One of my favorite childhood books was Marguerite Henry’s Newbury Honor Book, Misty of Chincoteague. Earlier this month, I had the good fortune to see the wild ponies Henry made famous. I wasn’t able to interview these ponies as I did Simon, the painting pony. The Chincoteague ponies are wild after all. Many of them are “painted ponies,” but they don’t paint like Simon.
These ponies are technically a “managed” herd residing on Assateague Island. In July, they are they rounded up by the “saltwater cowboys” during the annual Pony Penning Days immortalized by Marguerite Henry’s novel.
At other times of the year, the ponies can be seen at lookouts throughout the beautiful Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. An even better way to see them is by boat. (We used Daisey’s Island Cruises.) With the help of a terrific guidebook, The Field Guide to the Chincoteague Wild Ponies by Kelly Lidard, I was able to identify a few of the ponies. The painted ponies are much easier to recognize from a distance than the bays, buckskins, chestnuts, and palominos.
The real Misty was quite a celebrity in her day. She made public appearances at schools and libraries all over the country and even attended an American Library Association meeting. (Click link to read all about it and view photos!) A movie was made from the book in 1961, and when the movie premiered at the local Island Theater, Misty left her hoof prints in the cement!
When a storm in 1962 pummeled the Eastern Shore ripping up houses and claiming half the herd of wild ponies on Assateague, it appeared the annual Pony Penning Day would be a casualty as well. Misty came to the rescue. She and her foal, Stormy, went on tour making personal appearances at theaters holding benefits for the Chincoteague community.
Today Main Street in Chincoteague is full of Misty memorabilia. From the Miss Molly’s Inn where Marguerite Henry stayed to Misty’s hoof prints pressed into the cement sidewalk outside the Island Theater, the spirit of Misty is everywhere. I found a $400 signed first edition of Misty of Chincoteague was at Sundial Books on Main Street. It’s still in the glass case with other rare books if you care to have a look.
More memorabilia and the taxidermied remains of the real Misty and Stormy reside at the Museum of Chincoteague. This attraction might not be everyone’s cup of tea, and according to A Pictorial Life Story of Misty, it wasn’t back in 1972 when Misty died at the grand old age of 26. Some people approved and some didn’t. Personally, I liked the statue of Misty on Main Street better than the stuffed Misty, but the museum is well worth the trip! So many interesting artifacts!
So what is it about Misty of Chincoteague or any children’s book that hold a place in our hearts decades after we read it? The characters? The plot? The love of horses?
What enchants young readers today? It’s been sixty years since Misty of Chincoteague was published, and it is still selling well enough to be on the shelves of independent bookstores, Barnes and Noble and featured on Internet retailers like Amazon.
I reread Misty with the eye of a writer and found what appealed to me then and now. Here’s my list.
- Agency: Both Paul and his sister, Maureen, have quite a bit of freedom to think and act upon their desire to own Phantom and her foal, Misty. Their parents are in China, and the children live with their grandparents who encourage them to go for their dreams. As Maureen explains early on in the story, “grandparents aren’t as strict as parents.” No helicopter parents here! Writers always need a way to get adults out of the way, so their young protagonists act with their own agency.
- Teamwork: The high-spirited siblings labor together to raise money for Phantom and Misty. Together they tame and train Phantom. Both are equally capable of riding Phantom in the annual pony races. Paul enters the race because of a wishbone, and not because his sister isn’t as good a rider.
- Love of Horses: The bond between horses and humans is an enduring theme.
Henry wrote numerous books about horses and animals. Two were Newbury Honor books and one won the Newbury. The real life pony, Misty inspired Misty of Chincoteague. As Henry wrote in her book, A Pictorial Life Story of Misty, it was love at first sight for Misty. “The first time I really saw Misty, my heart bumped up into my throat until I thought I’d choke. It was a moment to laugh and cry and pray over, especially if all your childhood you’d wanted a pony and couldn’t have one on account of your rheumatic fever.” Henry’s passion for horses and animals comes out in all her books.
- Illustrations: When I was young, some teachers frowned on reading books with pictures past a certain age. So I loved having a book with chapters and illustrations by the talented Wesley Dennis. Even today, I am charmed by the illustration of young Maureen Beebe jumping over a hurdle bareback with bare feet in a dress. Oh, what freedom!
Marguerite Henry wrote fifty-nine books, two were Newbury Honor books, and one won the Newbury. Misty of Chincoteague and Stormy, Misty’s Foal were my favorites. Today, I adore A Pictorial Life Story of Misty. It’s hard to find, but well worth reading about the life of Misty, Marguerite Henry, and the impact of her books.
The spirit of Misty is alive and well in Chincoteague!