A young rider named Ellen Leinsdorf takes the reins in this first part of a trilogy set in the same California town as Smiley’s series aimed at slightly older readers, the Horses of Oak Valley Ranch.
Ellen, who is depicted as white on the book’s cover (there seem to be no people of color in the book), takes riding lessons every week from teenager Abby Lovitt, sometimes at the stable in the unnamed coastal town where she lives and sometimes at Abby’s family’s ranch farther inland. Ned, a recently retired racehorse, comes to live at Abby’s farm, and Ellen realizes she can talk to him—in person and also sometimes from her bedroom. Ellen also discovers both that her parents are about to adopt a baby girl and that she herself is adopted. Ellen’s age—9—isn’t revealed until about halfway through, and before that readers might think she’s older; her voice feels more an adult’s version of a child’s voice than authentically childlike. Her chattiness and distractibility are told about instead of shown, and when Ellen’s teacher asks her to focus more in class and follow directions, she instantly becomes a model student. Ellen’s third-person narration is stuffed with detail but features little insight or action. Readers who don’t already know Abby Lovitt will not realize the story is set in the 1960s but might wonder at some of the seemingly anachronistic family structures.
A disappointing outing with a lauded author. (Historical fiction. 8-10)