'Patches' celebrates wild ponies

MISTY BEARS NEW OFFSPRING

June 11, 1993|By Terry Hurt | Terry Hurt,Contributing Writer

"Misty of Chincoteague" is breeding a whole new generation of books.

Lois Szymanski of Union Mills, a Misty fan since childhood, has used her love and knowledge of the wild ponies to create her first novel, "Patches," brought out in May by Avon Camelot Books. Two more soon will follow.

Patches, wild as the Chincoteague Island on which he was born, is a chestnut pinto pony that fills the void in the life of a boy who has recently lost his father.

"When I began writing this book," said Mrs. Szymanski, "I knew it would be a story about the healing power of Chincoteague. It's so beautiful there! It's a place that can heal anything."

"Patches," written at third-grade reading level, will be followed by "A New Kind of Magic" in the fall of 1994 and "Icicle" soon after, Mrs. Szymanski said.

The author will autograph copies of her book from noon to 2 p.m. tomorrow at Locust Books, 9 E. Main St., Westminster.

All three books grew out of Mrs. Szymanski's fascination with the untamed horses of Assateague and Chincoteague islands.

"I've always loved Marguerite Henry's classic 'Misty of Chincoteague,' " said Mrs. Szymanski. "I would take my book into the woods to read and afterward pretend I, too, was tracking ponies near the creek at my home."

Upon visiting Chincoteague as an adult, Mrs. Szymanski recalls, "The smell of the ocean, the pines and the myrtle bushes revived memories of the happy times I'd spent reading about the ponies. It brought tears to my eyes. It was like coming home."

As her interest in the ponies grew, she began scheduling vacations with her husband, Dan, and daughters Ashley, 10, and Shannon, 12, for pony-penning time.

Pony-penning is the yearly roundup on Assateague Island to thin the herd. The animals are forced to swim to Chincoteague, where some are sold. The money raised helps the local fire department and charities.

"It's a beautiful sight watching the ponies crashing through the surf," Mrs. Szymanski said, "but a sorrowful one, too, for you know the mothers will be separated from their babies."

Frequent visits increased Mrs. Szymanski's knowledge of the ponies, as well as her desire to write a novel about them. She has already had more than 200 articles published in newspapers and magazines.

"But a book is different," she said, "especially when it's about animals that you love."

After some prodding by fellow writers, Mrs. Szymanski decided to try to put into words the mystique that the islands held for her as a child. Her goal, she said, is for today's children to experience the joys of the coastline's natural environment and to develop a love for the wild offspring of Spanish horses.

In addition to her writing, Mrs. Szymanski co-teaches "Writing to Sell" with fellow writer Christine Frey at Carroll Community College. This fall, Mrs. Szymanski will teach an adult class called "Writing for Children" at CCC.

"I always wrote as a child and then again in college," she said, "but never considered trying to publish my work. Later, when I read stories to my children I thought, 'I can do better than this.'

"My husband offered encouragement and bought me a typewriter to get me started. It seems as though I've never stopped."

At first, Mrs. Szymanski said, she worried that her writing would take time away from her family. But she found that, "If anything, my writing has helped the girls to be more confident of their own abilities. Both are excellent students, proficient in reading and writing."

Ashley won first place in the county's "What the American Flag Means to Me" essay contest this year.

Mrs. Szymanski's writing career has also put her in touch with some interesting people. She met Michael Pryor four years ago when she wrote a feature story about him. Mr. Pryor shares Mrs. Szymanski's love of the Chincoteague ponies and is the owner of Stormy, Misty's offspring.

Mrs. Szymanski has bred her mare, Crista, with one of Mr. Pryor's stallions, the grandson of Misty. The Szymanski family now awaits the birth of Misty's great-grandchild, their own piece of the Chincoteague legend.

Their friendship also led Mrs. Szymanski to illustrate a coloring book on the Chincoteague ponies for Mr. Pryor's "Pony Outreach Program," an organization dedicated to keeping alive the memory of Misty.

Mrs. Szymanski volunteers with the 4-H handicapped riding program and the 4-H rabbit club, to which her daughters belong. She helps out with the 4-H county fair.

For relaxation, she enjoys long walks with her family to the Union Mills Homestead, time spent with her champion rabbits and, especially, being with her ponies, Crista and Rock.

The latter she calls "a little love bug" who shakes hands, rears up on command and pulls the children around the neighborhood in a cart.

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