My five year old son is dressed all in black. It is very important that it be all black, but the only article of clothing that happens to fit the color scheme is his one and only suit. Typically saved only for important events and going to Mass, he has judged this occasion worthy. Wearing the now hopelessly wrinkled suit, he is down on all hands and knees galloping around the house, making a circuit from dining room to living room and back again. Eventually, couch cushions are brought into service as obstacles to be leaped. My knees hurt just watching him crash onto the wood floor on the other side after making his jump, but little boys are not made of the same stuff as adults and he takes no notice of the harshness of the landing.
He has become an incarnation of the Black Stallion, no longer human but pony. As he fiercely gallops, occasional breaks are taken in order to eat pretend carrots and oats. If a bystander is willing to take on the role of Alec, the boy who tamed the wild Black Stallion, then he will eat right out of your hand. Everyone knows that the Black Stallion loves Alec but is wild with everyone else. If there are no willing Alecs around, no matter, he can still make do and eat by licking moss off of tropical rocks.
The Black Stallion is the first book that has fired up this young boy’s imagination, and like a true race horse, he has taken off from the starting line at full speed. No bridle can hold him.
It isn’t only him, either. His older sister is enchanted as well. She expresses herself a bit differently, so instead of aggressive feats of horsey strength she disappears to her room for a few hours and sets to work. She has a craft drawer up there where she stores scraps of cloth, bottles of glitter glue, and pieces of cardboard. Having dug deep into this drawer, she eventually returns downstairs with a saddle and bridle fashioned out of colorful duct tape, twine, and a piece of fabric cut into an oval. This contraption is placed on her brother in short order (even the Black Stallion was eventually tamed).
A momentous discovery is made. In a box in the basement is Mom’s old riding outfit, her English riding helmet and the small whip used to tap the horse and signal it to jump. The whip I quickly remove from service, but the helmet makes a nice addition to the brother/sister horse and jockey tandem. It is a joy to watch, not least because it’s nice to not be the one giving the horse rides for once. Seriously, my knees can’t take it anymore.
All this creativity and excitement simply from the first few chapters in a book we had begun reading to them before bedtime.
I don’t know if the Black Stallion is “great” literature or not, but it certainly has proved to me the ability of books to jump-start the imagination, to build entire worlds out of words. These worlds, for children especially, are very real and are a vital piece of their development. Child’s play is actually serious business.
As a parent, I’m anxious to get the kids started on some of the Great Books. I cannot wait to have dinnertime discussions about Plato’s Republic and Shakespeare’s Tempest, but because of their young age those days are still a good ways into the future. In the meantime, I’m having trouble getting them to even listen to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe without being frightened out of their minds by all the monsters and witches. This where books like Black Stallion prove their worth. It is what we might call one of the Good Books a type of writing that challenges children to encompass new points of view, introduces them to new locales, and begins the process of building empathy. We know that these books are making an impression when they enter into the imaginative play of the child, thus furthering even more the process of developing empathy as the child takes on the character and momentarily views life from a different perspective.
Someday, my children will be ready for more challenging reading. But for now we’re enjoying stretching our imaginations with the story of a boy and his horse.