Writing about Wonder

For all of its perils, social media has its perks, too. Recently, I was looking to rehome some books that had lived at my parents' house for decades but needed to find new owners. With one simple post, I ended up taking a trip down memory lane that was full of racehorse names I hadn't thought of in years.

Ashleigh's Wonder. Townsend Prince. Fleet Goddess. Wonder's Pride. I feel honor-bound to mention that those names are fictional. These horses never really existed but were oh so very real to me when I was a kid.

Most writers are voracious readers as well, and that is certainly true for me. What I learned with that Facebook post was that if you are a woman of a certain age who likes horses, there is a good chance those fictional racehorse names ring a bell for you, too. They were all major equine characters in the Thoroughbred series by Joanna Campbell, whose real name is Jo Ann Simon.

The first book, A Horse Called Wonder, was published in 1991 and was aimed at the young adult market. It spawned into a series that ran until 2005 and totaled 72 books, not including the specials and spin-offs tied to it. I don't know how many books ended up being in circulation, but by the time Simon handed the reins over to another writer at book No. 15, there were already 2 million of them in print. Although the entire series is no longer in print, to this day A Horse Called Wonder is still available and has reached at least its 47th print run.

A friend of mine noticed all the comments on the post about needing to rehome the books and asked me whatever happened to the author. I didn't know the answer but was curious too, so I reached out to Simon. It turns out she returned to how she started her career as an author: writing books for adults under her actual name. However, she remains fond of the series that brought the Thoroughbred industry alive for me when I was a 10-year-old bookworm.

I knew I wasn't the only one who loved the books, so I asked if she would be willing to do a Q&A about the series and horse racing. She was more than happy to oblige. So for everyone who grew up wishing Wonder was a real horse, enjoy:

Amanda Duckworth: How did you start writing a series for young adults about the Thoroughbred industry?

Jo Ann Simon: I had published several books on horses and girls. They liked those, and they came to me and asked if I could do a series on horse racing. I said, "Well, yeah!" They gave me a rough outline, and I rewrote the whole thing. That was the beginning of the series, which was four books, and they turned out to be a big hit. So, they came back and asked me to do more.

AD: Did you know much about racing when you started writing the series?

JAS: I knew more about English horse racing from author Dick Francis than I did about American racing, so I did a heck of a lot of research. I had some basic knowledge because I rode horses and owned a couple, but I never had experience riding an actual racehorse. This was before the internet, so I subscribed to the Lexington Herald-Leader, the Thoroughbred Times, and the Blood-Horse to get news. Now, of course, I have all of that on my laptop. I read the Daily Racing Form today and was reading a progress report on a horse at New Vocations when you called.

AD: So you still keep up with horse racing?

JAS: The more I got into the research, the more I liked it. I did a couple trips to Saratoga, which I love. I took my granddaughter and we toured the backside. To write the books, I was always more interested in the things they don't show on television. What was the prep like? Where do they go? How do they saddle them up? How do they groom them? I mean, I know how to groom a horse, but was it any different from a regular riding stable to a racehorse stable? To this day, I am still hooked on racing and follow the major stuff. I've never given it up. I only bet on favorites, so I am not a gambler though.

AD: Who is your favorite race horse of all time?

JAS: Cigar. I went down to Belmont for his Breeders' Cup Classic, and he was so impressive. I was at the paddock and he was late coming out. I was thinking he was going to have to scratch, but it turned out there was an issue involving his shoes. When he walked out of the paddock, he just held himself like he knew he was regal. He was like, "I know what I am doing, and I know who I am." Then he did his magic on the track. To watch him run was so fantastic. I think it was his 12th victory in a row. He was so wonderful. I cried when he finally lost.

AD: What concerns you about racing today?

JAS: We promote the 3-year-olds too much and not the handicap division enough. What happened after the Triple Crown is really typical. Horse racing is too insular, and it is not fan-oriented enough. I know people are in the business to make money, but there is a point where you are going to lose your fan base if you are only interested in the bottom line.

AD: You eventually stopped writing the Thoroughbred series and other authors took over. Why?

JAS: I researched, outlined, and wrote the books through No. 14. By then, I was so burned out, I couldn't keep going and I had to stop. They wanted four books a year from me, which is a lot, especially when you are starting from scratch with each book. I was totally washed out. They were paying me well, and I owned half the copyright, but I just couldn't do it any more.

AD: Did you like what happened to the series after you stopped writing it?

JAS: Karen Bentley was one of the best, she really researched it. Then other writers took over and I was not happy with what they did, but I had given it up, so what could I say? When I said I wasn't really happy with the series, they had me come up with a pre-Thoroughbred series about Ashleigh. I wrote the first three-and-half books in that series, but those were not nearly as popular.

AD: Who were your favorite characters in the series?

JAS: Wonder was my favorite horse, and I did like a couple of her offspring, specifically Wonder's Pride. I did really like Samantha but Ashleigh, of course, was my favorite human character because she was based on a fictional version of me and my aspirations at that age. The one character I didn't really like was Cindy, especially what they did to her. She turned into a brat.

One of the scenes that had me in tears as I was writing it was when Charlie died, even though I did it -- I made him die. He played such an integral part in the beginning books as Ashleigh's mentor. He was always there for her. A kid that age needs somebody who is going to be right by her side. At 12, you don't have the skills or the knowledge to do some of the things she did. In that sense the series was based on a fantasy, but there are kids out there who are privileged enough to work with horses from a young age and learn it from the bottom up.

AD: Wonder lost just as much as she won. Why?

JAS: It would have been totally unrealistic if she won every race. Obviously, aiming a filly at the Triple Crown is a super fantasy anyway, but it couldn't be too easy. I wanted to show that Ashleigh had to work at it and get some disappointments along the way, which is life. Everything doesn't go your way, but in the end, if you preserve it all turns out for the best.

AD: Why was having Ashleigh be such a strong character in a male-dominated sport important to you?

JAS: My philosophy in life is that girls are just as capable as boys and that should be allowed to show. I don't mean to sound like I am against men by any means; it has just been part of society. I wanted to show that women are not second class citizens. Girls are just as talented and intelligent in their own right as boys are.

AD: Why did the books go out of print?

JAS: The books stayed in print for quite a while, then for reasons beyond me, Harper Collins, the publisher, took Thoroughbred out of print several years ago. Now the only books you can get are mostly used copies. I would love to see them go back in print, especially the original books, but it would be very complicated because I only own half the copyright. I still feel proud of the books though. They would stand up today, even though they were written in the pre-cell phone era. A good story stands up to time.

AD: As an author, what did the success of the series mean to you?

JAS: I am delighted that the books have really created such a long-term connection. It always warmed my heart to think, "Wow, my books actually had a positive influence on a girl." You put so much effort into writing. To know that what you put on paper has been appreciated is probably the best reward a writer could ever get, aside from money, but money doesn't last. Appreciation lasts a lot longer than the money does.

The series was a big hit in Britain too, and a girl there wrote to me. She became an exercise rider after reading the books. She was getting quite good at it, and there were a lot of great stories like that. I have gotten fan letters from all over the world. Back in the days of snail mail, I got tons of letters, and I tried to respond to them all, but I couldn't. I had a form letter, but it isn't quite the same as a personalized letter. Then it went to email, which was easier, but you don't save those. If any one would like my email now, you are free to give it out.*

So there you have it, straight from the horse's mouth, if you will. Also, after talking to Simon, I knew I couldn't possibly get rid of the original books from the series. However, I have packaged up the latter ones that she didn't write. They are being shipped off to various professionals within the industry who saw that original post of mine and wanted to take a trip down memory lane, too.

Meanwhile, I reread A Horse Called Wonder over the weekend. I was scared that reading it now as someone who works in the industry, it wouldn't hold up, but Simon is right, it does. A good story is a good story. Now, it has a place of honor on my bookshelf here in Lexington. After all, it influenced me just as much, if not more, than the classics it sits next to.

(*Note: If you would like to contact Jo Ann, please email me at amanda.duckworth@ymail.com.)