Once there were crowds, and clinging jockeys, and horses to ride against in the razor-fine seconds it took to be first across the finish line.

As an aspiring author, I’ve been told countless times about the importance of a first line. Never before has a picture book opening reined me in so tightly, so swiftly as Deborah Blumenthal’s Black Diamond and Blake, the story of a racehorse saved by friendship.

Black Diamond, a beloved racehorse, hero of the grandstand crowds, wins race after race. His jockey and owner feed him sweet apples, warm him with a red velvet blanket, and wrap him with such kindness that the horse only wants to win and make them proud.

But no athlete can dominate forever. Black Diamond grows sore, tired and eventually becomes injured. His fans boo instead of celebrate, ripping their losing tickets and tossing them to the ground. The sweet apples and sweet attention disappear.

A gruff, cigar-smoking man purchases Black Diamond and takes the horse to a prison rehabilitation program. The author was inspired by a New York Times article about inmates who cared for retired racehorses. “I read of the deep emotional connections that some inmates made with the animals, so that in the end, men saved horses and horses saved men,” Blumenthal explains.

At the prison, Black Diamond meets Blake, a soft-spoken man who feeds the horse cinnamon candies and takes him on long walks. The two bond in friendship. And then, one day, Blake is released and Black Diamond becomes despondent and difficult, longing for his caretaker, his best friend.

As usual, I never reveal a book’s ending, but the book is titled Black Diamond and Blake for a reason.

The Art-Deco-inspired illustrations by Miles Hyman render bold forms with a soft pastel stroke, a visual juxtaposition befitting this tale of a strong yet sensitive racehorse. The book is gorgeous in all respects—from the language, to the theme, to the green hills of the final spread.

Parents may appreciate Blumenthal’s beautiful words more than children (“in a minute that grew heavy with time”) and those younger than five may not be able to sit for the entire tale, although my horse-lovers, aged three and six, were mesmerized. While the publisher claims it’s appropriate for children up to age eight, I foresee this book being enjoyed by children as old as ten or twelve, especially if they love animals.

Black Diamond and Blake never gets too sappy or sentimental, but instead tells a story of friendship and second chances from the thrill of the races to the gentleness of a rolling countryside.

Want it? Sure you do!

Black Diamond and Blake
Story by Deborah Blumenthal
Illustrations by Miles Hyman
Alfred A. Knopf, February 2009