AN INTERVIEW WITH MARIANA LLANOS AUTHOR OF RUN, LITTLE CHASKI!: AN INKA TRAIL…
AUTHOR OF THE NEW NONFICTION PICTURE BOOK
THE TRUE STORY OF ZIPPY CHIPPY:
THE LITTLE HORSE THAT COULDN’T
What a treat it was to read Artie Bennett’s new picture book biography, The True Story of Zippy Chippy: The Little Horse That Couldn’t (NorthSouth Books; $17.95, Ages 4-8) with illustrations by Dave Szalay! Bennett, who’s best known for his humorous picture books in verse, hit the daily double by bringing out both the humor and humanity (equus-ity?) in this charming tale of a horse destined for fame, but not the winning races kind. You’ll no doubt be champing at the bit for a chance to read Zippy Chippy’s story after my interview with Artie Bennett below.
Zippy Chippy is descended from the leading legends of horse racing. He is destined for greatness and glory.
But . . . when the starting bell rings, it’s anybody’s guess what Zippy will do. Will Zippy go for a gentle trot around the track or stop and smell the roses? Or, perhaps, never even leave the starting gate?!
With mischief in his makeup, he’s known to stick his tongue out at people and chew up the hats of passersby. And he’s always trying to break out of his stall. What’s an owner to do? Try and try again! After all, he believes in Zippy—and, besides, the horse is now a part of the family. But as Zippy’s losses mount, a funny thing happens. People start to take notice of the hapless, cupcake-eating horse. Could it be that they’re betting on Zippy to win?
This remarkable story of the famed racehorse who lost every race is sure to win your heart!
Good Reads With Ronna: Artie, this picture-book biography is like nothing else you’ve written before. What motivated you to pursue this horse’s tale and diverge from your funny nonfiction writing in verse?
Artie Bennett: Yes, you’re right, Ronna. This one is very different. I like to say it’s a horse of a different color for me. For one thing, it was something of an experiment to see if I could write in prose. I wasn’t sure myself. My five previous picture books (The Butt Book, Poopendous!, Peter Panda Melts Down!, Belches, Burps, and Farts—Oh My!, and What’s Afoot! Your Complete, Offbeat Guide to Feet) are all in inspired verse. And I’m quite comfortable writing that way. I’ve worked hard to make the verses sing. I constantly tinker, and then when I’m finally satisfied, I tinker some more. But I knew I would have to take a different tack to write the tale of this remarkable horse. I had to transcend my impulse to rhyme. Curiously, the fact that Zippy Chippy’s own name rhymes may have drawn me to the subject, as well as helped to satisfy my itch to versify.
It was serendipity that drew me to the tale. I stumbled upon a newspaper article about the horse and knew right away that this story would resonate with young readers, just as it resonated with me. And after visiting the retired racehorse at his home in upstate New York, I was never more certain. Youngsters will identify with Zippy Chippy. He may have lost every single one of the 100 races he ran (Zippy won zip), but in the process, he became a folk hero, just like his champion ancestors. Zippy teaches us that just being in the game is enough. And he reminds us that sometimes we need to stop and smell the roses.
GRWR: Aside from being one of the losingest horses in racing history, what else did you learn about Zippy Chippy during your research that made you care about sharing his story?
AB: I was drawn to his quirkiness and his mischievous nature. And there was our shared love of ice cream, though I don’t know if he’s a three-scooper, like me! Free-spirited Zippy Chippy was always breaking out of his stall to go for a nice gallop. He was quite volatile in his youth and often ornery. He was known to kick and bite. He would even try to bite the other horses at the finish line. People were afraid to be around him. In fact, after Felix Monserrate, his third owner, acquired him, he greeted Felix with a sharp bite on the back. But despite being a terror to his handlers—which included the farrier, who fit Zippy with shoes—Zippy was always gentle and loving with Felix’s young daughter, Marisa. Once, eight-year-old Marisa went missing. Felix searched everywhere and finally found her in Zippy’s stall, being nuzzled by the temperamental horse, though the area was off limits to most everyone for safety’s sake. Zippy would blossom under the loving guidance of Felix, and he developed a strong familial bond with Marisa.
There were so many interesting aspects to Zippy Chippy’s story. One was how he happened to acquire his singsongy name. Another wonderful anecdote was how Felix had set up an exhibition race between his horse and a minor-league outfielder. His hope was that a victory, any victory, would boost Zippy’s morale. But the fleet-footed ballplayer bested Zippy in the forty-yard sprint.
Zippy Chippy is a model of determination and stick-to-itiveness. He raced until he was fifteen years old, giving it his all, whereas many racehorses retire by age four. There was a time, earlier in Zippy’s racing career, when Felix tried to retire him, but Zippy wouldn’t hear of it. He became crestfallen and stopped eating. Though defeat never disheartened Zippy, retirement did. Felix had to bring him back to the track for his own well-being. Because the horse was descended from so many legendary racehorses, including Man o’ War, Bold Ruler, War Admiral, Buckpasser, and Northern Dancer, racing was in his blood. He just wasn’t terribly good at it.
When I learned that Zippy Chippy was still alive, though quite ancient by horse standards, I made it my goal to write his story—and find a publisher—before the horse passed. This became something of a horse race, too. I’m so happy to note that Zippy, who will be 29 years old in April 2020, is still with us, lovingly looked after at Old Friends at Cabin Creek Farm, as the book publishes. I wanted the book to be a tribute to a living, breathing legend, not a eulogy. And I’m hoping that youngsters who are as moved by his story as I was may even pay him a visit.
GRWR: Your trademark sense of humor shines through many aspects of recounting this fascinating true story. Was it difficult to balance that with certain serious aspects of Zippy Chippy’s life and unsuccessful racing career?
AB: That’s a wonderful question. Yes, it was a balancing act. And it took me a while to find just the right tone. Writing in prose helped. Verse seems to invite mirth and laughter, but prose can be sober-sided. I had to rein in my sense of humor, for there are serious dimensions to the story. There’s a poignancy here that would be undermined by humor—how Zippy Chippy escaped the slaughterhouse by the skin of his teeth. But a touch of humor does uplift the tale. I love how Dave Szalay’s marvelous illustrations strike just the right balance, too, with many touching, memorable images.
GRWR: Can you explain the appeal of a horse who’d rather stop and smell the roses instead of competing against other horses, a dark horse, so to speak, for winning hearts, not races?
AB: I think Zippy Chippy is the quintessential Everyman, or Everyhorse, and therein lies his appeal. Few of us are blessed with exceptional athletic prowess, yet we still love to compete, to play the game. Zippy continued to run—and continued to love it!—even as he was amassing a rather lopsided won-loss record. But as his losses mounted, Zippy became a star attraction. And his oddball behavior just added to his appeal. Ever unpredictable, he would occasionally succumb to “dwelling,” failing to leave the starting gate at the sound of the bell. What was extraordinary was that later in his career, the horse often ran as the favorite to win, according to the betting line, despite his protracted lack of success. Racing fans were pulling for him. Spectators would besiege Felix for his autograph. Zippy had developed a cult following. He was the ultimate underdog. Horses are very intuitive animals and can pick up on people’s emotions, so Zippy would have known, and rejoiced, if he had won.
GRWR: For 15 years, Felix, Zippy Chippy’s owner, kept entering the unmotivated horse in races. That had to have been so frustrating for him. Why do you think he persisted?
AB: Yes, it must have been. But he was the horse’s biggest champion. He believed in Zippy with all his heart and felt, when he acquired the horse, that he would be the one to bring out the horse’s dormant greatness. Part of why he persisted was because he couldn’t disappoint the horse. We saw how Zippy spiraled into depression when Felix tried to retire him earlier in his career. And because he loved Zippy, he couldn’t let the horse down. He was also an eternal optimist and may have felt that the next race would be the one that Zippy would win, the one that would drape them both in glory. So there would always be one more race. And Zippy was actually highly motivated, though his idiosyncrasies might sometimes interfere with his motivation.
GRWR: What would you like young readers to take away from this picture book?
AB: I would love young readers to find inspiration in this book, but also acceptance. Inspiration can be found in the arc of Zippy’s story, as his popularity grew and grew from such inauspicious beginnings, despite his pedigree. He would even be featured in People magazine, though he was posed alongside a tortoise. Acceptance in the fact that we aren’t all blessed with the same gifts—and that’s okay, too. We need to accept our limitations, just as we celebrate our strengths. As Felix says, “Not everyone can be a winner.” But the important thing is to try. That’s where true courage lies.
GRWR: Has this experience motivated you to try your hand at more nonfiction in prose?
AB: Yes indeed. Though my first love will always be writing in verse, it’s not my only love. In fact, I’ve an idea for another crackerjack children’s biography, also with a protagonist ripe for revival. I’m doing research as we speak. But I also have ideas for more books in verse, so I hope to be moving back and forth between worlds. Additionally, I have two riotously funny joke and riddle books out (The Universe’s Greatest School Jokes and Rip-Roaring Riddles and The Universe’s Greatest Dinosaur Jokes and Pre-Hysteric Puns), so when I’m bubbling over with jokes (Knock, knock . . .) and riddles, there’s always that outlet.
GRWR: Is there anything else I haven’t asked that you’d like to add?
AB: Because I’m a word lover, I’ve tried to use a rich, creative vocabulary in telling the story. You’ll find words like “rambunctious,” “shenanigans,” “wafting,” “ballyhooed,” and much more, words that are evocative and fun to say. I hope young readers will make these words their own. And lastly, I want to thank you, Ronna, so very much for giving me the opportunity to share this captivating story. I’m deeply appreciative.
GRWR: Right back at you, Artie. I learned so much from your thoughtful replies and hope everyone makes tracks to pick up a copy of The True Story of Zippy Chippy: The Little Horse That Couldn’t to find out more about this truly unique horse.
Artie Bennett is an executive copy editor by day and a writer by night. He is the author of an inspiring picture-book biography of a hapless, though beloved, horse: The True Story of Zippy Chippy: The Little Horse That Couldn’t. He is also the author of a quintet of hilarious rhyming picture books: The Butt Book, his first “mature” work and winner of the Reuben Award; Poopendous!, his “number two” picture book; Peter Panda Melts Down!, an adorable departure from derrières and doo; the explosively funny Belches, Burps, and Farts—Oh My!; and his latest, What’s Afoot! Your Complete, Offbeat Guide to Feet, which is guaranteed to knock your socks off. And if that’s not enough, he’s the author of two riotous joke and riddle books: The Universe’s Greatest Dinosaur Jokes and Pre-Hysteric Puns and The Universe’s Greatest School Jokes and Rip-Roaring Riddles.
He and his wife, Leah, live deep in the bowels of Brooklyn, New York, where he spends his time moving his car to satisfy the rigorous demands of alternate-side-of-the-street parking and shaking his fist at his neighbors. The Show Me Librarian says: “Bennett’s use of rhyme is excellent; his stanzas flow and exude joviality in a manner that few writers since Dr. Seuss have truly mastered. Simply put, these books are a joy.” The Huffington Post says: “It appears there is no topic Mr. Bennett can’t make funny and educational.” Visit ArtieBennett.com . . . before someone else does!
Want to read more of Artie’s books? Here’s a link to my review of a personal fave.