CRANFORD, NJ — In 1972, when he was a student at the Newark School of Art, John Quinn was painting an underwater scene for an illustration class when a tiny bit of watercolor dripped onto the bottom corner of his canvas. To most, this splotch would be nothing more than a small imperfection, but Quinn couldn’t help but think it looked like a prancing pony. And he wondered what a young horse would be doing under the sea.
Nearly 50 years later, Quinn came up with an answer and decided to share it with the world as a children’s book. “The Sea Pony,” which can be purchased now as a Kindle book on Amazon, tells the story of a mystical species of horses; these horses love to dive off cliffs, explore sunken ships and have fun on their own island. But when invading humans take a few of these creatures back to the mainland, the ponies will experience adventures they couldn’t have imagined, all while trying to return to their homeland.
“The Sea Pony” is a fantastical tale, but much of the story is grounded in reality. That is because Quinn conducted copious amounts of research into how horses were used by civilizations throughout history and infused his book with happenings inspired by actual people and events. As a result, he hopes his readers will learn something, in addition to being entertained.
“My goal in writing ‘The Sea Pony’ was to inspire curiosity in readers,” Quinn said. “I’d love it if children, maybe along with their parents or older siblings reading with them, would do their own research into the facts behind the story. There’s a world of information out there for them to explore. This could inspire a lifetime of learning.”
Children could benefit from learning more about the past, considering recent education statistics. According to results reported by the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2020, only 15 percent of eighth-graders scored “proficient” or better in U.S. history. Quinn said he hopes his story can help reverse that outcome by instilling a love of learning about the past in children while they are still young. That way, he said, they can grow up wanting to learn about what came before them, instead of feeling as if history is something they are forced to study.
There is a lot readers can look into after finishing “The Sea Pony.” For instance, one section of the book was based on the real horses that assisted Welsh coal miners during the early 20th century. Another part was inspired by the exploits of Sonora Webster Carver, one of the first female horse divers.
But an interest in history is not the only takeaway offered by “The Sea Pony.” Quinn wants his readers to realize the world around them is a one giant place to explore and learn — just as the ponies in his story did.
“Every experience is an opportunity to learn,” Quinn said. “The ponies’ interactions with the ‘land people’ led to positive and negative experiences, but they always got some knowledge out of them. What they learned over the years enabled them to create a safe and happy community. And readers can also benefit from their experiences, if they open their minds.”
Writing was a new experience for Quinn — “The Sea Pony” is his first book — and he said he greatly enjoyed the process. He said he also loved creating the illustrations for the story, 22 original watercolor pictures. Quinn, an award-winning painter whose work has been displayed in galleries throughout New York City, is no stranger to making art. But he acknowledged illustrating for a book was a challenge.
“As the story took shape, it inspired the pictures, so it was interesting to go back and paint the images I only had in my mind while writing,” Quinn said, adding that his work for “The Sea Pony” was a departure from his usual style. “An illustrator I admired all through art school was Jerry Pinkney, but I haven’t painted like him in a long time, so I was excited to go back to that world.”
Quinn said he hopes his illustrations capture his young readers’ imaginations. He also said he would love it if his work inspires children to pick up a paintbrush and try something new, as he did.
As for Quinn himself, the author-illustrator said he does not know whether he will ever write another book, though he acknowledged there are more tales he could tell involving the characters of “The Sea Pony.” Right now, he said he is just glad he finally told the story of that underwater horse he accidentally painted so long ago.
“It was very satisfying to complete the story,” Quinn said. “The idea had stayed with me all these years and now it’s been brought to fruition.”
To purchase “The Sea Pony,” which is recommended for children ages 7 to 12, visit https://tinyurl.com/r9k9a4jp.
Editor’s note: Correspondent Sean Quinn, who wrote this feature, is John Quinn’s son.