by G. Neri, il­lus­trated by Cor­ban Wilkin; Lee & Low Books (240 pages, $19.95; for read­ers ages 12-18)

Many young girls go through the horse-crazy phase. (I know I did.) Most of them get over it.

Not Gail Ruffu. The real-life main char­ac­ter of “Grand Theft Horse,” a new graphic biog­ra­phy for mid­dle-grade read­ers, gave up al­most ev­ery­thing to res­cue a race­horse she trained and part-owned when its other own­ers wanted to put the horse in mor­tal peril. It was a quest that dom­i­nated years of her life, land­ing her in court more than once—and al­most land­ing her in jail.

Her in­spir­ing story, and that of the race­horse Ur­gent Envoy, are the sub­jects of G. Neri’s lat­est book. Neri has pub­lished 10 books for young read­ers, from the Coretta Scott King Honor­win­ning “Yummy: The Last

Days of a South­side Shorty” to “Tru & Nelle” and “Tru & Nelle: A Christ­mas Tale,” both based on the child­hood friend­ship of au­thors Tru­man Capote and Harper Lee. Neri’s 2011 book, “Ghetto Cow­boy” (an­other true tale about peo­ple who love horses), is in de­vel­op­ment as a TV se­ries, with Idris Elba signed to star.

On his web­site, Neri writes that Ruffu is his cousin. He didn’t know her well grow­ing up, but when they met again as adults she told him, “I’m a wanted woman” and pro­ceeded to re­count the story that be­came “Grand Theft Horse.”

Ruffu was one of 13 chil­dren; their fa­ther’s mil­i­tary ca­reer kept them on the move all over the world. As a kid, she watched TV shows like The Lone Ranger less for the cow­boys and In­di­ans than for the horses they rode. Ev­ery Christ­mas and birth­day, she asked for a horse of her own. When the fam­ily landed in Texas for a few years, she fi­nally got her wish, tem­po­rar­ily.

As a young adult she stud­ied horse­man­ship and sta­ble man­age­ment in Europe, learn­ing meth­ods of train­ing and car­ing for race­horses that were more hu­mane than the profit-driven prac­tices of U.S. horse rac­ing.

Back in this coun­try, she be­came li­censed as a trainer, which led to her dis­cov­ery of a horse who had lit­tle train­ing but pow­er­ful po­ten­tial. She couldn’t af­ford to buy Ur­gent Envoy on her own, so she en­tered into a part­ner­ship with a lawyer. He quickly ma­nip­u­lated the deal so that she be­came a mi­nor­ity owner with sev­eral part­ners, but she was so happy to have the horse she didn’t mind.

Ruffu de­ployed the hu­mane train­ing meth­ods she pre­ferred, which in­cluded lim­it­ing work­outs and never med­i­cat­ing the horse. But her part­ners pressed to race him be­fore she thought he was ready. The dis­agree­ments es­ca­lated; even­tu­ally the other own­ers took pos­ses­sion of the horse. Later, Ruffu dis­cov­ered that they planned to race him de­spite a frac­tured leg—pretty much a death sen­tence—so on Christ­mas Eve of 2004, she stole the horse.

For years, she kept him hid­den while she wran­gled through the court sys­tem with the other own­ers. She lost her trainer’s li­cense, she lived in her van, she nearly lost hope. But she never aban­doned Ur­gent Envoy, and along the way she found al­lies that led to the book’s happy end­ing.

Neri does a ster­ling job of telling a com­plex story—even its byzan­tine le­gal as­pects—in a way that younger read­ers will un­der­stand, and he keeps it rac­ing along with a skill­fully con­structed plot. The penand-ink graph­ics by il­lus­tra­tor Cor­ban Wilkin (“Breaker’s End”) are mus­cu­lar and invit­ing, giv­ing both Ruffu and her horse a bit of su­per­hero glow.

Ruffu’s own story may end hap­pily, but “Grand Theft Horse” takes on a larger cause as well. As Ruffu her­self writes in the af­ter­word, “In Amer­i­can horse rac­ing, twenty-four race­horses (on av­er­age) die ev­ery week on race­tracks. About 3,600 horses died rac­ing or train­ing in­side state-reg­u­lated race track en­clo­sures over the three years lead­ing up to 2012.” Drug­ging horses so they can race with in­juries is so per­va­sive that rac­ing forms list what med­i­ca­tions each horse has been given (or at least the le­gal ones).

Imag­ine such stats and prac­tices oc­cur­ring openly in a sport played by hu­man be­ings.

Ruffu doesn’t want to out­law horse rac­ing—the book makes clear how much she loves the sport as well as its ath­letes. But she be­lieves it could be made safer and more hu­mane, if only the peo­ple in­volved were less money mad and more horse crazy.

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