When a review copy of Centaur Rising by Jane Yolen landed on my desk, I immediately put in my “to read” pile. Not because I have any particular interest in centaurs. Nor for the name recognition of the author, though I have enjoyed many of Jane Yolen’s previous books. My initial attraction to the book was based on the reference to “birth defects caused by an experimental drug” in the book description on the back cover. How many middle grade novels reference Thalidomide? Centaur Rising is the only one I know of.
Thalidomide, as explained in an author’s note, was an anti-nausea medication taken by pregnant women in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. It was eventually banned when doctors learned it caused birth defects in children. Most middle grade readers aren’t going to know about Thalidomide. It was well before their time, as it was before my time as well. Nonetheless, I knew about it in the late 1980’s when I was a kid because people of a certain generation saw my limb deficiency and immediately connected it to Thalidomide. I regularly had to tell people that I was not a “Thalidomide Baby,” that my congenital limb difference was random. It remains one of many assumptions people often make about me, and I still find myself having to explain that I am not old enough to have been affected by Thalidomide. There is also the fact that it was never approved for use in the United States, and the affected children (adults now) are largely European or Canadian.
In Centaur Rising, Robbie has the typical “Thalidomide Baby” traits. He is described by his sister Ari as she notes how he wouldn’t be able to help if she needed anything when tending to a horse in labor on their farm: “He can’t use his legs, his pelvic bones are missing, his arms are too short, and his hands are like flippers because the fingers and thumbs grew fused together.”
When the foal turns out to be a centaur, the characters have various reactions. The adults are concerned about what people will think. Ari wonders if the creature is magic or a mistake. Robbie connects with the baby centaur immediately. He says that they are both “half something.” Half human, half animal. It sounds harsh, and I suppose it is harsh to read that a child views himself as only part human. But it is true that kids affected by Thalidomide were called “seal children.”
It is worth noting here that a version of Centaur Rising was originally published in the short story collection Half Human. In the story, the character with the birth defects died at birth, and the family names the centaur after that lost child. In the book version, the child and the centaur consider each other brothers. They both feel freakish and need protection from those who would hurt them or exploit them. Robbie’s father represents all villains here as he treats Robbie harshly and wants to cash in on the centaur’s potential as a moneymaker.
The idea that Robbie relates in any way to the centaur isn’t exactly a comfortable idea for Robbie’s family, but by the end of the book everyone in the family has learned something or shifted perspective thanks to Robbie and his relationship with the centaur. This element of the plot came across as didactic to me, and I didn’t think that either Robbie or Kai were fully fleshed out characters, which made the ending in which they begin a charitable organization for kids with disabilities feel somewhat inauthentic.
In the end, Ari learns that the creature was not a mistake at all. He was magical. He transforms her world and perspective in many ways, and by extension, her brother with all of his differences has an inspirational element to his character. I couldn’t help but wish that there was an option other than magic or mistake offered for Robbie and Kai. Perhaps, like me, they might just be different for no reason and with no obligation.
Despite the elements that I saw as didactic or inauthentic, there is a lot that kids will like in this book. Ari is a relatable character, and her story is satisfying. Readers who are drawn to horse novels or realistic fantasies are the most likely to appreciate this gentle, uplifting story. The author’s note offers more information about Thalidomide, horse therapy, and historical language for people with disabilities for those who are interested in further context. Centaur Rising presents opportunity for teachers or other educators to bring up a discussion of preconceived ideas about people who are different as well as give some historical context to the way that our treatment of people with disabilities has changed. There is a lot to talk about in this story, and if the book can start those, often uncomfortable, conversations about how we view people (or creatures) that look different and how they are represented in fiction, I count that as a good thing.