Because Justin Morgan Had a Horse is based in fact, the novel contains a healthy dollop of fictionalized biography. Singing master Justin Morgan, apprentice Joel Goss (and his harsh, penny-pinching father), sawyer and innkeeper Thomas Chase, President James Monroe, and the mongrel stallion Little Bub (later known as “the Morgan horse”) are rooted in history. Yankee stubbornness, Vermont pride, American pluck, frontier self-reliance, big-city foppishness, and British high-handedness add spice to Henry’s approach to American history. Against the background of post-revolutionary war America, Joel Goss comes of age and finds his own set of values.
Although life in the United States has changed markedly in the centuries since Joel and Little Bub lived, the novel’s treatment of the challenges faced by young people remains timeless. One such challenge involves the need for respect and approval. In search of unconditional love and acceptance, both young people and adults often seek the companionship of animals; gentling and mastering a horse gives Joel a much-needed dose of self-esteem, especially in the face of his father’s continuing harshness and disapproval. Because Little Bub sets the standard for a new breed, and because Joel sensed the colt’s potential when others scoffed at the runt, Joel experiences further affirmation from adults when his judgment proves superior to that of many experienced farmers and horse breeders.
In addition to the public praise that Joel gains as a result of his work with Little Bub, he seeks and receives a...
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Within three years of its publication, Justin Morgan Had a Horse won the Junior Scholastic Gold Seal Award and the Award of the Friends of Literature and was named a Newbery Honor Book. Because of her meticulous research, her careful attention to character development (both human and animal), and her ear for the details of regional language, Marguerite Henry earned numerous other awards during her prolific writing career, including the Newbery Medal. Her more than fifty books of biography, geography, history, and animal stories have made her a perennial favorite not only of young adult readers but also of their teachers, who find the books a nearly painless method of enriching classroom education and of encouraging outside reading. Young readers respond positively to Henry’s realistic scenes, believable protagonists, and satisfyingly hopeful outcomes—outcomes that occasionally earn her work the criticism of being sentimental. So famous are such novels as Misty of Chincoteague (1947), King of the Wind (1948), Born to Trot (1950), and Stormy, Misty’s Foal (1963), that Henry has been called “the poet laureate of horses.” The enduring appeal of Justin Morgan Had a Horse prompted Walt Disney Studios to adapt it for film in 1972.