Sunday, August 31, 2008


A buddy of mine in Australia used to use a phrase to describe a sudden reversal of fortune - "From rooster to feather duster in no time flat." Such would seem to be the fate of the image of the cowboy (see booklist). Up through the sixties and even the seventies, there were cowboys, bad guys and Indians. They might have their flaws but you always rooted for the cowboys. Then the brand collapsed. Cowboys became not just flawed but dangerously flawed. They were violent, oppressive, misogynistic, sociopaths. When they weren't demeaning Native Americans, they were oppressing them or massacring them. In the past decade or so the pendulum has swung back a little bit but Roy Rogers will probably never sit so tall in the saddle again.

Do kids even play Cowboys and Indians on the playground anymore? The role of cowboys in a child's life has always been a decidedly mixed media affair. There are plenty of cowboy stories of course but that was always supplemented by comic books, radio shows, movies and TV programs - Hopalong Cassidy, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Roy Rogers, The Lone Ranger, The Big Valley, etc. In the early days of television, Westerns were a popular staple and through the seventies, there were as many as a couple of hundred series. The dust trail of cowboys reached far and wide. Even growing up overseas, the cowboy shows and movies made their mark. Cowboy and Indian playground games were a regular activity for me and my friends in far off England in the sixties. Of course you always wanted to be a Cowboy, but you "fought" just as fiercely as an Indian and with a certain cache - noble but doomed (though we did win sometimes).

These playground activities are why I am often skeptical of many of the criticisms aimed in recent times at children's stories from decades past that transgress some au courant faux sensibility around race or gender or ethnicity. There are strikingly few books that are blatantly malicious. The language can sometimes jar but mostly from differences in fashion rather than intention. The transgressions are almost always ones of subtle nuance or the concerns are about possibly harmful subtexts that might be dangerously absorbed by our children unbeknownst by us as parents or them as targets.

There are many criticisms that can leveled at Cowboys and Indian games: there are the stereotypes (I think of us racing around the field yodling our imagined fierce war cries, patting our open mouths with flattened hands); there is the cultivation of conflict; there are the demeaning insults traded. On the other hand, when you play Cowboys and Indians, each of you, at some time or another has to be the Indians, sometimes not at all reluctantly because there is something romantic and attractive about being the underdog.

Children are great for impassioned commitment to role playing. Taking on another persona, another identity, another allegiance, no matter how factually questionable or for how brief a period, is a mind expanding experience (and fun.) It is a mistake I think to take away those opportunities for building empathy because of an over-concern about niceties of expression or concerns about hidden subtexts. Kids might sometimes be devious but rarely are they subtle. We have all had the experience, I suspect, of going back and rereading something from our youth. Occasionally it is as magical as ever (or even more so). Not infrequently though, we find that the story was far more pedestrian in its style than we remember or has some portrayal far more forthright than we are accustomed to today. Yet that was not what we absorbed at the time. I think the dangers of subtexts and nuanced expression are far overblown and the harm from lack of engagement and empathy far greater than we should accept.

Cowboys exemplify one of the challenges that we as a reading community face, particularly in the realm of children's literature, when we let entertaining stories be held hostage to factual reality or when we wish to put authors in a straight-jacket of moral certitude and contemporary ethos (whatever the passing fancies might be). Usually as parents, we are looking for books that first and foremost, engage our children and help fuel a love of reading on their part. This usually means we are looking for a storyline that connects our children with the world - characters that they care about, places they are interested in, stories that spark their imagination. Next we often look for something that reinforces key values and beliefs that we seek to transmit to them - things like courage and curiosity and adventuring and perseverance and loyalty, etc.. We frequently also hope that they will pick up factual information from their stories such as some idea about history and geography and nature, etc. Finally, we usually are hoping that through their reading they will engage at some level with fundamental questions about making moral decisions, coming up with answers to situations which they have not yet faced - "What would I do if I were in the same situation?" By considering and answering situations through the world of reading, they are preparing themselves for the day when they face comparable situations in their real life.

That is a lot of freight to load on to a poor little forty or eighty page children's book. Often, a book that serves one goal (that it grips the child's imagination) may fail on another (liberties with factual representation). It is always a balancing act to find a book that meets the greater balance of objectives. There is not now nor has there ever been such a mythical book that can meet all those objectives simultaneously.

Every book reading experience is ultimately the product of the author (and illustrator) and the child's imagination. It is this second part which makes matching child to book so unpredictable. Regardless, of what we as parents want, and the quality of the book we think we have found, there is then the real issue: how is the book received by the child. That is in turn subject to an almost random assortment of factors. What kind of day have they had, are they tired, do they know enough to understand the concrete facts of the book, do they read well enough, is their vocabulary sufficiently broad, is it a subject in which they are interested, is it written in a style to which they are attracted, what are the circumstances under which they are reading the book? Children are highly variable amongst themselves and within themselves. The single span of a day can make all the difference in a particular child's response to a particular book.

Stories about cowboys, like those about dinosaurs or horses or cuddly animals, do have a broad appeal. The cowboy, free-living, independent, self-reliant, strong, and usually with a strong moral code, is an inherently attractive character to most children who are seeking to build their own autonomy. One of my boys has surprised me by becoming a reasonably avid reader of westerns. Zane Grey, Louis L'Amour et al, are nominally too old for him and yet that is what he has taken to along with other western classics, especially the wonderful Shane. I have read a couple with him and I see the attraction. The protagonist wrestling against fate and self to be a better man. The clarity of good versus evil. Big dollops of action. These are all grist for the mill. My concern about the age level for his reading is set aside by this recognition. He is at a time in his life where school work and band and sports and activities are stealing away more and more of his time. Almost any book that keeps alive the hunger and habit of reading is by definition a "good" book.

The heyday of the cowboy was relatively brief. The first large cattle drive was post-Civil War in 1866. The enclosure of the open range through the mass use of barbed wire effectively brought the original era to a close in the 1890's. The original cowboys were as heterogeneous a lot as could be imagined. Local pioneers, veterans from the Civil War, people moving west for new beginnings - all contributed to the ranks of cowboys. Along with whaling ships, the cowboys generated one of the first truly multicultural workplaces with people of Celtic, Mexican, African American, and Native American origin all making up an element of the mix of peoples pursuing the life of the cowboy.

The cowboy tradition is not restricted to Canada and the US (and in the US we sometimes overlook that there were cowboys not just in Texas but in Florida and California and everywhere in between.) There are the vaqueros of Mexico who in turn are in a linear descent from the medieval vaqueros of Spain. There are the gauchos of Brazil and Argentina. The Boers of South Africa. The drovers of Australia. All are people associated with the tending of and movement of cattle across wide open spaces, often in to new territories, blazing trails for others to follow. People who live under the stars, close to nature, far from civilization and who have to be completely self-reliant.

It is easy to over-romanticize the life of the cowboy. One of the most famous Australian poets was A.B. "Banjo" Paterson, who wrote a number of iconic poems of the Australian experience, including one about the life of the drover, "Clancy of the Overflow". But Paterson was a town person and wrote of the bush life and the life of the drover with somewhat rose tinted glasses. Wally Darling was a real drover who also wrote verse (in fact the volume of cowboy poetry is quite extraordinary) and offered his own less romantic parody of Paterson's poem, "A Drover's Life".

Waylon Jennings captured the stringency and challenge of the life of a cowboy in his famous song, Mama Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys.

Cowboys like smokey old pool rooms and clear mountain mornings,

Little warm puppies and children and girls of the night.

Them that don't know him won't like him and them that do,

Sometimes won't know how to take him.

He ain't wrong, he's just different but his pride won't let him,

Do things to make you think he's right.

Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys.

Don't let 'em pick guitars or drive them old trucks.

Let 'em be doctors and lawyers and such.

I love that line - He ain't wrong, he's just different.

Despite their heyday being more than a century behind us, the cowboy life does live on and the idea of the cowboy burns even brighter. The phrases and the places and names and even just words all conjure magic - Dodge City, buckaroo, OK Corral, wrangler, lasso, giddy up, Mustang, round-up, stampede, Chisholm trail, bucking bronco, Stetson hats and Colt pistols, Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, Boot Hill - these all quicken the blood and flush the imagination.

Below is a collection of books that relate the history of the West and the cowboy, tell of some of the famous people of that time and some of the less well known. Here are their adventures. Let us know what books you might recommend related to cowboys.

Picture Books

Cowboy Small written and illustrated by Lois Lenski
Highly Recommended

The Brave Cowboy written and illustrated by Joan Walsh Anglund Recommended

Calico the Wonder Horse written and illustrated by Virginia Lee Burton Recommended

Cowboy Night Before Christmas written and illustrated by James Rice Recommended

Pappy's Handkerchief by Devin Scillian and illustrated by Chris Ellison Recommended

Mailing May by Michael O. Tunnell and illustrated by Ted Rand Recommended (OK not quite about cowboys but a great story about living on the frontier)

Bad Day at Riverbend written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg Recommended

The Cowboy's Christmas written and illustrated by Joan Walsh Anglund Suggested

Armadillo Rodeo written and illustrated by Jan Brett Suggested

Little Old Big Beard and Big Young Little Beard by Remy Charlip and illustrated by Tamara Rettenmund Suggested

Pecos Bill written and illustrated by Steven Kellogg Suggested

Why Cowboys Sleep With Their Boots On by Laurie Lazzaro Knowlton and illustrated by James Rice Suggested

Why Cowgirls Are Such Sweet Talkers by Laurie Lazzaro Knowlton and illustrated by James Rice Suggested

Gift Horse by S. D. Nelson Suggested (Indian Lore)

Cowboy Rodeo written and illustrated by James Rice

Texas Night Before Christmas written and illustrated by James Rice Suggested

B Is for Buckeroo by Louise Doak Whitney and Gleaves Whitney and illustrated by Susan Guy Suggested

A Cowboy Christmas by Audrey Wood and illustrated by Robert Florczak Suggested

Independent Reader

Pecos Bill by James Cloyd Bowman and illustrated by Laura Bannon

The Original Adventures of Hank the Cowdog by John R. Erickson and illustrated by Gerald L. Holmes Recommended

Brighty of the Grand Canyon by Marguerite Henry & Wesley Dennis and illustrated by Wesley Dennis Recommended

Smoky The Cowhorse by Will James Recommended

Silver Canyon by Louis L'Amour Recommended

Cowboy (DK Eyewitness series) by David H. Murdoch and illustrated by Geoff Brightling Recommended

The Man from Snowy River and Other Verses by Andrew Barton Paterson Recommended

Cowboy Country by Ann Herbert Scott and illustrated by Ted Lewin Recommended

Geronimo by Joseph Bruchac Suggested

In the Days of the Vaqueros by Russell Freedman Suggested

The Life and Death of Crazy Horse by Russell Freedman and illustrated by Amos Bad Heart Bull Suggested

Will Jame's Book of Cowboy Stories by Will James

All in the Day's Riding by Will James Suggested

Horses I've Known by Will James Suggested

Crossfire Trail by Louis L'Amour Suggested

The Rider of Lost Creek by Louis L'Amour Suggested

Bull's-Eye by Sue Macy Suggested

The Journal of Joshua Loper by Walter Dean Myers Suggested

Tall Tales of the Wild West (And a Few Short Ones) by Eric Ode and illustrated by Ben Crane Suggested

The Good, the Bad and the Goofy by Jon Scieszka and illustrated by Lane Smith Suggested

Young Adult

Shane by Jack Schaefer Highly Recommended

Dances With Wolves by Michael Blake Recommended

The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark Recommended

Angle of Repose by Wallace Earle Stegner Recommended

These Is My Words by Nancy E. Turner Recommended

The Virginian by Owen Wister Recommended

The Chisholm Trail by Ralph Compton Suggested

The Shawnee Trail by Ralph Compton Suggested

The Great Trek by Zane Grey Suggested

The Good Old Boys by Elmer Kelton Suggested

The Smiling Country by Elmer Kelton Suggested

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry Suggested