Old Favorites: Beat the Turtle Drum

This week’s Old Favorite is courtesy of my two younger sisters. They were horse-crazy, and read Every. Single. Horse. Book. that our library had on the shelves.  But they really appreciated the well-written ones.

Every once in awhile, when I had read everything I had borrowed from the library and needed something else to read, I’d ask them if there was anything good in their pile. And that’s how I found Beat the Turtle Drum.  It’s no surprise that I felt like I already knew it, because they used to run around quoting phrases from it all the time.  It’s also no surprise that they had it out when I needed something to read…I think they took turns checking it out from the library every six weeks or so.

They were right though, Beat the Turtle Drum, by Constance C. Greene,  is a really, really good book.

* * *

Kate’s younger sister Joss has read Misty of Chincoteague sixteen times.  If she dreams, she dreams about horses. She wants a horse more than anything. Her father has told her that their neighborhood isn’t zoned for horses, but that doesn’t stop her. For her eleventh birthday, she’s convinced him to let her rent a horse for a week.

Kate narrates the story. She isn’t quite as enamored of horses, but she and Joss are very close, so she helps Joss with her plans to convert the family garage into a stable for a week. She’s also helping her to figure out how to deal with parental objections and feeling out the neighbors who might not enjoy a horse on their street, even if it is only for a week.

From sisterly intimacies to suppressed rivalries, Kate and Joss are best friends, even when Kate can be bossy and Joss can be kind of a fink.  Kate knows that Joss is bright and energetic and outgoing, and realizes that she’s the sister everyone remembers and favors. Kate herself is quiet and perceptive, and you know her story is being told for a reason.   Both sisters are observant and a tiny bit snarky, and whether they’re going to bed or hanging out in their apple tree hideout, they share their feelings on everything, from their grandmother’s inability to get good birthday presents, to what is good about boys,  to what happens to imaginary friends once they go away.

When Prince arrives, Joss has the best birthday ever. The best day ever. Kate is by her side.  And Kate remembers everything that happened, and everything that they did together, and writes it all down. Because the day after Joss’ birthday, one small moment shatters Kate’s world, forever.

* * *

Beat the Turtle Drum is a beautifully written, emotional book. It has been described as touching, heartwrenching, poignant and bittersweet–I have to warn you, it’s definitely a tearjerker. Even picking up the book to page through it in order to write this, I started getting all teary.  But it’s also the story of two sisters who are best friends and who have always been together.  It’s a story of love and loss and what matters in life.

Written in 1976, Beat the Turtle Drum was made into a critically acclaimed After School Special  in 1977 called  (at first) Very Best Friends. (They changed it back to Beat the Turtle Drum when it was released on VHS video…a good idea because it was a much better title.) It hasn’t yet been released on DVD, but I hope someday it will be.

I think it’s probably appropriate that my sisters told me about this book. It’s something that we remember sharing, and maybe something that made us appreciate each other just a little more.  If you need a book to read for a discussion on dealing with grief, this book would be an excellent choice.

Read Beat the Turtle Drum…just make sure there’s a box of tissues handy.



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