We are delighted to wish Happy Birthday to A Horse Named Sky, which Greenwillow Books just released. It’s the third in Rosanne Parry’s acclaimed Voice of the Wilderness novels. This one features a wild colt captured and forced into service by the Pony Express. We’re talking with Rosanne about how she wrote this story.
MUF: Rosanne, congratulations on another marvelously crafted (and beautifully illustrated) novel that invites readers into the world of a wild animal. Like all your novels, A Horse Called Sky is based on curiosity and on extensive research. Was some of that done on location, in the places where wild horses live or have lived? If so, what was that like?
ROSANNE: I did travel quite a bit to learn about the wild horses in my story. I visited the Virginia Range just east of Reno, Nevada where my story begins and I camped and hiked in the Steens Mountain Wilderness in Oregon where my story ends. I hiked over the summit of the Sierra Nevada mountains on the Pony Express Trail and I talked to all kinds of people. Paiute historians, wild horse conservationists, ranchers, geologists and hydrologists, and a variety of people who own, train or ride horses much more often than me.
MUF: In researching wild horses, what were some of the discoveries about them and their society that most interested you?
ROSANNE: I have been fascinated by how horses communicate with their whole bodies in some very big and obvious ways and in some very subtle ways. Once when we were looking at mustangs from 100 yards away or so (like you are supposed to) a yearling got curious about me and approached. She walked right up to me, and then turned her head and neck to the side which is how a horse invites you to come closer. It was so sweet! I wanted to hug that little horse so much! But about 20 yards behind her the mare was fixing me with a look! Lips pressed together. It was subtle but I could see in an instant how unhappy she was. I did not take one step closer to the yearling! And as soon as she saw her mother watching her, she sprinted away from me.
I also saw a large group of mares and their stallions together and a smaller group of bachelor stallions alongside them. The youngsters got a little boisterous with each other. They started with just snorting and kicking dirt at each other. But then they reared up and started throwing kicks. One of the older stallions lifted up his head and gave one snort in the direction of the younger males. They stopped fighting instantly. A subtle gesture with a huge response. It really made me think about the structure of a band of wild horses. They are very deferential to each other. The males do fight, but for the most part they are very conflict avoidant. It’s pretty inspiring.
MUF: There is much information in the back of your book about the status of wild horses and their environment in the present. You could have written a contemporary story about wild horses. What was your thought in setting your novel during the brief run of the Pony Express in the early 19thcentury?
ROSANNE: It was the dearest ambition of my 8 year old self to be a pony express rider. 1. Outdoors 2. Moving fast 3. Excellent pay 4. Very little supervision. Four of my favorite things to this day! When I learned that the pony express had in fact taken mustangs off the range to run the more difficult and dangerous sections in the mountains of the west, I knew I had a story kids could really root for. And then I dug into the history of the Piaute War and the Comstock silver mine in the Virginia Range and the enslavement of Indigenous Americans in California, & the surrounding territories, and the history of Black cowboys. Well it was all very interesting and piece of American history not so commonly talked about.
MUF: You set a task for yourself by having an animal character be your narrator. He can only communicate and connect with readers using perceptions and responses a horse would have. Readers then have to guess at the actual object, animals, or words for things (and they do). I love the way Sky classifies humans by the colors of their hides and “manes” and identifies the stallions, colts, and mares among them. What things did you have to think hardest about to get them across through Sky?
ROSANNE: I love to think about how an animal perceives the world. It was very different to write about a prey animal as the last two Voice of the Wilderness books were predators—a wolf and an orca. Horses, even well cared for domestic horses, are always on the alert for danger. They notice the smallest things and every change of mood in the members of their family band.
The hardest part to write was thinking through the human interactions, understanding how horses regard humans and try to communicate with them. When I chose the wrangler who teaches Sky to accept a saddle and bridle, I chose a former slave. A person who would have a natural compassion for a creature who has newly lost his freedom. I studied both historic and contemporary horse training methods. The more gentle training model the wrangler uses was fairly common in the 1800s. Writing the actual steps in the gentling process from the point of view of a horse who doesn’t know what’s going on took lots of drafts.
MUF: And now let’s hear from Sky’s illustrator, Kirbi Fagan. Kirbi is recognized for her cover art in adult, YA, and Middle-grade fiction as well as comic books projects such as Black Panther/Shuyri and Firefly. She illustrated this book in pan pastels.
MUF: Brava, Kirbi! Aren’t horses one of the more difficult animals to draw? Love helps, right?
KIRBI: Thank you. It does take a certain kind of artist to take on drawing over a hundred illustrations of horses! My agent asked if I was tired of horses after I turned in my last revisions. I’m not. In fact, I think my inner horse girl is living her best life. Horses have lived alongside people for so long, it’s one of the animals humans can recognize quickly. That’s why, even for a novice, it’s easy to spot a bad horse drawing. All of this to say, yes, drawing horses is tough.
MUF: Are wild horses an extra challenge?
KIRBI: I visited as many different horses as I could, I did proper studies to refer to, and drew in the field. I felt prepared (and inspired!). Seeing the range of diversity from horse to horse is freeing and helped me loosen up. Mustangs are on the more petite side, and I was lucky to meet Maggie, who lives about an hour away from me, who fit the size of Sky’s band roughly. Thanks Maggie!
MUF: Does being free but also having to provide for themselves change wild horses’ appearance or stance or carriage, compared to domestic horses?
KIRBI: The truth is, a lot of wild horses are dehydrated and undernourished. Likely worse today than during the Pony Express times. Today, wild horses will show characteristics of draft horses and thoroughbred horses. When most people think of wild horses many think of the swath of colors and markings. This reputation is well deserved. Wild horses roam great distances and these rugged terrains are not kind. Manes are ragged and mangled, sometimes even with burrs. They bear all sorts of battle wounds. They aren’t groomed, so when their coats change with the seasons, it’s a string of bad hair days!
MUF: Thank you, Rosanne and Kirbi, for taking time to share some of what went into creating this book! Readers, treat yourselves to Rosanne’s unique and moving way of writing an animal’s story in A Horse Named Sky. Also in the other two books in the Voices of the Wilderness series: A Wolf called Wander, and A Whale of the Wild. (And keep an eye out for Kirbi’s debut author/illustrated picture book appearing in 2025).