Inspiring Young Readers

posted on 06 May 2024

Terrible Horses by Raymond Antrobus, illustrated by Ken Wilson-Max

I think we need plenty of books on the theme of sibling rivalry because this is such a common experience. I can imagine fraught parents looking for books that will help them to talk about why it is that their children are constantly competing for attention and winding one another up instead of playing together happily. This one has appeal because it finds a way to acknowledge the anger of the younger child and it suggests a way of using creative drawing and writing to bring him closer to his older sister.  

The front cover signals the gentle tone of this charming picture book with the depiction of the boy absorbed in drawing horses in a notebook. He is surrounded by drawings of bigger horses, all in muted pink blue and yellow tones. 

The story begins with four black and white photos showing an older girl holding a baby boy with an expression that moves from suspicion through to mild fury. On the facing page, we learn that she thought that she would have to leave home when her little brother was born! As he grows bigger, the boy realises that she wants to keep her distance despite his desperation to be liked and included in her world. The difficult relationship is emphasised by the pages that show them physically fighting because ‘we do not use our words.’ 

The boy has a way to cope with his anger which is to go to his room and write illustrated stories about ‘terrible horses’.  Again, we see him putting all his energy and concentration into what seems to be a therapeutic activity:

‘In the story,

I am a pony.

Everyone else in the world

Is a horse.’

I really like the way in which this powerful story doesn’t shy away from the physical and emotional conflict between the siblings. The bold illustrations showing a particularly fierce stand-off followed by the sullen and distressed pair facing away from each other expresses their deep disquiet. The boy’s identification with the quiet pony of his drawings gives him a way to process his feelings. When his book of drawings goes missing one day, we see his sister on the facing page tentatively moving towards his space with a much friendlier look about her:

‘My sister is here,

In my room...

Is she galloping, 

Galloping towards me?

Is she smiling a whole smile?’

Young readers will enjoy the way in which their differences are eventually resolved and be inspired to share their own stories about sisters and brothers who can sometimes very trying. There is also room for plenty of discussion about personal space, differing personalities, the need for creative self- expression and empathy. 

Published by Walker Books, you will be able to buy this beautiful picture books from your local independent bookshop – who will be happy to order it for you if they don’t have it on their shelves.

Karen Argent

May 2024