books. At a book stall in Vermont, Henry found a well-worn little red volume with the title: Morgan Horses, A Premium Essay on the Origin, History, and Characteristics.
The book however didn’t list the name of the first horse. Every night, Henry studied the small volume over and over, learning only that several different owners of the first horse were named Goss. From here, she discovered that the last was Joel Goss. She contacted the library about him and from there a story was born.
Henry writes in Dear Readers and Riders that Justin Morgan Had a Horse was her first “serious” book. As such, she doesn’t remember how long it took to write. She had no deadline, but just kept researching and drafting until everything fell in place.
Fans will be interested to know that in Vermont, there is a historic monument on a hillside with dedication to the famous Justin Morgan stallion. According to Henry, the Morgan was a workhorse who helped build a nation and fathered the first great breed of American horses. Today because of horse lovers, the breed that almost went extinct in 1900 is strongly established again.
MISTY OF CHINCOTEAGUE
Her second interruption to Album of Horses came because of a dinner party. A guest who had flown in from islands of Chincoteague and Assateague off Virginia was bursting with a story. He sat next to Henry’s editor and talked about the wild pinto ponies who roam free all year there. Then comes Pony Penning Day and a bunch of men who were fishermen turned into cowboys for a day. Loading their own horses on a big scow, they crossed over from Chincoteague and Assateague and put on the biggest Wild West show in the East. Henry’s editor on fire with questions.
The next day, she repeated the conversation to Henry, who wondered if the event could be so exciting as described. Of course, there was only one way to know…. Henry headed off to Virginia, where she met Grandpa and Grandma Beebe, as well as Paul and Maureen, and the tiny little gold and silver foal known as Misty.
While Henry wrote Misty of Chincoteague, the foal even lived a time with her. In Dear Readers and Riders, a few photos are included of Misty and the Beebe family. Henry also shares the tidbit that a tiny black coal Chincoteague filly was chosen to play the part of Misty in the movie, because Misty was already a mother and thus too mature for the part. The filly’s hair was bleached. Toward the end of the movie, her hair was growing out, and her nose and face were starting to show black. So they had to hurry up and finish the picture. Small roles were played by islanders.
Neither Henry nor her illustrator Wesley Dennis believed in sequels. For that reason, they viewed Sea Star instead as a postscript to Misty of Chincoteague. The book came about because of two movie men. In order to make the movie of Misty, the man had to get permission from all the real-life characters. Paul and Maureen, however, were not allowed to sign due to being under age. Instead Grandpa and Grandma Beebe were asked instead to sign the legal documents. At this point, the two revealed that they’d actually never gotten around to finalizing the adoption paperwork. While the two were in town taking care of the legal matter, a lone colt with a star on his forehead was found on the local beach trying to nudge his mother to life. And so Henry became part of the life of Sea Star.
Henry couldn’t be at Pony Ranch all the time and so she dreamed a little when she wrote Sea Star’s story. She imagined what Paul and Maureen would do. For example, it would be fun it would be to braid Misty’s mane and tail and tie them with dozens of colored bows. She also dreamed in her sleep of Sea Star dancing on a moonbeam and Phantom (Misty’s mom) coming to him to show him how tender the spring grass was.
Even after Sea Star, Henry continued to receive lots of requests for a sequel. But she didn’t know what to write. After all, mares are supposed to have colts. She instead encouraged fans to write their own story. Years went by and then while in Austria she received the news that Misty had been brought into the kitchen to have her baby. Suddenly, Henry was on her way to Chincoteague. Misty was fine, but a tidal storm had ravaged the islands of Chincoteague and Assateague. There was Henry’s sequel!
The story’s title came ready-made from a child’s printed letter: “We think the Beebes were wonderful to bring Misty into their kitchen and we think that they should name her baby Stormy because of the tidal wave.”
Apparently, in the National Geographic Magazine for December 1962, one can find pictures of Misty and Stormy, with a full account of the storm. The characters whom Henry portrayed in Stormy are true, right down to Mr. Terry who could live only by means of a mechanical breathing machine which worked by electricity and even Skipper, the collie who waited out the storm by eating his way through hams and sausages in a smokehouse.
KING OF THE WIND
Henry didn’t stop with the Misty books. One day, Wesley Dennis told her about a relative who had been going to do a book for years but undoubtedly never would. The two paid his relative for the idea and went onto write King of the Wind. The book started with only a kernel of an idea: “An Arabian stallion, born in the stables of Morocco, was sent to the boy king of France. The King’s courtiers laughed at the high crest and delicacy of the stallion…. Yet despite of menial life and harsh treatment, the Arabian became one of the three great foundation sires of the Thorough bred.
With intense curiosity, Henry began to read books of their time and of their places. She read every night and day until “little by little these ghostly people assumed substance”. Family, friends, and even editors questioned her choices. They all wondered how she could write a story of a mute boy, mute horse, and a mute cat. They also all wondered how Henry could make a story sell wherein all the action takes place in faraway lands. By this point, Henry felt too committed to the tale and her characters to back out. In Dear Readers and Riders she writes that the most dismal day of her life was when she finished writing King of the Wind.
In Dear Readers and Riders, one fan inquired about the contradictory records which exist about the story of the Godolphin Arabian. Henry responded by noting that this is one of the frustrations of research. No two authorities agree! For King of the Wind, Henry listed thirty sources but notes that she consulted twice that many in an attempt to check out all sources.
One of my favorite inclusions in this chapter are two letters from a fan who wanted to see where King of the Wind took place. Initially, the reader simply wrote to ask if this was possible. Henry offered some directions as to how she might start on this pilgrimage. The subsequent letter contains a thorough account of the reader’s desperate but ultimately successful search.
BORN TO TROT
One book often seemed to lead to another. Case in point, a tiny line of research Henry had stumbled across from King of the Wind kept repeating itself in her mind: “Neither horse was ever in a race, but each stood immeasurably superior to all others of his day as a progenitor at his own gait.” The sentence haunted Henry. And so off she went to research!
A short amount of reading set Henry off to see her editor. Still wearing her riding boots, she caught a ride to the train station with the family junk dealer, and an hour later burst into her editor’s office. Henry’s editor expressed reservations: unschooled hero, no young people, and a horse who never won a race. Not one to be easily deterred, Henry kept researching until she found answers to all objections. Amidst a sea of books, Henry discovered a news story about a young mare who had won the Hambletonian in two record-breaking hearts. There was also a photo which hypnotized her, for it included a tall, gangling boy giving credit to his dad.
Titles often seemed to be given to Henry. The Born to Trot title was no exception. One early morning while Henry was watching the trot races. She wanted to learn the special jargon, so she could describe what makes harness racing a different art from flat racing. A groom came onto the track with a filly. Henry didn’t catch the filly’s name but heard the groom say, “She sure is born to trot.” And there was her title!
Henry believed her book, Album of Horses, needed a burrow or a mule to make it complete. While she had mingled with mules on a Mule Day celebration in Tennessee, Henry had never touched nor seen a burrow. Off Henry went to the library, where she learned that burrows and donkeys were the same, among other facts. The real blessing came, however, when a librarian gave her a short article from Sunset Magazine about a burrow who had helped solve a murder.
The burrow had a gypsy’s heart, in that it liked to travel, and intrigued Henry. She sent an inquiry to the man who had written the article, but all the envelopes came back: Address Unknown. Frustrated, Henry flew to the Grand Canyon where she inquired of park superintendents, rangers, keepers, and guides: “Who was Thomas McKee?” No one remembered him, but everyone remembered Brighty.
Henry reports that because Brighty and his friends were all real people, she went home happy until she faced the job of writing the story. Then she realized that one person was missing, the boy who would pack the burro. A neighbor named Tex Drexler ended up serving as a model. In a nice twist of fate, Drexler even ended up keeping Brighty as his own. In the filming of the movie, Drexler was the one led Brighty into the canyon.
With her next book, Henry showed her ability to connect with people. The only person alive associated with Black Gold was an Irish jockey. Initially, he refused to talk, because of a movie that had been made about Black Gold, in which had so many untruths the characters sued and won. Finally, Henry wore him down. After that, Henry needed to talk to a person who might understand the owner who had let the injured Black Gold run. The lady whom she found had also been burned by the movie and so hung up on her. Henry persisted.
Fans might like to know that there is a grave in New Orleans for Black Gold. It is surrounded with flowering shrubs and pointsettias. There is also a monument to Black Gold. It is a smooth, curving saddle, so real it seems to be awaiting to be swung up. Moreover, now every year at Fair Grounds Park, a race is held in honor of Black Gold. The winning jockey accepts flowers, which are for the grave of the valiant thoroughbred who finished his race on three legs and a heart.
MUSTANG, WILD SPIRIT OF THE WEST
In Dear Readers and Riders, Henry covers the origins to many other of her books . I’m going to end with her notes about Wild Spirit of the West. In a bookshop, Henry found a slim, yellow-jacketed volume called American Wild Horses. The first chapters told about Chincoteague and Misty, while the last chapter had Henry flying to Nevada. That chapter told of a girl named Wild Horse Annie. In Nevada, Henry met Annie and her mom, as well as walked the trails that they had taken.
A couple of stories which Henry shares stood out to me. First, one part of her book caused her hesitation. Senator Slattery’s wife had kept a sow in her house so that she could watch over the sow and prevent her from rolling over and crushing the piglets. The incident felt appropriate to include, because if the senator would care this much for a pig, how much more concern would he show for mustangs. Yet Henry wondered if the senator would allow such a revealing character study? When the senator and his wife read the incident, they laughed and quickly signed the papers.
For the “Operation Rescue” chapter, Henry took lots of photos of the bridge where Annie and others worked to save cows from oncoming trains and tried to impress the scene in her mind. At Annie’s house, Henry even tried to draw a diagram, but she still couldn’t figure things out. An engineer and ex-cowboy came to the rescue.
In remaining chapters, Henry tells about how Wesley Dennis’s wife told her the story of a one o-clock fox. Henry shares in Dear Readers and Riders that Cinnabar was her most fun book to do, because it allowed her to most use imagination and therefore didn’t require anyone to sign papers to approve the words she wrote. There’s also a chapter contained assorted horse-related questions, the oddest of which is: “Can a moose be taught to carry people on its back?” The last chapter is about Henry herself, where we learn that she grew up in a house of cats. Later, as an adult, people were always giving her animals that no one wanted. Henry also reveals that while she did marry, she never had any children. Instead all of her fans felt like family. Henry finished her last book, Brown Sunshine of Sawdust Valley, just before her death on November 26, 1997 at the age of 95.