Lesley A.J. Bauman’s alphabet book, J is for Justify, looks like what you might expect from a good children’s book.
Its brightly colored pages of America’s most influential racehorses, gallop in profile, jockeys on their back urging them on. The colors and patterns of their racing silks splash brightly behind them. The simple text gives readers a brief description of each Thoroughbred careening across the page.
But look and read closely and there are rewards to reap in the pages of this humble children’s book.
One of the first things readers will notice is that all the racehorse portraits are at full gallop, and the horses are running toward the right, away from the spine of the book. This uniformity is pleasing to the eye, and a subtle left to right reading cue for early readers.
Then there’s Bauman’s astute attention to the details in each drawing. Features, from Unbridled’s blaze to Zenyatta’s stockings, are carefully rendered. Each jockey is drawn in the correct silks, giving the book both continuity and a fun accuracy. I found myself googling images of each horse once I found out this little gem and then lost several hours falling down the racehorse rabbit hole of the internet.
Beyond its alphabet teaching merits, J is for Justify is also a fantastic introduction to the sport of horse racing. It provides both young and old a who’s who of famous American Racehorses, featuring namesake bloodline like Secretariat, Man O’War, and Native Dancer, Triple Crown winners such as American Pharoah, Omaha and Citation, and other horses pivotal to the sport, Dr. Fager and Quiet American among them. The fabled winner of the Breeder’s Cup Classic Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra, the first filly to win the Preakness in 85 years, and a bay named Xtra Heat are the three mares who gallop down the book’s lengths.
While the end rhymes are sometimes a little clunky, each paragraph includes fantastic bits of trivia that make the book sparkle. For instance, Holy Bull liked to bite his competitors while they raced down the track and was known to be a ham in front of cameras. Vagrant, on the other hand, was so well behaved he went from winning the 1876 Kentucky Derby to becoming a Long Island lady’s saddle horse.
The details from a horse on one page often connect to one on another. Lava Man, the horse for L, had a great career, but when he did not take well to retirement, he became a lead pony, even walking quietly alongside I’ll Have Another on his big day. Kelso, who stands in for K, was sired by Your Host, the horse for Y, and the tangled web goes on and on.
Lastly, J is for Justify has a glossary of horse terms in the back, as well as a panel with each horses’ birthdate and a handy chart perfect for flipping to when trying to put a horse in context with its time period.
Overall, J is for Justify is a sharp children’s book and one that horse adults will enjoy reading as much as their young ones.