memories from the Scholastic catalog: Heads Up by Patsey Grey

One of my fondest memories from grade school was the arrival of Scholastic’s catalogs, chock full of cheap knockoff paperbacks at a price I could afford, given my allowance at the time. I can’t now count all the books I must have purchased, but two that stuck with me well enough to find them again decades later are Heads Up, by Patsey Gray, and Inky: Seeing Eye Dog, by Elizabeth Heppner.

Heads Up is one of the “horsie! horsie!” books which I remembered from childhood–not the title, not the author, but just the basic plot line1: a girl (approximately 12) trains and shows horses for the neighboring stable owner as he does the summer fair circuit; she sleeps in one of the stalls in the barn section reserved for the stable owner, and subsists on doughnuts and milk purchased with the occasional dollar he tosses her in thanks. Her foster parents, who live near the stable owner’s facility in Los Angeles, keep the fifty dollars a month the state sends them for her support, sending her essentially nothing; she has to write them to request money for things such as stamps and a comb.

During the penultimate summer fair during which she works/rides for her ostensible employer, she meets the Tuckers, a family of trick riders, who befriend her, and who take her in when that stable owner fires her for not following instructions–he’d bet $500 on his second best horse and wanted her to hold back the better horse, an Appaloosa named Chief, to allow the mare to win. Shortly after the fair closes, the stable owner recalls her, with the blessing of her foster parents, to attempt one final trick: jumping a car with Chief. (Chief’s already been put to the car, but lost his nerve and been badly injured as a result, requiring veterinary intervention.) The Tuckers, already suspicious of the stable owner as a result of his previous treatment of Peggy and the horses, have sicced the state authorities on the stable owner and her foster parents. As a result of the state’s investigation, Peggy is removed from the Whites’ custody. The book ends as the Tuckers adopt Peggy and she rides her beloved Chief, for the first time post-accident and post-veterinary intervention, as their daughter in their trick riding act.

Inky: Seeing Eye Dog is pretty much as the summary over in Goodreads says: a boy living on a farm in rural New Jersey dreams only of having his very own dog. One day he finds a puppy cowering in the underbrush who proves to be the valuable animal stolen from the nearby Seeing Eye school. The school allows him to foster the animal, on the condition that he bring it with him when he goes into town and to other places people go, to acclimate it to a wide number of places, some noisy, some quiet, so that it may better serve the blind person to whom it will eventually go. His father returns from the Korean War with a degenerative sight condition resulting from his treatment in captivity…guess who gets Inky?

As with many books I read as a child and to which I returned as an adult, I remember both of these books as being much more complicated and in-depth than my perception as an adult; gotta remember this when recommending books for tweens and teens! Just because I now find a book oversimplified and somewhat shallow in its characterizations doesn’t mean THEY will, any more than I did at the time. My memory from Heads Up of a terrifying showdown between the vet and the stable owner over whether to “freeze” Chief’s legs in order to numb the pain sufficiently to allow him one more jump over the car turned out to be less than a page of description and dialog, and at the widely spaced lines common in kids’ books at that.

More than fifty years after the books’ original publications, I can’t imagine how much of a place either has in today’s children’s collections in punctilious public libraries; the writing isn’t bad but the stories themselves are painfully dated. I can’t imagine the circumstances under which a 12 year old girl would be left alone in an increasingly deserted fairgrounds to fend for herself, much less be allowed to perform a stunt as dangerous as jumping a horse over a car, without bringing down social services immediately upon the heads of her official caretakers. Schools which train dogs to guide the blind have pretty much all switched from Alsatians to golden/Labrador retrievers decades ago, as the latter two breeds are much more equable in the full range of situations in which people today find themselves–negotiating crowds, riding public transport, entering businesses–while Alsatians can get overly protective (under the circumstances) of Their Person. (I don’t blame the Alsatians here, mind! It’s only what they were bred to DO, for pity’s sake; there’s a reason why the U.S. name for the breed is German SHEPHERD: they’re flock guardians.) That said, there are still enough dog-mad boys and horse-mad girls2 that I hope Scholastic keeps up with the paperbacks at a price which kids can afford to spend their allowances.

Now, the classic readers advisory question: what do I read next? Well, I mentioned a couple of horse books in my entry on Marguerite Henry’s books and for dog fans, some older dog books range from the “Lad” books by Albert Payson Terhune and Lassie by Eric Knight to another of the “cheapie Scholastic specials”, Follow My Leader, by James Garfield.

1I found it again, thanks to a community on Livejournal, What was that book?; they’re good at answering questions like “A patron remembered a book from maybe 30 years ago involving a mouse poling downriver on a raft made of a door, to bring hot soup to its ailing uncle rat.”
2I’m all for equal play for boys and girls, including books, but most of the kids I’ve talked to seem to break down along gender lines thus…


2 thoughts on “memories from the Scholastic catalog: Heads Up by Patsey Grey

  1. Is follow my leader about a boy who loses his sight in an accident with, I think, a firecracker and gets a guide dog? Has to learn tricks like tying his shoelaces together when he takes them off so that he doesn’t have to worry about dressing with an unmatched pair by accident? The name sounds familiar.

    I know my daughter obsessively read as many of the Saddle Club series as she could get her hands on when she was 10. Sounds as though they would go right along with the horse book you’ve described, and they’re modern.

    • Yes: “Follow my Leader” is about the boy who’s blinded by a short fused firecracker, and has to learn how to dress and eat and get about and read braille and learn to be active again; his biggest worry is that he’ll never be able to continue with Scouting…though he does through The Wonders of The Guide Dog! (It’s a little hokey today, but still worth reading. Things have changed–he’d be able to bring his dog to school today–but still not enough people know about this.)

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