Horse Trouble is the engaging story of horse-obsessed Kate, who struggles with her self-image because other people hassle her about her weight. The cover gives a hint of the trouble in the title: Kate is seated on a horse backward, a bemused smile on her face. The title page offers another hint: the horse is galloping, and Kate, still facing backward, holding on for dear life!
Despite the awkward horse predicament, Millcreek Horse Farm is where Kate feels most happy and fulfilled, whether she’s mucking out the stalls to defray the costs of her lessons or riding the horses she loves. In fact, the real “trouble” Kate faces is less about horses and of a more personal nature.
Kate narrates over the opening pages as she examines herself at all angles in the mirror wearing a variety of horizontally striped T-shirts. Her mother has told her the stripes aren’t flattering but they’re Kate’s favorites, so she wears them anyway. “My mom means well, she just doesn’t get it. She was never chubby as a kid.” Kate’s matter-of-fact self-acceptance makes her instantly likable. She knows she’s okay as she is—but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt when others tease or make fun of her.
Though Kate has a strong relationship with her best friend Becky, she never feels comfortable at school. She’s too aware that at any moment someone might say something cruel to her about her body. At home, her mother is supportive, but her older brother calls her “Chubba” and doesn’t see anything wrong with it. Even at her horse farm haven, Kate has to deal with mean girl Jana, who makes fun of Kate’s size and encourages other girls to do the same.
Kate tries her best to ignore Jana and instead focus on the horses she loves. When Kate’s trainer Barb suggests Kate might be ready to ride in the Black Hawk Classic, Kate is ecstatic. She works hard at getting good enough for the upcoming show, despite Jana jeering every time she makes a mistake. And make mistakes she does: Kate falls off her horse over and over (the book’s title was originally “Ten Falls”), but, as Barb reassures her, the fact that Kate always gets back on after a fall is what makes her a real rider.
As Kate makes a new friend at the barn and her riding skills increase, her confidence extends to her personal life. Kate stands up to her brother about his verbal abuse and even talks to her mother about the more subtle ways she has been body shaming Kate.
Gorgeously drawn in two-color blue ink with the occasional splash of pink for emphasis, each page is filled with clear lines and beautiful shading. Panels are laid out in a variety of appealing styles, and in a cute touch that breaks up the standard format, each character is introduced with a borderless panel that lists their name, age, sun sign, what they’re into and not into, plus a few defining possessions such as a pet or in Kate’s brother’s case, a drum kit.
In another nice visual touch, Varner introduces horse lingo to the non-riders in full page chapter openers depicting different pieces of horse equipment and a written description of what they’re for. Horse-specific terms are written in purple throughout, with a definition in a footnote at the bottom of the page the term is on.
Horse Trouble is a wonderful examination of the effects of the casual cruelty of kids who don’t understand that not all bodies need to conform to the same standards of beauty. Kate never comes off as whiny or self-pitying, but she’s honest about her struggles. Ultimately, she models resilience and finds inner strength in following her passion and staying true to herself. Horse Trouble is recommended for all libraries where contemporary tween graphic novels are popular.
By Kristin Varner
Macmillan First Second, 2021
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12
NFNT Age Recommendation: Tween (10-13)