Wild ponies have roamed free on the island of Assateague off the coast of Maryland since the 1600s. There is some debate about how the horses arrived there originally – some believe they were marooned by a wrecked Spanish galleon, others say they were left to graze there by early colonial settlers. Either way, there are now in excess of 300 ponies on the island, a number which places some pressure on the island’s ecosystem. In order to help control the population, every July the Chincoteague Fire Department rounds up some of the ponies and brings them back to Chincoteague for auction. “My Chincoteague Pony” by Susan Jeffers is a story based upon a special event the author and her sister witnessed at one of these wild pony auctions; an event that, Ms. Jeffers discovered later, seems to repeat itself in some form each year.
Julie, the protagonist of Ms. Jeffers’ story, is a young girl living on a dairy farm surrounded by all kinds of farm animals, but no ponies – and having a pony of her own is her dearest wish. Inspired by the story of the Chincoteague ponies, and by Margurite Henry’s wonderful Newberry honor book “Misty of Chincoteague”, Julie works assiduously around the farm to earn enough money to buy her own pony at auction. When July rolls around Julie’s mother drives her to Chincoteague for Pony Penning Day. Julie finds her heart’s desire in a black-and-white pony she quietly names “Painted Dream”, but alas, Julie is consistently outbid until every pony is sold. Heartbroken, Julie is given words of encouragement by a nearby woman who hands her a $20 bill. That $20 is followed by another dollar from a little boy nearby, and suddenly money is being passed to Julie from every direction by strangers throughout the crowd. Cruel irony! Julie now has enough money to buy her own pony, but there are none left too buy. Just then a single pony is returned to be put back up for sale: Painted Dream! Julie finally buys her pony, and her happiness is complete, but she has a new mission: she must work all year to make enough money to come back to Chincoteague and give another girl enough money to buy her own pony. And, as Ms. Jeffers tells us, that is exactly what she eventually does.
“My Chincoteague Pony” is a darling story – made all the more so because it is based on real events. We appreciated the way Ms. Jeffers worked some history into her story, and enjoyed the added color she provided in her author’s note at the beginning of the book. We have been intrigued by the Assateague wild ponies ever since we first listened to “Misty of Chincoteague”, and it seems Ms. Jeffers had a similar experience as a little girl. Julie’s fascination with Ms. Henry’s novel in this book may be autobiographical; Ms. Jeffer’s father bought her an autographed copy of “Misty” for Christmas when she was seven. Ms. Jeffers mentions in her note that she actually sent two signed copies of her own books to Ms. Henry to thank her fellow author for inspiring her; a picture of the hand-written letter she received in reply is included before Ms. Jeffer’s introduction.