Saturday, March 3, 2012

Ghetto Cowboy

I found much to admire and love about the middle grade novel Ghetto Cowboy, written by G. Neri and illustrated by Jesse Joshua Watson.

I noticed immediately the particularly fine feel of the paper as I turned the pages of my library copy, published by Candlewick press in 2011. Adding to the pleasure of turning these pages was the painting on the cover and the gorgeous black and white illustrations involving cowboys in an inner-city community.

The story was based in fact, inspired by an article in Life Magazine about real life inner-city black horsemen in Philadelphia and New York who found caring for horses kept young men off the streets. I was surprised by the unique story, one I'd never heard.

The back drop of the story, involving a seventh grader named Coltrane and his challenging relationship with his Dad, is political. It is a story of injustice and it begins when Coltrane moves from Detroit to Philadelphia and finds himself a key player in a fight with the government.

What is the fight? The government of the city of Philadelphia wants to tear down the horse stables run for many years by African-American horsemen like his father. The abandoned land in the middle of their here-to-fore neglected neighborhood has apparently become economically desirable. When the police come to the horse stables and remove the eight horses on trumped-up charges, young Coltrane takes action. He wants the horse he has grown to love returned. He doesn't give up. The illustrations showing scenes from the neighborhood, the adult horsemen, kids and the horses, adds to the emotional impact of the story.

Coltrane's Dad, in his fight to keep the horses, compared the plight of the inner-city poor with that of the horses: " . . .horses is like people: some come from money; some come from nothing. For these horses, the only thing between them and a can of dog food was us. They're the unwanted, just like us."

Coltrane's struggle reminded me of other stories about other African Americans fighting unjust rules. I thought of runaway slaves,  the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, and the rebellion of citizens such as Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks during the Civil Rights movement. Laws that are shown later to be unfair, one can assume, will always be passed.

What could be better for kids than to get them to think about any rule or law that affects their freedom, health and well being? How should they resist what seems unfair? Can they take the lead from the young protagonist in Ghetto Cowboy?

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