I was met with a round of blank looks. It's okay, I'm used to it by now, but it didn't make it any less frustrating.
"This is a book?" One person ventured.
"It's a kid's book," I said. "It came out when I was in high school."
A round of knowing looks went through the group. Someone patted my forearm, I forget who it was, and leaned in to whisper "Scott, by high school, most of us stop reading children's books."
Actually, I was twenty six or so when I finally read it. A fact that I keep to myself, preferring to pretend to be horrified that they hadn't been reading stories about boys and their horses when they were sixteen.
I thought about asking about those Harry Potter books I knew they had on their shelves, but gave up. Those were different, or at least those were the worm that turned. And even though JK Rowling was largely responsible for drawing adults into the young adult sections of their bookstores and libraries, most of the venturing seemingly went forward from Harry's pub date, not backwards.
Which is too bad, really. There are some great overlooked books on those shelves, languishing in the boy wizard's shadow. It's possible that I'm one of the few Americans who had even heard of War Horse before it became a play.
I cheated, I suppose, by being a children's bookseller.
Today, it was featured in the New York Times, but only because it's about to open in New York. In short, it's a story about a boy and a horse. Big deal, right? Then the British army takes the horse to Europe and the boy follows his equine friend into the blood and chaos of the First World War.
Written from the viewpoint of the horse.
There have been a number of great stories written from the viewpoint of animals and some not-so-great attempts to mimic them. Traveller, by Richard Adams, is the book it reminds me of most. And though War Horse predates Traveller by a few years, comparisons are inevitable because of their animal's-eye-view of war, the comparisons stop there. Both narratives attempt to draw attention to how strange the enterprise of war is by showing it from the viewpoint of an uncomprehending animal forced to participate. Much though I liked Traveller, I think War Horse wins the bout, capturing the full scope and horror of the putative War to End All Wars.
War Horse is one of those books that hollows you out and shakes you and then puts everything back just a bit wrong and with extra parts left out. In a good way.
I haven't seen the play, but I will if I get the chance. In fact, I was reminded of the book (prompting the discussion above) by the play, or rather by the puppets used to bring horses onto the stage. The puppets are so beautiful and amazing that the designers were invited to talk at this year's TED Conference. It's no secret that I love puppets and puppetry. I wanted to be Jim Henson when I grew up and I still quietly dream of working with his people someday, somehow.
The horse puppet will show you how powerful a puppet can be. Seriously, the could not have been more powerful if they had brought actual horses onstage. I cannot fathom how the upcoming movie adaptation by Stephen Spielberg can hope to measure up.
Before you see the play or watch the movie (Christmas of this year, I believe) I hope you take a moment to read Mr. Morpurgo's amazing book. And if you're a writer as I am, read the story behind that book. It's the perfect story of a tale that made it to print only to be written off more times than you can count, finding its audience decades later and an author who never gave up on it.