by Paul Goble
One of my favorite Caldecott-award winning picture books is The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses, written and illustrated by Paul Goble. Drawing heavily from Native American folklore, Goble tells the story of an unnamed girl who feels a special connection with her tribe’s horses – she looks after injured members of the herd, knows where to find them in bad weather, and spends her spare time among them, often dozing off to the music of horses munching wildflowers. One afternoon, a sudden flash of lightning followed by a chaotic storm sends the herd stampeding frantically. The girl stays in their midst, astride one of the ponies, running until the storm is left behind and she is sure they are lost. In the morning, they awaken to the neighing, stamping, and prancing of a beautiful spotted stallion, the leader of the wild horses. His invitation to stay among them forever is joyfully accepted by the girl and her herd.
What follows is a tale of loss, redemption, and the mystical mingling of human and animal spirits. The mythic story, along with its beautifully detailed, swirling illustrations, is a wonderful introduction to the stories of Native America. Goble’s trademark black outlined, jewel-toned drawings in pen, ink, and watercolor splash across the pages while abbreviated text either contains itself in the white spaces and or runs across blocks of color. (The manner in which the illustrations and text seamlessly intertwine is one of the hallmarks of a Caldecott winner.) Pictures spill across double-page spreads and bleed off page edges, suggesting movement, the expansiveness of the western landscape, and the power of the natural world. There are plenty of details to pore over, too, including meticulously drawn wildflowers, gaily decorated tipis, and lovingly depicted creatures of the prairie. Goble renders characters and landscapes as flat planes of color and pattern contained by delicate black lines on an otherwise blank canvas. According to the author, this style was inspired by the Plains Indian tipi and buffalo robe paintings that “advertised” the exploits of great warriors.
This book is what is known as a “literary folktale,” a story made up by its author, as opposed to an authentic folktale from an oral storytelling tradition, passed down from one generation to the next. Although librarians are skeptical about “faux” folklore, many wonderful and well-known classics fall into this category, including the inspired tales of Hans Christian Andersen. The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses is nothing if not a truly original and imaginative tribute to the storytelling traditions of the Plains Indians. Goble, born in Great Britain, visited the United States frequently, staying on reservations where he immersed himself in tribal culture and developed his unique artistic and storytelling styles. Many of the author’s works are found in our folklore collection, complete with source notes and tribal attributions. He currently lives in the United States and is a member of both the Yakima and Sioux tribes.
November is Native American Heritage Month, a great time to introduce the pleasures of Native American folklore and stories to young children. Readers and listeners who are stirred by The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses will naturally be interested in learning more about North America’s indigenous peoples, and the library has plenty of books to offer. I think the fate of American Indians in the face of European “discovery” is far too complex to explain to very young children, but we have some great books on the topic for older kids. Sharing this book and other illustrated Native American stories with children will do much to capture their imaginations and raise awareness about the rich cultural traditions of America’s native peoples.
Native American stories and folklore for young children:
Suggested titles for adults and older children:
Trickster: Native American Tales: A Graphic Collection edited by Matt Dembiki