Title: THE SECRET HORSES OF BRIAR HILL
Author: Megan Shepherd
Publication Date: October 11, 2016
Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
There are winged horses that live in the mirrors of Briar Hill hospital. In the mirrors that line its grand hallways, which once belonged to a princess. In those that reflect the elegant rooms, now filled with sick children. It is her secret.
One morning, when Emmaline climbs over the wall of the hospital’s abandoned gardens, she discovers something incredible: a white horse with broken wings has left the mirror-world and entered her own.
Tucked into the garden’s once-gleaming sundial, Emmaline finds a letter from the Horse Lord. He is hiding the wounded white horse, named Foxfire, from a dark and sinister force—a Black Horse who hunts by colorless moonlight. If Emmaline is to keep the Black Horse from finding her new friend, she must collect colorful objects with which to blind him. But where can Emmaline find color when her world is filled with gray?
So, I really wanted to read this book anyway. The magical realism premise is right up my alley. But, then I read that Megan Shepherd called it the book of her heart and I wanted to read it a million times more.
I love her other books and was looking forward to an MG book from her, but books of author’s hearts are my favorite.
So I got a copy of this from NetGalley and I read it in a few hours. I was swept up in the story and I couldn’t put it down.
When you start reading you know the setting is a royal family’s country house that isn’t being used anymore except for as a hospital for children who have been evacuated from London and the main bombing zones in WWII. But the way Shepherd transports you into that time and setting is as magical as a winged horse in the mirrors of the halls in Briar Hill.
Emmaline is such a genuine narrator, if even a little unreliable. She’s honest in her thoughts, desires, and reactions. She sees these horses that no one else can see and finds comfort in them during the lonely days of fighting tuberculosis.
Her best friend in the house is an older girl named Anna, who is on bed rest because her case of “the stillwaters” is further advanced than the rest of the kids. Anna is kind and patient, in spite of her hardships, and she’s always coloring with her beautiful colored pencils and telling Emmaline she hopes to see her flying horses someday.
The other kids in the hospital are rather nasty to Emmaline, and are perfect little villain type characters to keep us rooting for Emmaline, who constantly disobeys orders and sneaks around … even steals things at certain points in the book. But it’s all to save an injured horse who has crossed over from the mirror world into her own.
The metaphors for death aren’t subtle but they are magical. This dark winged horse is threatening the injured Foxfire and if Emmaline can’t find some color in her gray world, the dark horse will win and all will be lost.
To say this is a happy book would be wrong, it’s quite dark. But there was hope, like a silver lining of a storm cloud, or a rainbow after a storm. It’s the childlike quality of searching for good in everything and smiling when no one else thinks it’s possible.
The resolution to keep going when everything is against you and to believe in magic is a quality I think is necessary to get by in the world today.
The historical elements of the story ground the reader even though there are fantastical parts. I’ve heard it compared to Chronicles of Narnia, and there are some similarities, but there is less fantasy in this book, and more childlike imagination.
The last chapter was one of my favorites. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I will say, keep reading after the last chapter. Read Shepherd’s notes at the end. I may have gotten more teary eyed in her notes and acknowledgements than the whole book combined. She gives the reader the freedom to choose how they think the book ends, and I think it’s lovely.
One of my favorite characters was the Horse Lord, even though we never meet him. He writes Emmaline letters and helps her to continue on through hard times. In one letter from him, he talks about how he knows she is angry at “the dark horse” but she needs to know everything has it’s place in life and we can fight or resist bad things, but we can’t blame dark things for fulfilling their purpose.
What an important message to children about death. Sure when we or others we know get sick, we fight it, but there is a season and a time for everything and to everything, a reason. This, is such a grown up message, expressed in a truly childlike way. My heartstrings were pulled.
The illustrations in the book were so sweet and her website for the book has printable coloring pages for readers to print off and she encourages readers to share the finished product with them.
I can see why this book is the book of Shepherd’s heart and why it steals/touches the hearts of so many who read it.
For more Marvelous Middle Grade reads, visit Shannon Messenger’s website.