Thursday, 5 January 2012

Once upon a time...

seems like a good opening for a new adventure.

 Let's start with the inspiration for the title of this blog- Ursula Moray Williams; 'Adventures of the Little Wooden Horse' was first published in 1938 but still nails just what a good children's book should be. I can remember my dad reading it to me, sitting on the end of my bed taking occasional sips of his customary evening whisky whilst I curled under my covers agog and occasionally aghast; this is no saccharine tale.

Uncle Peder is a toy maker and peddler who walks from village to village selling his wooden toys. He makes the little wooden horse so fine that he is too expensive for anyone to buy, but in any case the wooden horse breaks down in tears at the thought of being separated from his master: 'Oh master, I don't want to leave you! I am a quiet little horse, I don't want to be sold. I want to stay with you for ever and ever...' And so Uncle Peder and his horse become friends and companions for life, with the wooden horse carrying the sack of toys and holding all the money in his hollow wooden body which can be reached conveniently by unscrewing his head.
Jeopardy has to follow of course. The wooden toy market collapses due to the import of cheap tin toys in new toy shops and the peddler economy collapses (sound fresh?). Uncle Peder becomes penniless and ill and collapses and although he is taken in by an old woman, she chases the wooden horse away with an axe not realising his importance to Uncle Peder.
And so the little wooden horse sets out on his adventures:

"'I must go and seek my fortune', said the little wooden horse.
He thought how splendid it would be to come back to Uncle Peder full of coins. He would take off his head and pour out the money through the hole in his neck. Then they would both be rich and happy, and Uncle Peder would only make toys for fun and for poor children who had none.
'For I am strong, and a quiet little horse,' said the little wooden horse. 'I ought to make my fortune very quickly.'"

They are pretty darn good adventures. From this point the wooden horse gets indentured to an evil farmer, escapes and joins a barge pulling race, gets transported across the sea with a circus elephant, becomes a pit pony (and goes blind! (briefly thankfully, but the horror of that revelation remains with me still)), pulls a royal procession carriage, wins a race, joins the circus, is abused by a nursery of rough children, almost drowns in a river, becomes a beach donkey, swims the ocean (also very traumatic...bad sea wave horses...), befriends a pirate, visits a treasure island and finally finds his way back home to Uncle Peder...only to find the cottage burnt down and abandoned.

There may be a happy ending but I don't want to give too much away.

The beauty of this book to read aloud is in its construction: Each chapter is a self contained adventure for the little wooden horse although some end on a cliff hanger that makes you long for the next bedtime installment. Terrible terrible things happen to the little wooden horse but they are balanced out by other lovely things too making it just exciting enough to bear....and throughout his fortitude, tremendous courage and modesty make him one of literature's most admirable creations.

As my father read it to me it was my first choice book to read to my oldest son at about 5 when I judged he was ready to hear something without pictures that could be sustained over several nights. I was horrified to discover at that point that it had gone out of print for the first time since publication but managed to get a unlovely second hand copy without trouble. I was delighted to discover a new hardback edition recently in my favourite children's bookshop, complete with original illustrations. I've just read it again to my second son also as he turned 5 (with his now 7 year old brother listening in and appreciating it all over again). A completely satisfying read.

Adventures of the Little Wooden Horse, Ursula Moray Williams, pub. Macmillan hb
 isbn 978-0-230-75495-9


  1. Wow! This might sound strange, but I have a child's plate that was mine as a child and my own daughter uses now. And I've always been puzzled by the images on the plate - which show the adventures of a little wooden horse all around the rim! I wonder if it has anything to do with this book! In any event, I'm adding this book to my wish-list right away!

    1. How intriguing. I wouldn't have put this book into the category of added marketing from how old it is but you never know... I love the amount of expression the illustrations manage to animate into the Little Wooden Horse. I hope you and your daughter love the book as much as we do!

  2. Well, my plate certainly doesn't date back as far as this story. I suspect the plate is a product of the 60s or 70s. And although the style is very different from the illustrations you've posted above - I would swear it is the same little horse! The little adventures and even the shape of the saddle would suggest that whoever designed the plate was (at least partly) inspired by this story. I wish I had a picture of my plate to share, but I was able to find this image of a matching cup (which I unfortunately do not own). The cup in the middle is the same little wooden horse pictured on my plate:

  3. The very same! The colour details are spot on: 'but oh, this was such a brave little horse, so gay and splendid on his four green wheels, so proud and dashing with his red saddle and blue stripes!' I covet your crockery.

  4. I loved this book too and still have my very battered paperback copy which was second hand when i got it.