Does your imagination ever run wild? I bet kids will have no difficulty answering this one and for me that answer is still an empathic, yes! Horse-obsessed Charli finds it difficult to rein in her run-away imagination too in Samantha Wheeler’s new novel for primary-aged readers, Spud and Charli.
This story gallops full speed from the first page to the last and reminds me of my intense desire to own a horse of my own at Charli’s age. Being short on grass, (our backyard was a dustbowl) and unable to persuade my parents to invest in anything equine, I rigged up the dog’s lead to my bicycle handlebars as reins and rode for hours around an imaginary gymkhana in our backyard. It was an engineering and imaginary success, which thankfully Charli does not have to resort to because she is allowed to attend horse-camp and realise a dream come true; ‘to learn to ride a real, live horse!’
Nevertheless, dreams rarely come true easily and when camp show-off, Mikaela, snaffles the palomino Charli has her heart set on, she is crestfallen. Charli is relegated to Spud, an over-sized, unattractive ex-racehorse. It’s not the start of the stellar riding career she’d hoped for however Spud’s soft nature soon insinuates itself in Charli.
Not only does Charli have to adapt to the rigours and routines of horse care and the chequered, challenging personalities of her riding mates, she also has to contend with a newfound fear – bats.
Fruit bats surround the property filling Charli’s nights with disquieting noise and her heart with fear. She’s heard they spread disease and can kill horses and with her imagination galloping straight out of the paddock, she is convinced that Spud is in grave danger because of them. Not only are lives threatened, but Mrs Bacton, the camp organiser wants to cancel the gymkhana.
Are bats as deadly as Charli believes and if not, how will she persuade Mrs Bacton that she really does deserve a place at the riding comp?
What I loved about Wheeler’s debut novel, Smooch and Rose, was the bright and breezy way Wheeler portrayed a story big on heart and moral understanding. Spud and Charli is similar in its delivery with a little less eye-prickling emotion but just as much raw reality and enthusiastic narrative fluttering with enough funny and shocking moments to rein young readers in.
Charli is a character many young girls in particular will catch glimpses of themselves in whether they are horse mad or not. Her journey of self-awareness and gradual understanding of the truth about bats is neither too predictable nor obtuse. I am confident young readers will get Charli and admire her overall spunk and drive. It would be fantastic if more members of our society were as well informed (about the fruit bat / Hendra Virus situation) as Charli eventually becomes.
Spud and Charli is as entertaining as it is significant and for this reader who grew up in FNQ (far north Queensland) amongst thousands of flying foxes feasting nightly on our backyard pawpaws, it is a positive, feel-good story about two of my favourite mammals.
Extra golden horseshoes awarded to Charli who revisits after the story’s end to take us through some excellent info pages on interesting bat facts with no nonsense advice and useful online links; beautifully dispelling ugly myths while at the same time carefully educating our next generation of nature lovers. A joy to read in its own right, this book will serve well as a valuable prompt for classroom projects and discussion.
For those residing in SE Queensland, be sure to trot into Riverbend Books and Teahouse this Friday the 12th September for the launch of Spud and Charli. Plenty of room to tie up dobbin at the door. 6 pm. Or you can secure your copy of Spud and Charli right now here.
UQP September 2014