The children’s book that changed the world.
June 14, 2016
THE FIRST BOOK of substance I ever read was Black Beauty.
Well, I didn’t really read it.
My mother read it to me.
She said it was a classic.
She was right.
I had moved right up from Dick and Jane and see spot run.
I now had my hands on real literature.
And the story touched me deeply.
Black Beauty, in essence, was the autobiography of a horse.
And I loved horses.
Didn’t ride them much.
But I loved them.
We had two horses on the farm where I lived.
Betty was the mare. Smoky was the foal.
I had to ride Betty bareback. I was too small to lift the saddle off the ground, much less throw it over her back.
I was just a little guy.
So we occasionally wandered across our twenty acres, Betty loping along, Smoky trailing a few steps behind her, and me hanging on for dear life, expecting to die beneath the next low-hanging tree limb.
She didn’t stop when I yelled, “Whoa.”
She didn’t always start when I yelled, “Go.”
Betty wasn’t mean. I think she was laughing at me.
After reading Black Beauty, I was sure of it.
The story was told strictly from the horse’s point of view. It was filled with pathos during a time in Great Britain when horses were viewed as work animals.
They pulled barges.
They dragged coal.
They hauled granite.
They worked until they couldn’t work anymore, then led away to the glue factories.
The plight of the horses was heartbreaking.
Black Beauty’s life began in the idyllic pastures of a green British landscape.
But the horse was sold time and again.
Some handlers were kind.
Some were careless.
Some showed love.
Some were callous.
I’ll never forget the night Black Beauty was ridden hard over dark roads by a drunken groom.
The horse stumbled.
Black Beauty went down with an injured leg.
No longer valuable.
The horse wound up pulling a carriage through the teeming, dirty streets of London until Black Beauty found salvation with a kind owner toward the end of her life.
It is the story of love and hope and courage.
The novel reflects its author’s life.
Anna Sewell grew up in a well-to-do Quaker family.
Her mother wrote children’s books.
Anna edited them.
She suffered from a debilitating bone disease, and, after a fall when she was fourteen, Anna was never able to walk without a crutch. When she needed to go somewhere, Anna rode in a carriage pulled by horses.
She cared for them.
She talked to them.
She believed they heard and understood every word she said.
Maybe they did.
But Anna Sewell was a troubled soul.
All around her, she witnessed cruelty to horses.
She knew they were suffering, and she couldn’t do anything about it.
Anna Sewell took a deep breath. She did something about it.
She wrote a book.
Anna Sewell wrote Black Beauty, she said, “to induce kindness, sympathy, and the understanding treatment of horses.”
She did not begin writing the book until she was fifty years old.
It took her seven years before she finished it.
Anna Sewell had become an invalid, confined to her room.
Writing was such a difficult chore.
Yet she wrote day and night.
She wrote feverishly.
Anna Sewell feared her life would end before the book did.
But in spite of the odds facing her, she did not quit.
She could not let the horses down.
Anna was often so weak she had to dictate passages of the text to her mother. At other times, she could only scribble her story one slow, laborious word at a time on small scraps of paper, and her mother transcribed them.
Her novel was published in 1877.
Anna Sewell died of hepatitis five months later.
She never realized her little green book with the sad little horse on the cover would become one of the best-loved children’s classics of all time. It led to the creation of The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Promoters in America stole an edition of the novel and smuggled it to a publisher in the United States, hoping that Black Beauty would shine a light on animal rights the way Uncle Tom’s Cabin had exposed slavery. Activists around the country handed out copies of the book to horse drivers and stable hands.
The message was simple.
You’ve got horses.
Take care of them.
Anna Sewell only had one book to write.
Sometimes one book is enough.