Horse-crazy kids will find lots to love in the bond between feisty, willful tween Ellen and retired racehorse Ned that unfolds in Jane Smiley's series start. Others may run aground on the heroine's motormouth, jumping-from-thought-to-thought narrative style, or lengthy discussions of horse racing, lead changes, and other fine points of riding. Some fairly heavy subjects play a role in Riding Lessons, from the adoption of a new baby and learning you're adopted yourself to being kind to a classmate whose once-respected father is in prison for embezzlement. But the story, set in the '60s with references to Marguerite Henry books and Thoroughly Modern Millie, is kind and safe. It's also subversively wise in dealing with a kid who's notably "too smart for her own good," as in this scene where teen instructor Abby compliments Ellen on her improved riding skills:
"As we were walking Blue and Gee Whiz to the pasture, Abby said, 'Do you remember when you threw yourself off the pony to show your mom that falling off wasn't so terrible?'
"'I don't do that anymore.'
"'No, because you won, didn't you? But anyway, I only bring that up to say that you have gotten good, and you knew you would.'"