Two horse-loving best friends from an Australian bush town star in Chronicle’s Horse Crazy series by Alison Lester, launched this month with The Silver Horse Switch and The Circus Horse. Originally published by Allen & Unwin in Lester’s native Australia under the title of Bonnie and Sam, the series marks a double departure for the author: these are her debut early chapter books and the first books she wrote that she did not also illustrate. Fellow Aussie Roland Harvey created the full-color art for the series, which continues in fall 2009 with The Sea Rescue and The Royal Show.

Trained as an art teacher, Lester spent some five years illustrating books by other authors before striking out on her own with 1985’s Clive Eats Alligators. She has since written and illustrated about two dozen picture books, among them Imagine, Magic Beach and Are We There Yet?, as well as two middle-grade novels, The Quicksand Pony and The Snow Pony.

The idea for Horse Crazy came to Lester some years ago. “I was a horse-crazy little girl and have always had horses in my life,” she says. “For a long time I thought about setting a story in a small country town and that idea stayed in my head.” She decided to act on the idea after her friend Harvey sent her a card featuring a drawing of a horse. “I looked at that horse and told Roland he should do a book with horse illustrations, and he told me I should write a book for him to illustrate. And that’s how the series got started.”

Alison Lester.

Lester enjoyed her new role as author only. “I loved the freedom of writing without having to do the art as well,” she remarks. “I always see my stories visually, but here I didn’t have to actually do the pictures, which is so time-consuming.” While collaborating with Harvey, she admits, “I was quite impossible to work with. I’m a horse person and he isn’t, so I’d tell him that realistically there shouldn’t be this or that in the picture. I was a very bossy author—the kind I would hate working with.”

Clearly pleased with Harvey’s finished art, Lester observes, “Roland has illustrated these stories in a way I couldn’t have. I love his watercolors and his looseness with washes. If I had done the art, it would have been more controlled.”

Writing for the 5-8 age group was new for Lester, yet didn’t pose any problems. “This series does sit between the two different age groups I’ve written for, but I never think about exactly who I am writing for,” she reflects. “I guess I tend to think of myself as writing for everyone. I love to read without borders—from picture books to adult books—so I guess I think of writing the same way, without feeling boxed in.”

Chronicle associate editor Melissa Manlove, who edits the Horse Crazy books, says she was immediately charmed by the series’ main characters, whom Lester modeled after herself and her best childhood friend. “These girls are so very real,” says the editor. “They are sensible, have lots of gumption and are not princesses in any sense of the word.” She believes the Australian setting “gives the books an extra hint of adventure.” Chronicle chose to retain what Manlove calls “many of the Australianisms,” and added a glossary to each novel.

A dedicated Web site offers activities and info about the series, which may well extend beyond four installments. “It looks very promising for another four,” Manlove remarks. Lester says she has several more stories “mapped out” and would love to continue Horse Crazy. “I’ve had such a good time working with Roland and I do like these characters—and these horses,” she says. “It’s a very nice world where I can make a living writing about kids having fun. It’s a very lucky occupation.”

Horse Crazy: The Silver Horse Switch and Circus Horse by Alison Lester, illus. by Roland Harvey. Chronicle, $4.99 each paper ISBN 978-0-8118-6554-8; -6656-9 (Mar.)