Whatever Happened to the Pony Express?

Whatever Happened to the Pony Express?

by Verla Kay, Barry Root, Kimberly Bulcken Root

When the Pony Express came along, it cut the time it took to send a letter across the country in half. But only a year and a half later, with the arrival of transcontinental telegraph lines, it was put right out of business.

Along with a family's story told through crosscountry letters, Verla Kay uses her trademark short, rhythmic verse to pack in loads of


When the Pony Express came along, it cut the time it took to send a letter across the country in half. But only a year and a half later, with the arrival of transcontinental telegraph lines, it was put right out of business.

Along with a family's story told through crosscountry letters, Verla Kay uses her trademark short, rhythmic verse to pack in loads of information about how the Pony Express came to be and why it didn't last. And Barry and Kim Root's gorgeous illustrations help bring this fascinating, fleeting bit of history to new life.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Echoing the purposeful rhythms of a pony express rider, Kay's (Rough, Tough Charley) characteristically spare and cadenced verse sets a deliberate pace as she examines the history of information delivery in the U.S. "Letters, papers,/ ‘Must get through.'/ Lonely outpost,/ Rendezvous./ Stationmaster,/ Midnight sky./ Changing horses/ ‘On the fly.'?" This catalogue of various delivery methods, from cumbersome stagecoaches and camels to the Pony Express and telegraph, is sandwiched within a brief, epistolary story of grown siblings who live across the country and share family news via these outlets; their colloquial notes and telegrams allow readers to glimpse their joys and hardships. Realistic ink, gouache, and watercolor illustrations by the Roots, in their first book together, burst with vigor, especially those of a Pony Express rider jetting across the page, dodging arrows as he flies. Subtle details in the layout (spurs form the corners of a border in several scenes) are gratifying. While the story may seem to end abruptly with the advent of the steam train, it packs more than a saddlebag's worth of information. Author notes and time line included. Ages 5–8. (May)
School Library Journal
K-Gr 3—Through a series of letters between a brother and sister, Kay examines changes in mail delivery during the time period 1851-1870. Transport methods include wagon, stagecoach, boat, camel, horseback (Pony Express), telegraph, and train. The rhymed text flows well. "Orphans wanted,/Riders, rough./Risk of death daily,/Must be tough./Ponies purchased,/Mailbags, thin./Special saddles./Spurs—dig in!'" While the brief phrases provide the larger historical context, the illustrations, rendered in pencil, ink, gouache, and watercolor, are crucial in developing the personal drama of the siblings and their families. The browns, oranges, and yellows of the color palette effectively reflect the primarily Western setting. Stylized reproductions of the letters and a telegram are incorporated into the pictures. The story is about the desire to communicate across long distances; appropriately, each pictorial spread is full of forward movement. Varying cultures are represented. The brother is a farmer in California; his sister marries a Pennsylvania miner. As their missives traverse the country, readers see soldiers, Native Americans, cowboys, construction workers, and other townspeople along the route. An author's note offers more detail about the Pony Express itself and its historical context. A list of "notable dates" helps readers clearly see the progression outlined in the text. Libraries will want to accept delivery of this attractive and informative package.—Lucinda Snyder Whitehurst, St. Christopher's School, Richmond, VA
Kirkus Reviews
In her characteristic stripped-down verse, Kay fashions the attributes and enterprise of the Pony Express, which is celebrating its sesquicentennial. The Express was only active for a year and a half-laid to rest by the telegraph and railroad-but its romance and color have never faded in the American iconography. Kay picks out the salient features in her compact verse, showing a nice hand with mood and landscape: "Letters, papers, / ?Must get through.' / Lonely outpost, / Rendezvous. // Stationmaster, / Midnight sky. / Changing horses / ?On the fly.' " To the verse add the Roots' visual pizzazz, with artwork like posters for a John Ford movie. Though the author's telegraphic verse is effective, she adds human interest to the story's bones by working a correspondence between an Eastern sister and transplanted Western brother into the mix. The letters are a testament to the life-changing importance of the swift completion of the mail's rounds. A worthy companion for younger readers to Michael Spradlin's recent Off Like the Wind!, illustrated by Layne Johnson (2010). (Picture book. 4-7)

Product Details

Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
10.00(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.50(d)
AD460L (what's this?)
Age Range:
5 - 8 Years

Meet the Author

Verla Kay is a native Californian who grew up in the sleepy little town of Watsonville. Located right next to the surfing town of Santa Cruz, it nestles between San Francisco and Monterey Bays and enjoys some of the most beautiful scenery and weather in the world. She now resides in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains with her husband, one cat, one bird, and one son.

With a crop duster father and a stay-at-home domestic mother, one older sister and one younger brother, Verla's early life seemed ideal - and in many ways it was. But Verla had a hard time making friends and spent most of her younger years as a very lonely child. She spent many hours reading books and daydreaming about friends and love and the happiness that she prayed would someday be hers.

That happiness came to her when she met her future husband, Terry. It was love at first sight for both of them and after a rocky courtship, they were married on Easter Sunday the spring following their graduation from high school.

For the first fifteen years, their marriage was anything but ideal, but through sheer stubborness and determination, they made a success of it and their marriage survived despite many loud arguments and frequent broken pottery. During this time, they had four children - three boys and one girl.

Verla worked off and on, to help make ends meet. But her primary goal was to stay at home and take care of her children, so most of the time the jobs she took were temporary ones and some of them were quite interesting.

She tried picking chives in the fields, but that job only lasted two weeks. The decision to stay at home and care for her children herself was made very quickly after she discovered that her first paycheck was less than what she owed to her babysitter!

One of the most fun and profitable jobs Verla ever had was when she worked for a party plan selling toys and gifts at home parties. This was a job that she could do while staying at home with her children and she earned hundreds of free toys and gifts for her family and seven free trips to exotic places around the world on her group sales as a District Manager with this company.

As a result, she and her husband, Terry, have been to Bogota, Columbia and Rio de Janerio, Brazil in South America. Verla went alone to Israel and both of them toured Portugal in Europe. They enjoyed Hawaii and a cruise to Alaska together. The last trip she earned was to Greece and due to a severe case of bronchitis, she could not go, so she sent Terry without her. He says that cruising the Greek Isles with 600 women while his wife was at home was a wonderful experience - and Verla tends to believe him!

Becoming A Writer

It wasn't until Terry and Verla had moved their family to Nevada and purchased a laundromat in Carson City, that she found herself thinking about becoming a writer. One of their regular customers was a woman who was a successful free lance writer for magazines. She looked at some of Verla's writing and was constantly encouraging Verla to become a writer herself. The seed had been sown. They lived in Carson City for three years, then the call of the ocean breezes and tall redwoods became too strong and they moved back to Santa Cruz.

For the next few years, Verla ran a licensed daycare from her home. Snaps 'N Snails Daycare catered to six children at a time - most of the children being between five months and three years old. While she read books to the children, Verla couldn't stop thinking about writing stories of her own. Finally, the call to WRITE became too strong and she signed up for a correspondence course through the Institute of Children's Literature. During the next two years, she studied and practiced and learned what it took to write and sell stories for children.


After selling two short stories, one to Turtle Magazine and one to Humpty Dumpty's Magazine, one of her picture book manuscripts was pulled from the slush pile at Putnam Books and she was on her way to being a REAL author. Six months later, Putnam bought a second manuscript.

It was while Verla was working as a desk clerk in a local motel that she found herself checking in a very special couple one night. While chatting with the people, some things she said about her writing triggered events that eventually led to her gaining a terrific agent in New York who was able to negotiate much better terms for Verla on her third picture book contract.

Because it wasn't until she was grown that she herself discovered the joys of history, it is Verla's fervent desire to bring history to life for young children in an interesting way. She does this by writing short, entertaining books that spark children's interest in different historical periods. Most of Verla's books are written for young children in a distinctive rhyming style she calls "cryptic rhyme."

Since April of '97, Verla has been staying home, working full time on her writing. She considers her life to be idyllic. She spends many contented hours in front of her computer screen, thinking, plotting, planning and writing what she hopes will be wonderful books. Her agent has just sold her eighth book. Her first two books (both with Putnam) can be purchased now through any bookstore or by going to Verla's Books page and following the link there to www.Amazon.com.

Learning and keeping up with the times are very important to Verla and she is constantly discovering new ways to expand her experiences. After building her own website, and putting the #Kidlit children's writer's chat room on her site, she began holding monthly on-line workshops there. Her website has become so popular that Writer's Digest named it one of the Top 101 Websites for Writers in 2000.

Her first published book, Gold Fever, received three starred reviews and was named a Best Book of the Year by Bank Street College of Education in New York. It is on several public library recommended reading lists.

Her second book, Iron Horses, received two starred reviews. It has been named a Society of School Librarian's International Honor Book and is also on the Children's Book Council's Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People list. Her third book, Covered Wagons, Bumpy Trails, was just released in October of 2000. She has five more picture books to be published in the next few years.

Today and Beyond

Most of Verla and Terry's children are grown now, and lead productive lives of their own. Their oldest son, Eric, is the past Senior Network Systems Administrator for Netscape and their middle son, Donn, is currently in his fourth year of college, studying as a vocal music major. Their youngest son, Bruce, is now in his first year of college and is well on his way to becoming a computer programmer. Their only daughter, Portia, is happily married to Heath, and she has given Terry and Verla four incredibly wonderful grandchildren - Kristyn, Charles, Mikayla and Rayana.

Verla enjoys boating and fishing, reading, writing, and working puzzles. She has spent many happy hours panning for gold with her husband in the nearby hills and she is very proud of a third-place Gold-Panning Competition trophy she won at her county fair in 1994. She is addicted to Nintendo - Dr. Mario is her favorite game. She can repeatedly win level 20 High and once got as far as level 24 on it. She loves computer games and when she is at home and not writing, responding to e-mail or working on her website, she spends many enjoyable hours puzzling her way through her latest adventure program.

What the future may bring is alw

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