The mane;Children's books

8th October 1999 at 01:00
CHRISTY'S DREAM. By Caroline Binch. Mammoth pound;9.99

Christy's dream is to have a horse of his own. The young boy is mad on horses. He spends all his free time at the stables, which runs a horse project for kids. It is where he feels happiest. He wants a horse so bad it makes his insides ache.

When he lays eyes on Jasmine at the horse market, his dream comes true. Despite his mother's opposition, he buys the pony with his savings and instantly becomes the happiest boy in the world. Well, not quite.

There's the music to face back home. And home is what makes this warm picture book about a child's determination and passion very different from the usual boygirl-meets-horse tale. Christy and his family live on a housing estate in Dublin with other traveller families.

This picture book by award-winning authorillustrator Caroline Binch is based on a true story and is published as part of Mammoth's autumn series of books with Irish authors, connections or settings.

A television documentary about the horse-mad traveller children of Dublin fired her imagination, particularly because of her own love of horses. "When I was at college (she studied graphics at Salford), all I wanted was to be with horses. I loved the freedom, the wildness that they represented. It might have had something to do with my mum taking me to see westerns when I was young."

She made several trips to Ballymun to do research, meet and photograph the boys whose lives revolve around their horses. It shows. All the books that Binch has illustrated - including Amazing Grace and its sequel, Grace and Family, by Mary Hoffman; Down by the River, a collection of Caribbean playground rhymes compiled by Grace Hallworth; and her own Gregory Cool and Since Dad Left - share an almost uncanny realism in their depictions of children, capturing the fleeting moments of elation, pensiveness, insecurity, contentment and frustration.

Binch has always based her illustrations on real people. "Even when I first started working and was illustrating book covers, I chose to draw friends and neighbours instead of the beautiful, young, professional models that were supplied," she says.

Since Dad Left, published last year by Frances Lincoln, also focuses on a social group that has not been seen before in children's books. In the story, Sid's dad moves out of the messy, colourful family home into a homemade bender. His adoption of a new age traveller's lifestyle triggers a sequence of emotions in Sid, from anger through sadness to resignation.

Both books share a poignant honesty in their reflection of the way children communicate with their parents. You can sense them thinking hard, trying to come to terms with problems. It is a knack that Binch has. And it is no small factor in her books' universal popularity.

Reva Klein

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