Pony is the long-awaited, new historical fiction title by R.J. Palacio. Palacio’s debut novel, Wonder, was included as one of Time magazine’s 100 Best Young Adult Books of All Time (January 2015) and has sold over 5 million copies worldwide. Just as Auggie Pullman showed us how to #ChooseKind in her debut novel, Silas Bird teaches us about self-discovery and growing-up in this latest middle-grade fiction title.
Set in the late 1800s (on the eve of the American Civil War) in Ohio, USA, Pony is the story of 12-year old Silas Bird – a peculiar boy who has hidden talents. Because of these ‘talents’, Silas has been sheltered from the world by his father, Martin Bird, a boot-maker and ingenious inventor. Silas and his father live a quiet life together in the American ‘wild’ west until one day when Roscoe Ollerenshaw and his band of outlaws call in to persuade Silas’ dad to use his know-how to boost their counterfeiting business. Martin Bird is swept away in a fog of dust, with Silas left to fend for himself with only his companion Mittenwool left by his side. Mysteriously, soon after his father leaves, a pony with a shining black coat, white head and piercing, pale blue eyes arrives at his doorstep. Is this a sign for Silas to journey beyond the safety of home to find his father? Should he follow his head and stay safe or his heart and embark on the journey of a lifetime?
Palacio’s writing envelops the reader as if swathed inside a luxurious blanket. The imagery produced by her words helps the reader to clearly imagine what is happening and deeply empathise with the rounded characters that she creates. Whilst the story centres around the main character of Silas Bird and the people he meets, there is another main character who is absent yet ever-present – Silas’ mother. In her ending notes for the novel, Palacio mentions the driving presence of Silas’ mother. And, as readers, we can feel her influence in the different characters he meets along the way – the logical Mittenwool, the cantankerous Marshall Farmer, the impulsive law-makers, the kind wife of the Sherrif. We are also offered glimpses into what his mother was like and the relationship between Silas’ mother and father. All of this helps us build a clear picture of Silas’s motivations, desires, and fears.
Palacio provides vignettes of memories from Silas’ past, adding unique detail to the story. This information, written as flashbacks of memories, often occur at the start of each section and are accompanied by a photograph from the past and a quote. For instance, there is a section that tells about Silas and his father entering a photography competition. This vignette gives us insight into the genius of Martin Bird and his kindness and compassion towards Silas and others. For classroom application, it would be helpful to focus on different vignettes and how they add to our understanding of Silas and Martin. What does this tell us about the character? What new information do we have, and how does this change the way we see events that have happened so far?
While not strictly historical fiction, Pony carefully weaves together artefacts, images, and ideas about the past. As readers, we can observe the narrative through the eyes of Silas but also refine these events through flashbacks of the characters’ memories. Palacio helps us to view the story from different lenses. In the end, this coming of age story is about love. On page 119, Palacio says, ‘You can travel thousands of miles, over strange lands, and still never find anything as unknowable as love.’ This thought lingers in the reader’s mind – another reason why Palacio’s works are essential reading for the primary classroom.
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