I've read hundreds of adult Christian fiction titles over the past twenty years, and while not all been hits with me, I can solidly state that Christian fiction, and all its subgenres, have attracted some talented writers. I think the genre has a dedicated group of followers and a demand for more stories.
It makes sense that those voracious readers might come from the body of younger readers that have "aged" into adult books. One would think then, that Christian fiction would have also developed a large body of teen, preteen, middle school, and elementary school fiction titles. I don't think that is true, so I was happy to see that Miralee Ferrell and David C. Cook publishers have created a mystery series called HORSES AND FRIENDS. When I was a school librarian, I could always count on having a group of horse crazy girls, somewhere between third and sixth grade. If I could get them interested in a series featuring horses, we were set for several months of eager reading. And many other girls trended toward mysteries or friendship series. So right off the bat, I think Ferrell has made some good choices in focus.
With all the bullying, and excessive focus on beauty, possessions, and technology in the child's world today, I commend Ferrell for developing characters who are thoughtfully kind and accepting. Thirteen year old Kate Ferris and her three besties decide that a trail ride would be a wonderful way to raise money to send Kate's autistic brother to a summer camp that the family can't afford on their own. Like an old Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland movie, they work together to get sponsors and set up the ride. But it appears all will be a failure when the antique tin box Kate's mother has been using to hold the entry fees is stolen. While the kids' attempts to solve the mystery of the missing money offers some humor (a forage through a hoarder's house and a bucket of manure used as a trap), it doesn't quite deliver the suspense that I've seen in other kid's mysteries. This book is number four in the series, so I am sure the ring of best friends is already strongly established by now, but even so, I think the friendship aspect clearly shines above the plot. Another strong quality to this book is the relationship between Kate and her parents. While many secular children's books (and television shows) depict the parents as buffoons, obsessed with their own lives, or simply missing, Kate's parents are there supporting the kids throughout the book. That said, they aren't hovering helicopters and there is room for the kids to make mistakes. As the book nears the end, it seems like everything just falls together too suddenly. The trail ride happens without really being covered much by the author, the thief comes forward and confesses, makes amends and the book ends. While this ending does give a good lesson on guilt and forgiveness, it seems slightly abrupt.
I really wanted to like this book more than I did. I find so many positives to commend. First and above all, I want there to be quality Christian reading choices for kids, like there are for adults. That demands walking a fine line between telling good story and "preachiness." From an early age, kids are sophisticated readers, and, in order to be genuine, stories must have a mix of strong characterization and compelling, believable plots. Somehow, action, humor or suspense or all need to be present. Ferrell has gotten some of that right in BLUE RIBBON TRAIL --the hayloft/computer/manure incident are clear evidence of that. Also true horse lovers will enjoy the chapter where Kate and her friends work on their jumping skills. But I felt the mystery aspect fell flat. Also I would like to point out that these titles feature 13 year old characters and are labeled middle school books, but I would have had a hard sell to any readers above early fifth grade in our school district. I really think these books hit a target age of 10 and 11 year olds. I am going to pass these books along to my 11 year old granddaughter (will be 12 in June) and hope she enjoys them. I fear I may be a year too late, as her reading interests have matured quite a bit recently. I received the four books in the series from Litfuse and the publisher. I was only required to review BLUE RIBBON TRAIL RIDE.