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Mary Treadgold did not write conventional pony stories. She tackles major themes of war and growing up. Her characters have enormously difficult decisions to face: Dinah the pony is, after all, left.
After being educated at St Paul’s Girls’ School and Bedford College, London, Mary Treadgold was Heinemann’s Children’s Editor during the 1940s. Amongst the books she received were 'a staggering number of manuscripts about ponies and Pony Clubs – a few, a very few, outstanding, the majority quite frightful. This was September 1940, and not being a knitter or caring for the sound of falling bombs, I occupied myself relatively painlessly in the air-raid shelter with trying to implement my own verdict: “I could do better myself!”' The result of this air-raid activity was We Couldn’t Leave Dinah, which won the Carnegie Medal in 1941. It is a marvellous book. Set in the Channel Islands (though on a fictional island) it is about the Nazi invasion and what happens to the comfortable life of pony-owning children when they are threatened with evacuation. Mary Treadgold may have thought she was writing a pony book, but really We Couldn’t Leave Dinah is only a pony book, in the sense of the ponies being the main subject, at the beginning. The major focus of the book is firmly on Caroline and Michael, and the ponies’ part in it is minimal after the evacuation.
Her next book, No Ponies, is set after the war. It was written as Mary Treadgold was asked so often 'What happened next?' and 'Were the ponies still there after the war?' It is not about Caroline and Mick Templeton, but another set of three children, Jane, Colin and Andy. When I first read it I found it not as vibrant as We Couldn’t Leave Dinah, but it grew on me the second time. The story is set in post-war France, with children who are initially anti-pony but whom experience changes. The ponies are not theirs, but belong to their cousins, whose father was killed in the war, and to whose French home they are travelling. There is rather more pony activity in this book, but I think Mary Treadgold was far more interested in character than in ponies. The children are still the main focus.
The Heron Ride series is one of my favourites. I had read them in the 1970s, and then they had sat, in boxes until finally liberated after my mother had had enough of being a book storage depot. Then I read them again, and was amazed that I had managed to put them by all that time. Sandra and her brother Adam have been sent to stay for the summer with Miss Vaughan. Their parents are dead, and they live with their unsympathetic uncle, aunt and cousins. This difficult relationship is wonderfully portrayed, as is their gradual opening up. Mary Treadgold was a very acute observer of character and this book has some of her best work in it. The sequel, Return to the Heron is just as good: the third in the series, Journey from the Heron, though still a good read, is a prequel to the Heron series rather than a continuation. It is set just before World War One, in the Heron’s glory days.
The Rum Day of the Vanishing Pony I will have to comment on when I have read it again and can remind myself what it was about!
Finding the books
Mary Treadgold’s books are generally very easy to find: there are plenty of paperback copies of The Heron Ride and Rum Day around. Dinah is reasonably easy to find in paperback; less so in hardback and first editions are expensive. Journey from the Heron is reasonably easy to find. The really difficult one is Return to the Heron in hardback, and it is becoming harder in paperback too.
CILIP on Mary Treadgold
Many thanks to Susan Bourgeau for all her help with the pictures.