A layered and thoughtful girl-meets-horse story with believable main characters.


In Brown’s middle-grade novel, a wild horse and a teenage girl must overcome challenges to learn to trust others.

In rustic Wyoming, Jesse Nolan, a 13-year-old white girl, wants nothing more than a horse of her own. At a special auction of wild mustangs that were captured in a federal herd-thinning operation, she quickly has her heart set on a young “curly,” a rare breed with a curly-haired coat. Jesse has the winning bid on that horse, but she must leave the newly named Curly Girl with her horse-savvy Uncle Joe for training before she can safely ride her. Jesse prepares for Curly Girl’s arrival, knowing that she’ll be responsible for the animal’s upkeep at the boarding facility. When a panicked Curly Girl is evicted from the stable for causing damage, Jesse reluctantly accepts the only solution—for Curly Girl to live at Jesse’s estranged father’s nearby ranch. Brown’s novel is based on an original story by the author and debut illustrator McDonald, both of whom are advocates for wild horses. Jesse faces challenges with Curly Girl, but she also confronts her own resentment at her dad, due to his controlling nature and her parents’ separation. However, this is as much Curly Girl’s story as it is Jesse’s; the novel shifts between the teenager’s narrative, told from a third-person perspective, to Curly Girl’s first-person tale. Over the course of the novel, the horse offers poignant observations regarding her life before her capture and her fear and confusion afterward. The story also addresses Curly Girl’s overwhelming desire to return to her old home and herd. Brown, the author of Hidden Star (2016), deepens the content as Curly Girl and Jesse slowly progress toward a sense of acceptance. The author also presents an informative history of horses from prehistoric times in the guise of Jesse’s classroom project; she also shows her respect for her young readers by not sugarcoating the terror that the wild horses feel during the government’s culling process. McDonald effectively complements the text with expressive, informed colored-pencil illustrations of horses in human and natural environments.

A layered and thoughtful girl-meets-horse story with believable main characters.

Pub Date: Nov. 23, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-578-46964-5

Page Count: 138

Publisher: Self

Review Posted Online: Feb. 7, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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Themes of freedom and responsibility twine between the lines of this short but heavy novel from the author of Because of Winn-Dixie (2000). Three months after his mother's death, Rob and his father are living in a small-town Florida motel, each nursing sharp, private pain. On the same day Rob has two astonishing encounters: first, he stumbles upon a caged tiger in the woods behind the motel; then he meets Sistine, a new classmate responding to her parents' breakup with ready fists and a big chip on her shoulder. About to burst with his secret, Rob confides in Sistine, who instantly declares that the tiger must be freed. As Rob quickly develops a yen for Sistine's company that gives her plenty of emotional leverage, and the keys to the cage almost literally drop into his hands, credible plotting plainly takes a back seat to character delineation here. And both struggle for visibility beneath a wagonload of symbol and metaphor: the real tiger (and the inevitable recitation of Blake's poem); the cage; Rob's dream of Sistine riding away on the beast's back; a mysterious skin condition on Rob's legs that develops after his mother's death; a series of wooden figurines that he whittles; a larger-than-life African-American housekeeper at the motel who dispenses wisdom with nearly every utterance; and the climax itself, which is signaled from the start. It's all so freighted with layers of significance that, like Lois Lowry's Gathering Blue (2000), Anne Mazer's Oxboy (1995), or, further back, Julia Cunningham's Dorp Dead (1965), it becomes more an exercise in analysis than a living, breathing story. Still, the tiger, "burning bright" with magnificent, feral presence, does make an arresting central image. (Fiction. 10-12)

Pub Date: March 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-7636-0911-0

Page Count: 128

Publisher: Candlewick

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2001

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Troubled teen meets totemic catalyst in Mikaelsen’s (Petey, 1998, etc.) earnest tribute to Native American spirituality. Fifteen-year-old Cole is cocky, embittered, and eaten up by anger at his abusive parents. After repeated skirmishes with the law, he finally faces jail time when he viciously beats a classmate. Cole’s parole officer offers him an alternative—Circle Justice, an innovative justice program based on Native traditions. Sentenced to a year on an uninhabited Arctic island under the supervision of Edwin, a Tlingit elder, Cole provokes an attack from a titanic white “Spirit Bear” while attempting escape. Although permanently crippled by the near-death experience, he is somehow allowed yet another stint on the island. Through Edwin’s patient tutoring, Cole gradually masters his rage, but realizes that he needs to help his former victims to complete his own healing. Mikaelsen paints a realistic portrait of an unlikable young punk, and if Cole’s turnaround is dramatic, it is also convincingly painful and slow. Alas, the rest of the characters are cardboard caricatures: the brutal, drunk father, the compassionate, perceptive parole officer, and the stoic and cryptic Native mentor. Much of the plot stretches credulity, from Cole’s survival to his repeated chances at rehabilitation to his victim being permitted to share his exile. Nonetheless, teens drawn by the brutality of Cole’s adventures, and piqued by Mikaelsen’s rather muscular mysticism, might absorb valuable lessons on anger management and personal responsibility. As melodramatic and well-meaning as the teens it targets. (Fiction. YA)

Pub Date: Feb. 28, 2001

ISBN: 0-380-97744-3

Page Count: 256

Publisher: HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2001

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