Reader Gut Reaction: Once Upon a Time (and I have told you this story before, yes) I was kind of a cowgirl. I worked at a summer camp from the time I was sixteen, for six awesome years. I had the boots. I had the curry comb. I had the hoof pick, -- and the shovel. I knew how to use them all. I bucked hay bales. I had that squinty-eyed look you get from not wearing sunglasses, but wearing a hat to shade your eyes. I smelled like horse for part of each summer, eleven weeks a year.
It wasn't enough. I started working weekends and winters at the camp when it was more of a dude ranch and convention center. I didn't get to ride much, but I got to be there while others did. I hung with the boys and chewed on wooden matchsticks.
No, seriously: I did. For years that was part of my 'tude. (Oh, stop laughing. I thought seriously about going Goth right after that.)
But, then, I started to feel slightly silly about it. I mean, come on. I'm an African American. I don't even really think I like Charlie Pride. And, there's no such things as black cowgirl and cowboys... right?
Well, wrong. Once upon a time? That's about all there were...
Gut reaction? G. Neri makes me want to get out my kickers, cowgirl up, and ride.
Concerning Character: Coltrane is quote possibly the BEST boy's name, ever, and though he is indeed a little punk when the story begins, he's mostly a scared punk who knows he's finally screwed up so badly his Mom is through with him. That's a terrifying feeling, and in his fear and insecurity, he kind of grows on you - and turns out to be lovable, with a smart mouth. Harper, the horse-loving father he ends up with, is also in a bad spot -- pissed off and scared of dealing with his kid, yeah, but there's other stuff going on, too, stuff that threatens to end the way of life he loves. But, he deals. That's the Cowboy Way.
Recommended for Fans Of...: You know what? There's about NOTHING that compares to this book - because it's a modern story pairing black people with horses, and we just don't get those! (PLEASE, if you can think of a book or two, speak!) However, two other middle grade novels come to mind - The Adventurous Deeds of Deadwood Jones, by Helen Hemphill, and of course, the CSK Award winner in 2010, Vaunda Micheaux Nelson's Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal. (Photo credit: Author G. Neri with ARC of his book, from his blog.)
Themes & Things: I very much love G.Neri’s dedication in this novel- Rise Up,and Ride On. Seriously, In rodeo parlance, that’s what this novel is about: cowboy up and ride, don’t lie there and bleed. Rising above the crap in a life – be that poverty and a bad school experience, a run-down, gangster-ridden neighborhood, divorced parents, or whatever –and riding on, getting above the whole experience, and knowing that the higher you are, the further you can see, and that there’s more to life -- that’s the theme. The Cowboy Way is to get up and deal, and to move on.
And all of that profoundness is wrapped in a funny, sad, tragic, wry, and very real story.
Authorial Asides: One of the BEST surprise of the book for me were the illustrations -- Jesse Joshua Watson (illustrator also of G. Neri's Chess Rumble and the breathtaking I and I, by Tony Medina) really makes the imagination sing. Also, the Life Magazine cover photograph at the conclusion brought me joy. There ARE real black cowboys, and G. Neri got to hang with them and ask questions.
That is just too cool.
Get your boots on, boys and girls, and be who you think you are.
And now here's the part where you'll want to slap me: I read this book as an ARC on NetGalley, with an invitation from Candlewick Press... aaaand, it's not going to be out until August 9th. BUT! that's just in time for a back-to-school giftie, right? Don't cry, now, please?? It's coming. In August, you'll find GHETTO COWBOY at an independent bookstore near you!