AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel. NPR's Backseat Book Club returns this fall with another reading adventure. As you may recall, this is when we choose a book for 9- to 14-year-olds, and we ask our listeners - young and not quite so young - to read along with us. Our colleague Michele Norris tells us about this month's selection.
MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: Now that we're back in the saddle, we've reached back in history to find a book that will delight adults as well as all those kids between the ages of 9 and 14. For this month, we read a classic, "Black Beauty."
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NORRIS: Generations of children - and adults - have loved this book, and it's easy to see why. Rarely does a story tug at the heart in quite this way. It's the tale of a majestic, ebony-colored horse whose life stretches from the green pastures of the English countryside, to the teeming streets of London.
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NORRIS: And you view that world through the horse's eyes. He's the narrator. And what you see, and hear, in his voice reveals much about both human nature and animal suffering.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Reading) I must stand up in a stable, night and day, except when I'm wanted. And then I must be just as steady and quiet as any old horse who has worked 20 years. Straps here and straps there; a bit in my mouth, and blinkers over my eyes. Now, I am not complaining, for I know it must be so. I only mean to say that for a young horse, full of strength and spirits; who has been used to some large field or plain where he can fling up his head, and toss up his tail, and gallop away at full speed, and then round and back again with a snort to his companions, I say it's hard never to have a bit more liberty to do as you like.
NORRIS: As his name suggests, Black Beauty was prized for his size, and his strength. He spends his youth galloping freely in green meadows. But when misfortune comes, he's sold to a series of owners, and lands in the grime of London.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Reading) The first week of my life as a cab horse, was very trying. I'd never been used to London. And the noise, the hurry; the crowds of horses, carts and carriages that I had to make my way through, made me feel anxious and harassed.
NORRIS: Along the way, he meets a series of horses whose stories are like a soap opera that could be called "Beast of Burden." There's Peggy, who's often whipped; she's just too slow. Ginger is temperamental, but for good reason. Rory is injured in an accident, and sent away to haul coal.
"Black Beauty" was written by Anna Sewell, and first published in England in 1877. To better understand how Sewell's book became both a children's classic and an animal rights manifesto, we turned to Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley.
JANE SMILEY: She loved to drive the family pony, and she loved to talk to the pony as if the pony could understand her. Probably, "Black Beauty" is based on a horse named Bess, that they had; who was quite beautiful and black, and very spirited and willing. And everybody in the family was quite fond of her.
NORRIS: Jane Smiley has read "Black Beauty" many times. She, herself, rides and grooms horses. She says the way horses were mercilessly overworked - and yet, both prized and underappreciated - is the emotional thread in this book. But to understand why "Black Beauty" had such a strong impact, Smiley says, you have to remember how horse power fueled 19th century England.
SMILEY: It's almost impossible for us to understand, I think, now that we have motorized vehicles, all the things that horses did. They went down in coal mines. They carried large amounts of goods, over long distances. I mean, anything that had to be moved, no matter how heavy it was, was moved by a horse. They just performed every function in society. And so they were seen as vehicles and utility animals, and society couldn't function without them.
NORRIS: The little, green book with the sad-looking horse on its cover, was an immediate sensation in England. Promoters brought a pirated edition of the book to America; hoping it would, in part, do for animal rights what "Uncle Tom's Cabin" had done for slavery. Within two years, a million copies of "Black Beauty" were in circulation, in the U.S. Smiley says the book did change perceptions, but she suggests another factor was also at work.
SMILEY: Some things go out of fashion; and there's a correlation, but not necessarily a causation. But the irony of it is that the best thing that ever happened to horses was that they ceased to be the automobiles and trucks of their day. The automobile was invented; and horses became pets, companion animals, leisure animals. And so, in general, they became better treated. They no longer had to do the things that they had had to do, all through the 19th century. So it took about a generation - or a generation and a half - for horses to be supplanted by motorized vehicles. So yes, "Black Beauty" had an effect, but technology had, probably, a bigger effect.
NORRIS: Is it an overstatement to say that the book, in some way, paved the way for animal rights movements, and institutions like the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals?
SMILEY: I don't think it's an overstatement. I think that "Black Beauty" helped people see animals in a new way. As soon as you say that an animal has a point of view, then it's very difficult to just go and be cruel to that animal. The greater analogy, I think, is when - with the rise of the novel, when women started being portrayed, in the novel, as having inner lives and points of view and opinions. Then, the idea of what women were for, in society, began to shift. And that had only happened in the 18th century, with books like "Pamela" and "Clarissa." So to give a woman a point of view, to give a slave a point of view, to give a horse a point of view - all of these things show, to readers, that the world is full of beings who should not be treated like objects.
NORRIS: If you pick up this book, it will probably touch some emotion. It may make you cry. And yet, we give this book to children, time and time again. This is - very much - a children's book.
SMILEY: Children love very clear moral choices; and they love the knowledge that danger will somehow be overcome. That's a feature of children's literature. And Beauty does come to a good end. He finds a place where he's taken care of, and happy. So that's kind of what we expect in a children's book - a happy ending.
NORRIS: And really, don't we all want a happy ending? I'm Michele Norris.
SIEGEL: That was Jane Smiley talking with our own Michele Norris, about Anna Sewell's classic novel, "Black Beauty."
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CORNISH: For NPR's next Backseat Book Club, we've picked a modern-day best seller - "The Red Pyramid," by Rick Riordan. You can send questions for the author to BackseatBookClub@npr.org; or tweet us @NPRBackseat.
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SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News.