Broken Aesop: The Lessons of 'My Little Brony'

My Little Brony: An Unofficial Novel About the Magic of Friendship
by K.M. Hayes
Published by Skyhorse Publishing
Available on Amazon in Kindle or paperback format

High school in America is a rite of passage. Some kids consider it the best years of their lives. Others use it as a stepping stone to greater aspirations. And still others would say that they didn't graduate high school – they survived it. In those four years, one is expected to discover themselves, their talents, and their desires. They're supposed to figure out what they want to do with their life, and start preparing to achieve it. They must also navigate the treacherous battleground that is the student body, establishing an identity and reputation, make friends, repel enemies, and come out on the far side a well-rounded human being.

You settle into your interests in high school. The chess nerds hang out together, the football team drill each other, the preps sneer at the lesser kids. Everyone has their own little group, and everyone else is certain who will end up with which group. The six foot tall four foot wide muscle man? He'll be quarterback. That blonde girl with legs for miles and a smile to draw anyone's eye? The popular girls. The girls will take home economics, psychology, and art, and the boys will go into shop, and math, and science. And the ones who break the pattern? No one cares about them, they're the freaks.

It's hard being one of the freaks. You can feel like you don't belong anywhere, or with anyone. Whatever interests you, it's not what everyone else likes, don't you want them to like you? If you stand your ground they'll just tease you, or worse. You won't fit in. Sometimes what you've found for yourself is an interest no one could possibly share, or something about yourself you couldn't bear to tell anyone. The fear of being found out tears you apart, until you come across the one other person that seems to share your interest. And then it turns out they have a friend. And they have the internet.

No one saw the fourth generation of My Little Pony coming, although looking back on it five years into its run it's hard to be surprised. Headed by a world-class team of writers, animators, producers, directors, and voice actors, the new show subverted every expectation to be had of the classical "little girl" show. Characters with real interpersonal conflict, potent villains in a girl's show, and none of the saccharine preaching about everyone just getting along. The show understood that sometimes you can't get by on just "friendship" alone, and taught important lessons about finding your own path, and standing by it.

Our protagonist, Drew Morris, is a 14-year-old high school freshman, just transferred to the large Yearling High School in Austin. Drew lives nearly an hour outside of town; he was transferred due to a history of severe bullying at his previous schools. His father, Scott Morris, is a legendary football coach, commanding five straight championships, and several of his players go on to professional leagues. Their relationship is strained, after Drew failed to live up to Dad's expectations of being the next football star. Drew doesn't know what he wants to do, but he knows it's not sports, and Dad hopes his influence with the football team will change that.

On his very first day, Drew meets Skylar Zook, a devoted brony, who shows up every day dressed as a different pony. Skye is this school's favorite target for harrassment – A high school girl into little girl ponies? Grow up! – but is confident in herself, and doesn't let anyone get her down. The story takes place in the fall of 2013, a good two years into the brony movement, although it seems this school's awareness of it is limited to Skye's costumes. Drew also meets Emma Lindsey, a well-dressed girl who carries herself like one of the popular girls, but actually spends her time sneaking off to the library to read the book's stand-in for Harry Potter. Her parents, a pastor and church choir director, would strongly disapprove, as all depictions of magic "harbor evil and darkness". We learn Emma and Skye used to be the best of friends, until My Little Pony came along, and Skye's interest was kept out of Emma's reach.

And then Drew finds the show. His eight-year-old sister, Holly, adores the show, and refuses to change the channel when Drew babysits. Out of curiosity – and nothing more, of course! – Drew sits in on the episode "One Bad Apple", in which the show's youngest ponies are bullied by an outsider for being different from the other children. This resonates with Drew, and he finds himself unwillingly drawn into the series. Before long, he's sneaking episodes in bed, and begins drawing and posting to the internet, all carefully hidden from his father.

It's here that the book excels, painting an accurate snapshot of the complex social dynamics of high school, and the perceived implications of it coming out that you, a 14-year-old boy, are into My Little Pony. The setting is described and filled with a slew of stereotypes and cliches – the overbearing football father, the bible-belt-raised rebel girl, the amazing English teacher – which serves to rapidly bring the reader up to speed on the state of the world. Life looks like a series of stereotype boxes to a freshman, and a boy liking ponies is likewise given the monumental importance it would seem to have at that age. The author treats the subject with respect, perhaps out of personal experience, and portrays several characters as being skeptical at first, but eventually coming around. Most end up checking the show out for themselves, and come away either intrigued, or at least not as judgmental as they began.

As Drew befriends Skye and Emma, and discovers the vibrant internet community of bronies, he accepts that it's okay for him to like the show. So what if My Little Pony was traditionally one of the girliest franchises? It's just a show. Over the course of the book, he finds strength in his interest, and decides to persue a career in art and animation, ignited by his love of the show. In the end, the book successfully delivers the message that while in the moment it may feel like the world will end if people find out you like ponies, life goes on, and the terrible shock will pass.

But the book has another soapbox to stand on, which it invokes frequently as the story nears its conclusion. Drew's interest in My Little Pony rapidly progresses from enjoyment to obsession, until he feels that all his friends' problems could be solved if only they would watch the show with him. At first, it seems the book is aware of this unhealthy idea, with Drew offending his best friend, Quincy, when he doesn't immediately embrace the series. But instead, the author doubles down on this notion that the show is the solution, and Drew's friendship with Quincy is instantly repaired after Quincy catches the show while Holly is staying over for the day. Emma immediately rekindles her friendship with Skye after watching a few episodes on Drew's phone over a weekend.

The author elevates My Little Pony to a pedestal I don't believe it deserves. It's a good show, much better than its predecessors, but it's not a panacea for relationship problems. When Coach Morris catches Drew sneaking back to school from a brony meetup, he's outraged to discover the rumor about his son being into the girly show is true. He all but disowns his son, leaving Drew at the school to find his own way home – they live an hour away, remember. Drew is saved by Jake Harvey, in a wonderful moment of bonding and a complete subversion of the expected tough jock stereotype. But Drew gets it in his head that if only his dad would watch the show, he would see it's not so bad. His mother valiantly defends him in a series of arguments over the following days, often escalating to broken furniture heard behind closed doors. It's clear Dad won't budge.

But even Dad is thawed out after watching the first two episodes of the show. He would never admit to enjoying it in the least, of course, no matter how athletic and sporty Rainbow Dash is, but he does agree to allow Drew to go to the next meetup. Drew's gambit pays off, when nothing about Scott Morris shown in the book would suggest he would so rapidly change his fundamental views on what a man's man can be interested in. The ponies are the solution to all of Drew's problems, and this isn't confined to wishful thinking.

The author wants the reader to come away with a good moral: find what you like and stick to it, not just because someone else likes it, no matter who they are. My Little Pony could easily be removed from this book and replaced with "gay" or "transgender" or any of the other multitude of issues students of today are coming to terms with; it's all equally world-shattering to high schoolers. The book falls victim to the conflicting messages of the brony fandom as a whole, too, assuring the reader that My Little Pony is just a show, it's not a big deal, but also that this is about boys and grown adults of all genders getting into a traditionally young female show, which is a big deal. Unfortunately, the author spends too much time singing the praises of the series, and not enough time developing the greater frame of reference needed to appreciate how unimportant it is what shows you like.

Overall, the book could stand better on its own if the author used the reader's privileged position in Drew's mind to inject a more mature perspective into the events. While Drew might not properly grasp the importance of, perhaps, Jake and the football team coming to his aid when confronting Skye's would-be abusive boyfriend, the reader would understand the effects this would have on the group dynamics – the "pony freaks" are clearly off-limits to harrassment, and Coach's turnaround would be justified by his athletes deserting him for treating his son as the bullies would. Instead, the book remains firmly grounded in Drew's head, painting exaggerated and sometimes comically supervillainous pictures of the story's cast, all attributable to the teenage point of view. This does help the final morals somewhat, that if Drew can overcome his father nearly disowning him over ponies, surely the reader's parents aren't that hard to handle.

It's better to find strength in yourself first, before persuading others to follow you. My Little Brony: An Unofficial Novel About the Magic of Friendship gives the reader half a message about finding oneself, and half a fanatical adulation for My Little Pony's latest incarnation, and the legions of bronies that watch it. I recommend it for the first message, and for its tender description of the complex and terrifying maze of relationships that is high school, but I can't recommend it for its praise of the show. I feel it had the potential to deliver a more powerful and meaningful message about staying true to yourself, but spent that energy in service to the ponies, rather than standing on its own.

3/5 stars, for a promising message, but ultimately misaimed focus