J A Allen took up the pony library baton in the late 1980s and 1990s with its Allen Equestrian Fiction series. At that time the main flourish of pony book publishing was over. What was published was not particularly good, and printed on paper which was going to struggle to outlast the century. J A Allen’s Chief Executive, Caroline Akrill (better known for her own excellent children’s books) started a project to produce pony books that would succeed in their own right, not just as a genre which could be guaranteed to sell however good or bad it was, simply because it featured a pony. ‘Allen,’ she said, ‘had always been about quality and we wanted to elevate the status of the pony novel, engaging the top writers, the best illustrators and with our usual high production standards.’
This series was, I think, a brave attempt by Allen to provide well-written pony stories aimed at the teenage market. I find all the titles interesting: they are written assuming that the reader does have some intelligence, and generally have some understanding of the teenage rider. Gillian Baxter’s wonderful Bargain Horses is particularly good. It’s a pity that lack of sales led to Allen not carrying on with their experiment. They were not supported by libraries, who thought pony books were old hat and elitist, and the higher price of the books (£4.99–£5.99 compared with £2.99– £3.99), and J A Allen’s status as a niche publisher, meant that chains were reluctant to stock them. I wonder if the very different format of the books had something to do with the lack of sales: being trade paperbacks with illustrations completely unlike the more normal, for that time, photographic front cover meant perhaps the pony book buyer simply did not realise what the books were.
Although J A Allen’s experiment did not succeed, the process was exhilarating, and has left a legacy of fine pony books. Caroline Akrill said: ‘We had a lot of fun doing the series, persuading established writers (like the P-T sisters) to write new books for us and reading a tremendous amount of unsolicited pony fiction to find new talent. I don’t regret it in the least and although perhaps the least successful of our projects, it remains the one we enjoyed the most and are still proud of!’
Some of the titles J A Allen commissioned themselves: some were reprints and some re-titled. Christine Pullein-Thompson’s Chill Valley Hounds series was updated. Diana Pullein-Thompson’s title (That Pony is Dangerous) was originally published by Dent as Cassidy in Danger; Josephine Pullein-Thompson’s Star Riders as Star Riders of the Moor by Hodder. Both the Caroline Akrill books were first published elsewhere: Flying Changes as a hardback by Arlington, and the Silver Bridle series in paperback by Armada and two titles in hardback by Grafton. All the other titles were specially commissioned.
The British Library