I'm starting with the first book in The Saddle Club series, even though I've told Mara it'll be harder for me to snark the first thirty books or so, the ones I read for the first time while I was still a kid. Can we jump to #51 after this, please?
A little bit of background: Bonnie Bryant was born and raised in New York City, but moved to Wisconsin for college, where she met her husband, Neil W. Hiller. They married and had two sons, Emmons and Andy. Neil Hiller died in 1989.
Much like other children's series, an editor at Bantam Books came up with the idea for the books because "she knew there were a lot of horse-crazy readers who hadn't had any new books in a long time. She also knew how interested I [Bryant] was in horses." Bryant, who had written about twenty books at the time, including several youth novelizations, got the job. The editor who suggested the series was named Judy, and the character of Judy Barker in the books is named for her. Like The Baby-Sitters Club, only four books were planned originally. (This information all comes from the About the Authors and the Saddle Club newsletters, which of course I got as a kid.)
The first Saddle Club book was published in October 1988. Different types of books and spin-off series followed (the first Super Edition in 1994, the first Pony Tails book in 1995, the first Pine Hollow book in 1998, the first Inside Story in 1999) until the series closed with Saddle Club #101 Best Friends in November 2001. Canonically, Pine Hollow #17 is the last book in the Willow-Creek-verse.
So! The summary:
Twelve-year-olds Carole Hanson and Stevie Lake have been best friends ever since they met at Pine Hollow Stables. So when thirteen-year-old Lisa Atwood shows up for her first lesson dressed in fancy riding gear--and acting chummy with the snobbiest girl in town--the girls aren't sure she'll fit in. But Lisa soon shows herself to be a quick learner, and Carole and Stevie can't help but admire her natural riding talents. Soon the three girls are fast friends.
Over sundaes at their favorite ice cream shop, the girls begin to make plans for the MTO, the long-awaited Mountain Trail Overnight campout for the students of Pine Hollow. There's just one problem: Stevie's parents won't pay for it unless she improves her grades. There's no way Stevie will miss out on this wonderful trip with her friends, so she decides to start her own business--with a little help from a surprising source!
Okay, I know I said this was going to be hard to snark, but this summary suffers from a case of way too much, too soon.
It's Saturday. We meet Stevie, who is a lazy, mischievous (but not unintelligent) student and has a cat named Madonna. (It was the 80s, remember.) Stevie is bummed because her parents won't pay for her to go on the MTO unless she improves her grades -- so naturally, the obvious solution here is not to improve her grades, but rather to earn $50 to pay for the trip herself!
We meet Carole, who is hanging out at Pine Hollow because her father, a Marine Corps colonel, had to drop her off on the way to Quantico. Carole is twelve years old and slender -- oh, wait, until the first reprint, in which she becomes slender and African-American. Seriously, look at that cover. Does she look overtly African-American to you? Frankly, she always looked more Mediterranean to me.
Anyway, Carole is cleaning tack because Max, the stableowner, pretends that he wants to teach his students the value of hard work, but really is just too lazy to hire more than one stablehand. We find out that Carole's mother died six months earlier from cancer.
We meet Lisa, who is decked out like she's Michelle Tanner on the last episode of Full House. Mrs. Atwood brags to Max about what a great rider Lisa is. Max knows Mrs. Atwood is full of it, but smiles and nods and introduces Carole to Lisa, saying that they'll be in the same class since they're past the introductory level and will be grouped by age rather than skill. That's probably true to some extent, but it's still an awfully convenient plot point. Max puts Lisa on a horse named Patch and everything's going great until a girl -- dun dun DUN! -- comes into the ring and lets the door slam. This freaks out Patch, who is apparently the perfect horse for beginners except that he spooks at sudden loud noises, bright sounds, or a combination of both. He takes off, but Lisa manages to get him under control and not fall in the process.
We meet Veronica diAngelo, an attractive, obnoxious snob who owns a beautiful coal-black (naturally) stallion (naturally). I guess it's supposed to sound really impressive to the eight-year-old reader that Veronica owns this gorgeous stallion, but really, no? Max does say in the next book that he "never approved" of Mr. diAngelo buying a stallion for Veronica, but nowhere does he say that he told him, "Are you crazy? What would a twelve-year-old girl who rides at a stableful of mares and geldings need with an expensive stallion?"
Carole shows Lisa how to tack up a horse, while Stevie gets Patch ready for Lisa to ride in class -- except, they left the tack on him, so what does Stevie need to do? Oh, yes, she needs to welcome Lisa to Pine Hollow by leaving the stirrups off her saddle. Lisa gets back at Stevie after class when she ties knots in the laces of Steve's sneakers after class. She figures it's fair revenge for Stevie slamming the door and leaving the stirrups off her horse. Needless to say, Stevie and Lisa are not friends at the end of this chapter.
Lisa wants to quit riding, but her mother won't listen to her. She is way too focused on the fact that Max is a "dear" and the horses are "so nice" and that Veronica is in Lisa's riding class, so Lisa should be her friend.
Carole and Stevie go to the shopping center after class. Carole tells Stevie about the way Lisa stayed on Patch after someone slammed a door, Stevie puts up a notice saying she'll do odd jobs, Carole buys a tape for her father, and Stevie enters a contest for a trip to Hawaii.
Tuesday. Lisa asks Veronica to help her tack up Patch, but Veronica, instead, calls for Red. He's about twenty and apparently the only stablehand Max can afford to employ. We keep hearing about how he's the "head" stablehand, but there never seems to be anyone else for him to be the "head" of. Red is surprised that Lisa wants to learn to tack up a horse herself.
During class, Lisa doesn't like the idea of using a whip on Pepper, but Max assures her "that it didn't hurt the horse. He told her that a whip should be used to reinforce an instruction the horse already knew he was supposed to follow." That's more like it! None of this "my Thoroughbreds are too sensitive for whips" type stuff. Veronica invites Lisa over to her house on Saturday. Lisa, polite/clueless person she is, says yes.
Saturday. After riding class, Veronica's mother picks up the girls in her Mercedes. Veronica jumps in the front, leaving Lisa to sit in the back with the diAngelos' two muddy Labrador retrievers. This is more characterization than Veronica's mother gets throughout the entire rest of the series. The diAngelos live in a big, beautiful, three-story colonial house, with a two-story portico, two wings, acres of grass, landscaped grounds, a swimming pool, a guest house, a maid, a gardener, and a chauffeur. It's kind of like the Fowler mansion, Virginia-style. Veronica and Lisa do fun things like eat a maid-delivered snack in Veronica's room, go swimming, and eat sausage pizza. Man, there was a time when I loved sausage on my pizza. It was probably around the same time that I was reading The Saddle Club. The whole thing wouldn't be too bad, except that Veronica orders Lisa around all day. Lisa has enough when Veronica tries to make her watch a horror movie.
Saturday night. Carole and her dad watch Casablanca on TV. This is the first in a long line of old classic movies that Carole and her dad like, including Sands of Iwo Jima, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, King Kong, and anything involving Humphrey Bogart. When I was little, I thought these were totally normal movies for twelve-year-old girls to watch, and I went around embarrassing myself by using quotes like "Play it again, Sam!" improperly.
Still Saturday night. Stevie gets a job offer. She's not excited about raking hedges until the woman says she'll pay $2.50 an hour. (Definitely the 80s.) Stevie is way too busy answering the telephone to actually do any work, so all weekend, she gives all the jobs to her three brothers (Michael, 9; Alex, her twin; and Chad, 14).
Monday. Carole goes to Pine Hollow to exercise Cobalt, Veronica's overgrown kitten in a stallion disguise. Seriously, this horse makes Storm's Ransom look like a jaguar. He nickers, nuzzles her shoulder, has a nice soft mouth, responds to just the pressure of her legs on his sides, never tries to take the bit, never gets fussy, and never begs for a sugar lump. Except he's also supposed to be really high-strung, powerful, competitive, and take-charge. Ooookay. It's hard to be really cynical about this, because Carole loves this horse to pieces. As with most things people love to pieces, things will not end well for Cobalt.
Saturday. After riding class, Veronica comes to spend the afternoon at Lisa's house. BB doesn't go into a lot of details, and this scene is still so genuinely uncomfortable that I cringe on Lisa's behalf. It's like when you're in junior high, which Lisa is, and you hang out with the popular girls because your parents want you to be in the "in" crowd, and you have absolutely nothing in common and they spend the entire time looking at you like you have a booger on your shirt. They make you feel stupid, not because of anything they say to you, but the things they talk about with each other make it clear that you are so not cool. Yeah.
Meanwhile, Stevie dispenses more odd jobs to her brothers, classmates, and friends.
Tuesday. (If you're keeping track, two weeks and three days have passed since the start of the book.) Before class, Lisa overhears Carole and Veronica talking in the next stall. Veronica implies that if Carole tells Max that Veronica -- not Stevie -- was the person who slammed the door when Lisa was riding Patch, she won't let Carole ride Cobalt anymore. This is actually pretty serious blackmail of the twelve-year-old degree. Also, stables make awfully convenient places to overhear conversations. Lisa accuses Carole of lying to her and explains that she thought Stevie was the one who slammed the door. Carole apologizes and asks Lisa to go for ice cream after class.
Stevie is having a bad day. She's late for class, she's having trouble getting people to cover all the odd jobs, and she gets Max mad at her. After he lectures her, she meets Carole at the ice cream parlor and pays her four dollars for grooming Cobalt. Carole is annoyed because she says Stevie needs the money more than she does. Lisa explains that Stevie is getting commissions for all the work she's giving to other people.
After Lisa leaves, Carole has to wait for the bus. Now, this -- this was really a stroke of genius on BB's part. I actually don't think it's logical to have a D.C. suburb with such good bus service. My cousins live in the D.C. suburbs (Fairfax Station), and not only have I never seen a bus there, but the houses are way too spread out to deploy efficient bus service to the residential areas. And I imagine that Willow Creek is even more so, given all the farmlands around it. Pine Hollow is within walking/riding distance of farms, houses, mountains, a creek, a highway, a quarry, AND the area where the schools and shopping center are. So it really doesn't make sense to me that there would be a realistic bus route that serves both the downtown Willow Creek area as well as Pine Hollow and the countrified area where Carole lives. Still, it means that these girls are rarely stuck waiting for someone to drive them around, which definitely helps with the plot points.
Anyway, while Carole waits for her bus, she stops by the music store and sees that Stevie won third prize, a portable cassette player, in that contest she entered. Stevie goes to the store to pick up her prize, and realizes she needs to buy some cassettes because, get this, she has all her favorite albums "on record." Yeah, this was definitely published in 1988. So of course -- ouch, ouch, wait for it -- she has to buy a tape. Just one. She has lots of money. She's all excited. Yeah. NOW you see where this is going.
Next Saturday. After class, Lisa and Carole go to Stevie's house to listen to all her new tapes -- that is, her ten tapes at six or seven dollars each, which means that Stevie spent all her money except for $4.18. Now it's her turn to freak out, which she does by throwing all her papers and notes and receipts from her odd jobs all over the room. Lisa is totally uncomfortable, because Carole is trying to make Stevie feel better but she and Stevie really aren't close at all yet. That also rings pretty thirteen-year-old-girl true to me. While Stevie screams and shouts, Lisa picks up her papers and realizes that Stevie has enough records to put together a math project on decimals and percentages. Over the next three days, Lisa and Carole help Stevie with her math project. They also get Max to convince Lisa's mother that she's a good enough rider to go on the MTO.
Friday. Stevie turns in her math project.
Monday afternoon. Stevie calls Carole to tell her that she got an A+ on her math project, and her "term grade" will be a B+. Damn, that was some fast grading!
Some indeterminate day, which is probably Tuesday after riding class. The girls hang out in Stevie's room and form the Saddle Club, which has only two requirements: Members must be horse crazy, and they must "be a friend to the other members." They clink their sodas (no pizza toasts with this group), they schmooze, they dance, everything's fine. Yay!
I do have two more things I want to bring up here, and then I'll be done with this massively long first post. The Publishers Weekly editorial review for this book complains that the action is "curiously motiveless: Why, for instance, is Lisa's domineering mother so eager to push her daughter into riding lessons? And what, if anything, is the real reason for spoiled rich-girl Veronica's nastiness?" The Veronica question is handled very well in later books, especially #2. The Mrs. Atwood question is a little tougher. Honestly, Mrs. Atwood is like the human version of Cobalt (the high-strung, competitive one). Throughout the rest of the series, she continues to be pushy, and in the books where Lisa talks about the past she was pushy then as well. The problem is, her pushiness takes many different forms -- sometimes she's downright neurotic, other times she gets clinically depressed, other times her goal is to rub shoulders with the Willow Creek elite, other times she gets into a can't-see-the-forest-for-the-trees mindset. Even in this book, she switches from being brag-about-how-Lisa-is-such-a-good-rider-so-it's-a-good-thing-Max-didn't-take-her-word-for-it-and-put-her-in-a-really-advanced-class!Mrs. Atwood to overprotective!Mrs. Atwood. Overall, she continues to be someone who I wouldn't want to be my mother, but the specifics of what she does depend on the plot of each book.
The second thing is that this book has been reprinted five times with different covers, and reissued once. Last year, Random House/Yearling began reissuing books with new cover art and also minor text changes. They changed the whole Stevie receiving a tape player/buying tapes to Stevie receiving a portable CD player/buying CDs. They also changed the cost of the CDs -- Stevie buys ten CDs at twelve dollars each, a total of $120, which makes sense. But the MTO in 2007 still costs $50, the same way it did in 1988. Stevie had $4.18 left. That leaves $55 unaccounted for. And if she had $55 to spend on CDs, why did she have to start a business after all? (I covered this at the Pine Hollow LiveJournal community, but it still bothers me.)
Points of Interest:
- Mr. Lake, who never gets a first name throughout the rest of the series, works at a business that "has to do with decimals and percentages" in this book. In later books, he and Mrs. Lake are both lawyers.
- Before BB thought this all the way through, Stevie was going to a "private girls' school in the neighboring town." After BB gets her canon ducks in a row, Stevie and her brothers go to Fenton Hall, a private coed school in Willow Creek.
- This book also establishes that Lisa has a brother, from whom Mrs. Atwood would not Lisa borrow a tie to complete her Michelle Tanner costume. The unnamed brother gets a mention in book 7, when he's at camp, and later it's explained that he's much older than Lisa (eight years) and in college or living abroad for the rest of the series, until Pine Hollow. I would say "Maybe that's why Mrs. Atwood is so neurotic," but one of the later books proves she was neurotic long before Peter went to college.
- Pine Hollow has this tradition called the "soda whip," where each person in the class grabs a whip at the end of class. Whoever has a whip with a bottle cap attached is in charge of getting sodas for the rest of the class, and her partner has to cool and untack her horse. I think BB was going for a really sweet, traditional kind of feel here, but there are so many problems with this that I can't even figure out where to start: What if you're not riding in pairs at the end of class? Wouldn't that take a lot of time? Wouldn't all that soda for all those classes be expensive? Plus, someone has to buy it and put it all in the fridge. Wouldn't it be unhealthy? Maybe not for the older kids, but I'm sure the parents of those six-year-olds aren't pushing sodas at the end of every class. Not to mention that the soda whip dies a quiet death somewhere around book 5.