Artie Bennett is the author of the new children's picture book The True Story of Zippy Chippy: The Little Horse That Couldn't. His other books include The Butt Book and Peter Panda Melts Down!. He lives in Brooklyn.
Q: How did you learn about Zippy Chippy, and at what point did you decide to write a picture book about him?
A: Sheer serendipity steered me toward the story, Deborah. I happened upon a newspaper article about Zippy Chippy and read it with delight and amazement. What a story!
When I finished the article, I couldn’t help but wonder if anyone had yet written a children’s book about the racehorse, for this seemed like a story that would surely resonate with young readers. Here was a horse who ran 100 races and lost every single one!
In the process, though, he became a beloved folk hero, just like his champion ancestors. And to top it off, the horse was still alive, at a retirement facility for retired racehorses in upstate New York, where he has achieved celebrity status. Zippy Chippy turned 29 years old this past April, quite old for a racehorse—or any horse for that matter.
I knew right away that I wanted to bring this remarkable story to young readers. And I knew I had to visit Zippy Chippy, too, so I took a trip a few years ago—and was deeply touched by my visit. He’s very well cared for at Old Friends at Cabin Creek Farms.
To think that Zippy Chippy escaped the slaughterhouse in Perils of Pauline fashion, thanks to Felix Monserrate, a horse trainer from Puerto Rico, who swapped his beat-up old pickup truck for the hapless horse. Zippy would soon become a member of his family and a boon companion to his small daughter, Marisa.
There were so many fascinating elements to the tale. It was time to knuckle down and write.
Q: Did you need to do any research to write the book, and if so, did you learn anything surprising?
A: I read as much as I could find about Zippy Chippy and I took a ton of notes. I also made an effort to familiarize myself with the sport of kings, horseracing. I knew some basics, but there was so much to learn.
When I was a boy, my father would take me, on occasion, to Aqueduct Racetrack, in nearby Queens, New York. It was an opportunity for us to bond and I enjoyed our time together. And I especially enjoyed seeing the horses. They were so large and so fast, quite breathtaking to a small boy. I watched in awe as they would thunder by.
These boyhood experiences must surely have planted the seeds of The True Story of Zippy Chippy.
My visit to Old Friends at Cabin Creek Farms also yielded a trove of captivating information. There, I learned how Zippy Chippy got his improbable, whimsical name.
Here’s the scoop, straight from the horse’s mouth: Breeders submit three prospective names to the Jockey Club when registering a thoroughbred horse.
So, along with two rather conventional ones, the breeder submitted the name Zippy Chippy, which was what his young daughter called the horse. He never imagined the registry would opt for the silliest of the three, but they did. And so, a star was born.
Another surprising wrinkle to the tale was that, later in his career, so many bettors chose Zippy Chippy to win that, despite never having won a race, he often ran as the favorite! That was a tribute to how adored the quirky horse had become.
I was greatly amused when I learned how, in an effort to buoy Zippy Chippy’s confidence with an easy win, he was matched up against a minor-league ballplayer in the 40-yard sprint, with the scoreboard trumpeting “Man Against Beast.” But Zippy was dealt yet another blow, falling to the fleet-footed outfielder.
By the way, the book has a comprehensive author’s note at the story’s end that delivers a rich recital of the many magical moments in Zippy Chippy’s life.
Q: What do you think Dave Szalay’s illustrations add to the book?
A: Dave’s illustrations add heart and soul to the story, as well as a large dollop of humor. I think it’s uncanny how he was able to capture the horse’s range of emotions.
His illustrations invest our equine protagonist with personality. There’s Zippy’s tongue-lolling, his rambunctious spirit, his goofiness, and the mischief in his makeup—all brought to vivid life. One illustration that shows little Marisa and Zippy playing hide-and-seek simply pierces your heart.
I understand that Dave researched the topic with enthusiasm and exactitude. He pored over hundreds of horseracing photos, for he sought to impart a measure of realism. After all, Zippy Chippy isn’t a figment of our imaginations but a living, breathing being, with an extraordinary story to tell.
Early on, I was delighted with Dave’s preliminary sketches and I enjoyed watching them develop into such beautiful and poignant artwork.
Q: What do you hope kids take away from Zippy Chippy’s story?
A: There are valuable lessons in Zippy’s astonishing story, and I know that kids will be inspired by it, just as I was. One thing we learn is that winning isn’t everything. The important thing is to try, to give it your best shot. That’s how we build character.
We see how Zippy’s popularity grew and grew, almost to the point of a cult following. And this occurred despite the racehorse’s utter inability to win. There was something in his story that reverberated with people. Such as how he grew depressed and stopped eating when his owner, Felix, tried to retire him. He just had to keep running.
Zippy Chippy was a model of determination. He loved to race and competed well into his thirteenth year, long past the age that racehorses hang up their halters. There are kids who may not be that gifted athletically and that’s fine. Not all gifts are evenly bestowed. But children shouldn’t let that discourage them from participating. We all have our limitations.
Remember Zippy Chippy—and try your darndest! By doing so, you’re already a winner. Even if you finish at the back of the pack.
And incidental to that, I hope that kids come away with a boost to their vocabulary. I’m a word lover and always strive to introduce some fun, new words in my books.
In The True Story of Zippy Chippy, you’ll find words like “shenanigans,” “wafting,” “ballyhooed,” “nuzzled,” “pedigree,” “ornery,” and “zaniest”—all gems, and all understandable in context. I’d be tickled if children absorbed some of these expressive words, making them their own. After all, what could be more fun to say than “shenanigans.”
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have a headful of ideas for new projects. One is a collection of humorous verses, each with an unexpected twist. Top-notch illustrator Keith Bendis and I have teamed up on this project. If there are any editors out there who might be interested . . .
I’ve also just begun research on a second picture-book biography. I can’t reveal much about it yet, but I can say that the protagonist will be bipedal this time. And he won’t chew up the hats of passersby. Any guesses?
I find the research very enjoyable, learning as much as I can about a subject. The tough part comes next—the great winnowing. That’s when I have to boil it all down to fit the requirements of a picture book. The great jettisoning then ensues.
I’m even thinking about a possible new joke and riddle book to add to my dynamic duo: The Universe’s Greatest Dinosaur Jokes andPre-Hysteric Puns and The Universe’s Greatest School Jokes and Rip-Roaring Riddles.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: This book was a bit of a stretch for me. My five previous picture books (the classic kids’ book 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 written in verse.
To do justice to Zippy Chippy’s story, it would have to be written in prose. But I had never written a picture book in prose. Could I? Curiously, I think the fact that the horse’s name is itself a rhyme made the transition easier and helped to squelch my itch to rhyme.
Thank you, Deborah, for the opportunity to introduce my new book to a wider world. I’m deeply grateful. These days, it’s a challenge to showcase a new book. But as bookstores slowly begin to reopen, we’ll hopefully be able to ring out both the old and the new.
And with its powerful message of love, hope, and determination, and its healing dose of humor, The True Story of Zippy Chippy may well be the perfect storybook for our times.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb