Tony, written by the late poet Ed Galing and illustrated by Caldecott Medalist Erin E. Stead, is a love letter to a horse, told from the point of view of someone who once saw the horse (of the book’s title) every morning—and greatly admired him. It’s a whisper of a book, affectionate and intimate, with its small trim size, spare text and soft-focus drawings.
Tony, the speaker recalls, used to head out every morning, before the sun rose, pulling a milk wagon for a man named Tom Jones. Readers never meet the “I” of the poem, who looked forward to Tony’s visit and greeted him, patting him with “gentle arms” and watching his head bow and eyes glow in the morning light. Tom refers to this person as “sir,” but that’s about all we know. This is as it should be, since Tony is the focus here, the beautiful horse depicted with Stead’s delicate but sure lines. The palette consists of merely the colors seen on the book’s cover—pencil grey, soft green and occasional moments of warm, glorious yellows. This yellow dominates the final spread, as morning arrives just as Tony and Tom Jones leave. (Aspiring illustrators, take note: This book could be a case study in how you strike a tone successfully and consistently in a picture book.)
A vellum, text-only title page opens the book, and through it we see the horse on the next page. It’s as if we are seeing him through the fog of early morning or the speaker’s own distant memory. This technique also allows both the title page and the story’s first page to serve as one; on the page with the horse, there is merely “Tony,” the poem’s first word. It’s a striking and effective way to open a poem that is essentially a memory, given that the entire poem is in past tense.
This is a book that pays loving tribute to the deep connection people can have with animals, which children surely understand. Just like the poem’s speaker, you won’t soon forget Tony.
Julie Danielson features authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children’s literature blog.