I’m delighted to be featuring a guest post from Lou Kuenzler today to celebrate her latest children’s book Finding Black Beauty. Finding Black Beauty was published on 6th October by Scholastic and is available for purchase here and through the publisher.
I have previously featured Lou on Linda’s Book Bag when I thoroughly enjoyed reviewing another of her children’s books, Bella Broomstick. You can read my review here.
Finding Black Beauty
Told from the point of view of a young girl who masquerades as a boy in order to become a groom, this is the other side of the classic horse story Black Beauty. Aspiring groom Jo comes to love Beauty and when they are separated she travels to London to find him – on the way solving the mystery of her long-lost mother. A sweeping tale of a young girl and her love for a horse, and the circumstances that divide them.
Adapting a Classic
A Guest Post by Lou Kuenzler
Thank you Linda’s Book Bag for inviting me onto the blog to talk about my new children’s book Finding Black Beauty and to explore the relevance of adapting a classic novel for a modern audience.
I have never taken direct inspiration from a classic story before but, when invited to consider it by my publishers, I knew at once that it would be Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty I would pick. Growing up on a farm, I had loved the story myself. While some of Sewell’s language and episodic structure may be dated, and the levels of cruelty she exposes extremely shocking, I felt certain that the fast-paced adventure at the heart of the story was something that would definitely appeal to modern children – especially if told in a fresh new way.
I decided early on, in whatever way I tried to tackle the story, I would not attempt to tell it in Black Beauty’s own voice – Sewell does this so brilliantly, I felt Beauty’s viewpoint was best left as it was. Also, with the benefit of hindsight and history, I found that was I drawn not only to the plight of animals in Victorian Britain but to the people – and specifically the children – too. Here I felt the murmur of untapped voices.
Jo, the young stable lad, began to whisper to me. I know when I visit National Trust properties, or similar grand country houses, it is always the servants’ quarters I am drawn to. There never seems to be quite enough emphasis on this – with kitchens and/or stables often having been turned into tearooms (not that I’m not a massive fan of good Victoria sponge!) and the attics and lofts out of bounds (perhaps for safety reasons). It is as if a hundred hurrying footsteps have been hushed up. I think part of the huge appeal of Downton Abbey; for instance, was that we got to see life upstairs and downstairs.
I felt confident that contemporary children would be drawn to the story of a young stable lad – pretty much the same age as the oldest of the primary school children Finding Black Beauty is aimed at. Whilst they are thinking about SATS and the transition to secondary education, a working Victorian child would be earning a living. To really explore this servant role, I decided to turn it on its head: my Jo is not only a girl (Josie) in disguise, she has also come from a privileged background and never had to consider the lives of those who have served her until now. With the sudden and unexpected death of her father, Josie – already abandoned by her mother – is forced to see the world through very different eyes.
I felt that this switch in perspective would offer a way in for contemporary readers – they would be able to share fresh experiences and question social norms alongside Josie as she goes on a journey of self-discovery, seeing the world in a whole new, less sheltered, way.
Yet, while the character of my Josie is taken from the very few lines Anna Sewell writes about Jo, her stable lad; the arch of the plot has similarities – the plight of the magnificent horse is at the centre of both books. Sewell’s story is a wonderful flat-out, galloping adventure. That, I felt, could definitely be revisited for children in any age. My Josie’s story is laced with her growing self-knowledge, examining class and gender in the nineteenth century and – unavoidably – raising issues still of resonance for children today. But, at heart, Finding Black Beauty is about passion. It is the story of a young girl’s desperate attempt to protect a beloved horse. It is, I hope, life and death stuff – just as Anna Sewell’s wonderful, heart-rending original story was.
I had huge fun writing the book, researching Victorian life and creating fleshed out characters from those who appear only briefly in Black Beauty itself. Always having the original to refer back to was a wonderful support but I was always very aware that my new story needed to be more than a companion piece or sequel. To draw in and then hold young readers, Finding Black Beauty had to be a compelling story in its own right.
About Lou Kuenzler
Lou Kuenzler was brought up on Dartmoor and moved to Northern Ireland to study theatre. She worked as a theatre director and drama lecturer before coming the writer of the Princess Disgrace, Shrinking Violet and Bella Broomstick series with Scholastic. Finding Black Beauty is her first retelling of a classic novel. Lou now lives in London with her husband and their two children.