As with any longstanding favorite, the Black Stallion stories have been subjected to a number of criticisms: they follow the same formula story-to-story; they overemphasize a fast-paced plot and have little in terms of character development and setting, social characterizations are dated; yada, yada, yada.
Who are you going to believe, the critics or the kids' reading eyes? Series book have always had an uncertain position in the canon of children's books. As Charlotte S. Huck and Doris Young Kuhn noted in Children's Literature in Elementary School
"Little character development, stereotypes, lack of imagery in writing, trite or stilted dialogue, and failure to develop values do characterize many of the series books."
Their characterization was not directed at Farley's Black Stallion series but at series in general: The Bobbsey Twins, The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew; the Berenstain Bears, etc. They may not necessarily be all that popular with literary critics but parents and librarians recognize the merit of series and the particular role that they can play.
You read and read to your kids. Then you help them across that bridge where they are beginning to read along with your reading until they reach that other side where they are able to read for themselves. Then your paths begin to diverge. You may still get to read to them every now and then but more and more they are reading to themselves and picking for themselves what they wish to read and when they are going to read it. Regretful as we might be as a parent (we all cherish that time of self-created security and intimacy, snuggled up together, sharing a story), it is none-the-less a great and necessary accomplishment.
But this is also a delicate juncture in time. That point where they feel themselves free to read what they like but still are not accustomed to figuring what it is that they do like. They also are sailing in those treacherous shallows where they have mastered the skill of reading but are not fully comfortable in the free flow of reading. They no longer have picture clues to help them out. This is where series books really come into their own.
The central redeeming features of a series are in a way exactly that which is so often criticized - they are reliable and predictable. Reliable in the sense that, if you liked one, you are quite likely to enjoy the rest. For a child making their first choices of what to read, choosing the next in the series they enjoy is a reasonably low risk proposition. They are likely to roll along, enjoy it and feel even more confident in their choices next time.
Series books are also predictable, but in a positive sense. While the child is still teetering on that cusp between deciphering words and fluid reading, series books give them a known structure within which to read, thereby reducing uncertainties. They know the protagonist, they know the likely direction of the story, they know the environment in which the action takes place. All these things that they already know take the place of pictures; they can use their knowledge of the series to infer the meaning of new words. It is much easier to build one's confidence in reading with a half known story than with an unknown story.
The trick then becomes to feed the child's interests so that they continue to build the habit and love of reading. Independent reading comes anywhere from roughly six to ten years of age. Particularly at the upper end, a child is old enough to also begin having significant other demands on her time - playing with friends, school work, sports, computers, etc. Soon after that there is then the distraction of the opposite sex.
TTMD certainly can help find the books most likely to sustain your child's interests but one of the most sure-fire reinforcements in this period of transition and distraction, when the habit of reading is not yet fully formed, is to find a series, preferably one with many installments. Our first two readers have always read quickly and read a lot. For us, and for them, series books were a wonderful way of stoking that reading fire - there was always another book to put in their hands which they were most likely going to enjoy.
Our third reader though is a classically at-risk reader. The weather is nice and the outdoors beckons: Nice day for bicycling; Can I have Joey over to play, etc. Not too long after he began his independent reading, he found the Hardy Boys - a series of some thirty or forty books. These provided a great security net; he always had one secreted about his person, in his school back-pack or in his school locker. He has now moved on to Westerns. Particularly with Louis L'Amour, there is a reasonably inexhaustible supply of books that holds his interest for the duration. He continues to sample other books, but he always has a series book to pick up whenever he wants reading entertainment. More importantly, the fascination of those books in a series is keeping him in the habit of reading.
Series don't have to be great literature. They don't have to meet all the criteria for fine writing. As long as the book holds their interest, provides enjoyment, and keeps them in the habit of reading, series books have performed a great service.
Walter Farley wrote some thirty-four books starting with Black Stallion featuring a shipwrecked race horse, Black Stallion, and his young trainer Alec Ramsay. Of the thirty-four books Farley wrote, thirty-two were about horses. Of those thirty-two about horses, twenty-six were about Black Stallion, his children and his rivals. Astonishingly, twenty-two of his titles are still in print. Given the publication dates of his books, the mean publication date was 1962, almost 50 years ago. So 65% of the books he ever wrote are still in print nearly half a century later. Only 45% of the books published fifty years ago that won any of the major prizes (Caldecott, Newbery, Horn Book Fanfare, Greenaway, Carnegie and Bank Street) are still in print. Even though they didn't win any prizes, the Black Stallion books clearly have an appeal and durability exceeding what were thought to be the great books of that year.
What were the life circumstances that led to writing books of such enduring popularity? Focus and persistence are probably the answers. Walter Farley was born in Syracuse, New York, June 26, 1915. Growing up in Syracuse, Farley was a noted athlete but his real interests lay with horses. Very fortunately for him, an uncle who had been living out west returned to Syracuse and opened a horse training stable and Farley spent much of his childhood at his uncle's stables helping to train jumpers, trotters, and pacers.
With the ending of Prohibition, Farley's father took up his former occupation of managing hotel restaurants/bars and returned to New York City. Farley finished his high school education in New York and then at Mercerburg Academy in Pennsylvania. In his senior year, dissatisfied with the horse books he was reading, Farley began writing his own story about a horse.
Moving on to Columbia University, he was encouraged to further develop this story as part of his classroom assignments. He graduated in 1941 and that same year, despite being counseled by an editor that he could never make a living as a children's author, published his first book - Black Stallion .
Farley used the advance on Black Stallion to undertake travels around the world. Meanwhile fan mail piled up as Black Stallion attracted the attention of young readers. Returning to the US in 1942, Farley published his second book, Larry and the Undersea Raider, and then joined the US Army, serving in the Fourth Armored Division and then as a reporter for the Army news magazine, Yank. He was demobilized in 1946.
In his last year in the Army, he completed the second Black Stallion book, Black Stallion Returns which was published in 1945, the year he was also married. Once demobilized in 1946, Farley moved to Pennsylvania with his wife, bought a farm and set himself up to write and raise and train horses. He produced a new book virtually every year for the next two and half decades. In his later years he also bought a house in Florida and started dividing his time between there and the horse farm.
All the Black Stallion books are some variation on the Black Stallion, his off-spring, his history, his rivalries with other race horses. While the later stories began to take on greater depth and sophistication over time, they usually boil down to an adventure set in the context of preparing for a race, training, resolving some training or temperament issue on the part of the horse, and then finally the thrill of the race itself. The stories are characterized as being strong on plot and narrative pace and relatively light, (particularly in the early books) on setting and character development.
Compared to other horse book series, such as Anna Sewell's Black Beauty and Marguerite Henry's Misty of Chincoteague series, Black Stallion , with its action and narrative pace, holds greater interest to young boy readers than the others.
Farley did write other stories such as the aforementioned Larry and the Undersea Raider, a World War II adventure story; The Great Dane; Thor a story about a dog, and Man o'War an historical fiction rendering of a famous race horse. Other than that, horses were pretty much it and that was pretty much all it needed to be. Children loved the stories then and they love them still. Give Black Stallion a try. With any luck it might grab your child's attention and then they will have a couple of dozen more books to enjoy and provide an alternative to life's many other distractions.
Little Black, a Pony by Walter Farley and illustrated by Baje Whitethorne Suggested
Man O' War by Walter Farley Suggested
Son of the Black Stallion by Walter Farley Highly Recommended
The Black Stallion by Walter Farley Highly Recommended
The Black Stallion Adventures! by Walter Farley Recommended
The Black Stallion and Flame by Walter Farley Recommended
The Black Stallion and Satan by Walter Farley Recommended
The Black Stallion and the Girl by Walter Farley Recommended
Black Stallion Challenged by Walter Farley Recommended
The Black Stallion Mystery by Walter Farley Recommended
The Black Stallion Returns by Walter Farley Recommended
The Black Stallion Revolts by Walter Farley Suggested
The Black Stallion's Blood Bay Colt by Walter Farley Recommended
The Black Stallion's Courage by Walter Farley Recommended
The Black Stallion's Filly by Walter Farley Suggested
The Black Stallion's Ghost by Walter Farley Suggested
The Black Stallion's Sulky Colt by Walter Farley Suggested
The Horse Tamer by Walter Farley Suggested
The Island Stallion by Walter Farley and illustratd by Keith Ward Suggested
The Island Stallion Races by Walter Farley Suggested
The Island Stallions Fury by Walter Farley Suggested
The Young Black Stallion by Walter Farley Suggested
Walter Farley Bibliography
The Black Stallion by Walter Farley and illustrated by Keith Ward 1941
Larry and the Undersea Raider by Walter Farley and illustrated by P. K. Jackson 1942
The Black Stallion Returns by Walter Farley and illustrated by Harold Eldridge 1945
Son of the Black Stallion by Walter Farley and illustrated by Milton Menasco 1947
The Island Stallion by Walter Farley and illustrated by Keith Ward 1948
The Black Stallion and Satan by Walter Farley and illustrated by Milton Menasco 1949
The Blood Bay Colt by Walter Farley and illustrated by Milton Menasco 1950
The Island Stallion's Fury by Walter Farley and illustrated by Harold Eldridge 1951
The Black Stallion's Filly by Walter Farley and illustrated by Milton Menasco 1952
The Black Stallion Revolts by Walter Farley and illustrated by H. Eldridge 1953
Big Black Horse by Walter Farley and illustrated by P. K. Jackson 1953
The Black Stallion's Sulky Colt by Walter Farley and illustrated by H. Eldridge 1954
The Island Stallion Races by Walter Farley and illustrated by Eldridge 1955
The Black Stallion's Courage by Walter Farley and illustrated by Allen F. Brewer Jr. 1956
The Black Stallion Mystery by Walter Farley and illustrated by Mal Singer 1957
The Horse-Tamer by Walter Farley and illustrated by James Schucker 1958
The Black Stallion and Flame by Walter Farley and illustrated by H. Eldridge 1960
Little Black; a Pony by Walter Farley and illustrated by J. Schucker 1961
Man o' War by Walter Farley and illustrated by Angie Draper 1962
Little Black Goes to the Circus by Walter Farley and illustrated by J. Schucker 1963
The Black Stallion Challenged! by Walter Farley and illustrated by A. Draper 1964
The Horse That Swam Away by Walter Farley and illustrated by Leo Summers 1965
The Great Dane; Thor by Walter Farley and illustrated by Joseph Cellini 1966
The Little Black Pony Races by Walter Farley and illustrated by J. Schucker 1968
The Black Stallion's Ghost by Walter Farley and illustrated by A. Draper 1969
The Black Stallion and the Girl by Walter Farley and illustrated by A. Draper 1971
Walter Farley's Black Stallion Books by Walter Farley 1979
The Black Stallion Picture Book by Walter Farley 1979
How to Stay out of Trouble with Your Horse by Walter Farley and illustrated by Tim Farley 1981
The Black Stallion Returns: A Storybook Based on the Movie by Walter Farley and illustrated by Stephanie Spinner 1982
The Black Stallion Legend by Walter Farley 1983
The Black Stallion: An Easy-to-Read Adaptation by Walter Farley and illustrated by Sandy Rabinowitz 1986
The Black Stallion Beginner Book by Walter Farley 1987
The Young Black Stallion by Walter Farley 1989