Riding Lessons: Ellen & Ned, Book 1

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
Riding Lessons: Ellen & Ned, Book 1 Book Poster Image
Kind, horsey story spotlights adoption and empathy.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Set in Northern California in the '60s, has a lot of period detail about places, activities, and especially books and movies. Ellen's class has to read Johnny Tremain but she wants to read The Black Stallion.


Positive Messages

Adoption is a theme here, and nicely handled as a new baby sister arrives. Strong messages of family, kindness. Paying attention to what's going on around you as well as what's in your own head -- learning to balance the two. Learning to see things from someone else's point of view, including a horse's.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Ten-year-old Ellen is, as her dad says often, too smart for her own good, and a great one for following her own internal compass, with hair-raising (and often hilarious) results. Much of the story involves her trying to follow the rules and do what's expected. She learns about kindness, empathy, friendship, and the self-discipline good riding demands. Her parents are kind, supportive, trying to do right by a kid who's definitely a handful. Horses Ned, Blue, others offer interesting perspectives and look out for their people.

Violence & Scariness

Largely because of time and place, Riding Lessons' world feels extraordinarily safe, especially for a smart, strong-minded kid with an excellent support system. Potentially scary situations occur, like when Ellen, who's not allowed to do anything of the kind, goes out for a walk around town by herself after dark, but nothing awful happens.


What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Riding Lessons, by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jane Smiley, is the first book in a middle-grade trilogy involving some of the human and equine characters of her Horses of Oak Valley Ranch series. Set in the 1960s in Northern California, the story's told by a horse-crazy, smart, imaginative fourth-grader who communicates telepathically with a retired racehorse, has better sense than to mention it to anybody, and generally works on her behavior and life skills as a condition of keeping horses in her life. There's quite a bit going on, unfolding in a motormouth narrative of adoption, equestrian skills, empathy, and figuring out how to balance who you are and what you want with what's happening elsewhere in your world. Narrator/heroine Ellen opens her story with the tale of a birthday party prank that makes perfect sense according to her own way of thinking, but to others not so much -- the first but not the last of the book's hair-raising, hysterically funny moments that are highly relatable, if not always the best behavior.

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What's the story?

Wildly imaginative, smart, and horse-crazy, Ellen loves her RIDING LESSONS and works hard to improve her skills under the watchful eye of teen instructor Abby in this tale set in an idyllic part of Northern California in the '60s. Then retired racehorse Ned arrives at the stable, and it's love, especially since the two of them can converse telepathically, even when far apart. Ellen, who tends to drive adults and others crazy by doing what makes sense to her without exactly thinking it through, has to work on self-discipline, following the rules, and staying out of trouble in order to keep up her lessons. Meanwhile, there's a lof of other stuff going on, as her parents adopt a new baby and tell Ellen she's adopted also.

Is it any good?

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.'"

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about horse stories. Are you a fan, or do you not quite get it? How does Riding Lessons compare with other horse-themed stories you've read?

  • This story is set in a time and place that seems a bit like our own but is also really different. What kinds of things happen in Ellen's world that might not happen today? What situations might play out differently?

  • Have you ever done something that seemed like a really good idea at the time but didn't exactly turn out that way? What happened?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love books about horses and new siblings

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