December 06, 2006

Blackie: The Charm Of an Unlikely Hero

(click for larger version)
A story about a horse who likes to stand still is endearing. That the tale could bring hundreds of children to their feet in applause is extraordinary.

When they finished reading their new children's book, Blackie: The Horse Who Stood Still, to 300 elementary school students in California, Christopher Cerf and Paige Peterson received a standing ovation.

"It brought tears to our eyes," said Peterson.

This biography-in-verse, with 45 full-color illustrations, tells the mostly true story of an unwitting equine hero that charmed an entire town. Cerf and Peterson will be reading and signing copies of their book at the Authors Round Table Series tomorrow night at Alison Restaurant in Bridgehampton.

Blackie was a swaybacked horse that spent most of his 40 years standing perfectly still — as a champion rodeo horse, as a cavalry horse, and finally as a retired steed on a private pasture in Tiburon, California. He was 12 years old when he arrived at Tiburon and he stayed on that pasture, virtually motionless, for 28 years.

In 1965, the horse became a symbol for environmental preservation when the road to Tiburon was expanded to four lanes and had a portion rerouted through a section of the pasture. The town, in an uproar over the development, created a committee to save Blackie's pasture and was ultimately successful. Blackie died a year later, in 1966, and his eulogy appeared in all the newspapers in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The residents of Tiburon, so taken with this animal, built a life-size bronze statue of him in his honor and placed it in the pasture where Blackie once stood. The residents found Blackie's presence soothing.

"I think it was the dependability of him. There was something about the consistency; people drove down Tiburon Boulevard and the horse was always there. Everybody looks off. Even to this day, people look off to look at the statue," said Peterson.

Peterson, who grew up in Tiburon, used to feed the horse apples, carrots and sugar cubes, along with the other children in town.

"I had the great fortune of knowing Blackie personally. When I was a child I used to feed him and pet him and visit him on Saturdays. He died when I was 11 years old. So I had a lot of years in my life with him," said Peterson.

Cerf was drawn to how Blackie's gentle disposition took on greater meaning for those who loved him. The challenge of simply writing the story was compelling, as well.

"The town loved him; they built a statue where he was and revered him as kind of a symbol of keeping open space and I thought that was a great message to kids," said Cerf. "I also loved the challenge of a horse that basically, for 28 years, just stood there and never moved. How can we make that into a story? That was a fun challenge."

As an author, composer-lyricist and record and television producer, Cerf is best known for his musical contributions to "Sesame Street;" co-creating and co-producing PBS's "Between the Lions," an award-winning children's literacy program; and writing numerous books and articles.

He wrote the story of Blackie in verse, a style he is quite familiar with. "I worked with Dr. Seuss, which I really wasn't trying to do, but obviously his books are books that I love and I'm lucky enough to have some experience doing the verse form, because I've written literally hundreds of songs for "Sesame Street." So it's more fun for me to do it that way, and it makes the simple points more fun to read," he said

Using Cerf's words and her own experience with the horse as a child, Peterson painted the book's 45 illustrations in acrylic. Blackie's message was more than just about preserving open space, she said. It was a reminder to slow down and take in the view.

"He taught children to be quiet. One of the things that I learned as a child was that just standing perfectly still was completely acceptable with Blackie," she said. It is a message the authors wanted to pass on to their readers: "And when Blackie slowed down / just to take in the view / The kids saw him do it, and they did it, too, / And they learned in the process, / what joy can be found / In just standing there quietly looking around."

The book also touches on death, a topic not often explored in children's literature. "We really didn't set out to do it but when we read in schools kids asked so many questions about that, 'how did he die and will he be remembered?'" said Cerf. "He had a really model death in some sense, [and] he had a great life and he will be remembered forever for doing what he did."

"Which was to stand still," Peterson chimed in, laughing.

The Authors Round Table Series will commence tomorrow at 7 p.m.

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