Review of “Ghetto Cowboy” by G. Neri

This is a middle grade book, but it is so good! And yes, that was me you heard cheering and crying at the end. If you are looking for an inspirational book for young readers (and yourselves!) you can add this book to your list.

Twelve-year-old Coltrane, named for the jazz artist, is being raised by his mother in Detroit. But as the book begins, Cole has gotten in trouble yet again at school, and his mother feels like she can’t take any more; she is driving him to Philadelphia to the house of the father – Harper – he never met.

After his mother drops him off in Philly, Cole gets one surprise after another. His father is part of a group of black urban cowboys who save horses from slaughterhouses, and use them to teach neighborhood kids how to be responsible for the care of another life. In exchange for getting to ride, the kids groom and feed the horses, and help with the upkeep of the stables.

The City has other ideas, however, since a group of developers want the land to build gentrified housing. Cole, sullen and alienated when he first arrives, learns “the Cowboy Way” – first about bonding with horses, and then about friendship and justice. Together, he and the cowboy group implement the Cowboy Way in order to prevent their horses from getting killed and to stop the developers from depriving them of their way of life and of the happiness and self-esteem it confers on all the participants.

The illustrator, Jesse Joshua Watson, is the wonderful artist who created the joyous pictures for the book I and I: Bob Marley (reviewed here). His pictures, intermittently placed throughout the book, definitely enrich the story. I was only sorry there weren’t more of them!

Discussion: The best part of this book is that it is based on an actual group of urban black horsemen in North Philadelphia. In an article about these “cowboys” in “Pennsylvania Equestrian,” you can learn the real story about the threat to the thirty horses in the stables on Fletcher Street, and what they mean to the kids who hang out there. As Hop White, who owns the facility, observes:

‘Horses helped my life,’ he says. ‘I could have been a gang-banger or a drug seller. My time was put in here instead of where I grew up.’ He offers his own life as a contrast to those of some of the kids he knew from his old neighborhood. ‘A couple are dead, plenty are in jail doing life.’ He says that his parents weren’t together, but his father, who lived near the stable, brought him around to learn to ride. His 12-year-old son rides there now, along with his nephews.

The men all talk about discipline and accountability. They’re not abstract concepts. They are incorporated into rules that are strictly enforced. ‘Once a kid comes around here, it’s hard for them to detach themselves,’ White explains. ‘They look at this as another part of the world. You don’t have anyone cursing, doing drugs, shouting. There’s no tolerance of violence around here.’ And there’s no tolerance for slacking off at school, either. ‘The kids must bring their report cards. If they get bad grades, they can’t ride until they bring their grades up.’ Beyond grades, there’s another component. Kids can’t ride unless they help out.”

A Denizen of Fletcher Street in Philadelphia

I can’t recommend this book highly enough!

Rating: 4/5

Published by Candlewick Press, 2011

For more reviews of books for children and teens, go to Booking Mama’s feature, Kid Konnection, posted on Saturdays. If you’d like to participate in Kid Konnection and share a post about anything related to children’s books (picture, middle grade, or young adult) from the past week, leave a comment as well as a link on her site.

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16 Responses

  1. Wow! This book sounds awesome! I had never heard of it before. I’m definitely going to seek this one out.

  2. I was going to ask if this is based on a true story and I’m so glad to see it is! What a wonderful project for the horses and the kids! I almost got teary eyed reading your review.

  3. Nice review – new title to me and you know I love true stories!

  4. This sounds great and different than so many of the story lines out there. Love the illustrations too!

  5. This one sounds so wonderful! I read G. Neri’s Yummy and loved that so this is one that I would like to read!

  6. I’m sold! I think my whole family would like this book — we used to live not far from Detroit, then not far from Philly. So we are somewhat familiar with both cities (and their issues). I never heard about the urban cowboys, though — probably because we lived in PA only two years, not long enough to know everything about Philly.

  7. Wow. This is a book that I would DEFINITELY not pick up off the shelf because of the title alone, which for whatever reason makes me think of Kid Rock. So glad you brought it to my attention!

  8. Wow, this really sounds like an inspirational and educational read. I never heard of urban horsemen or their wonderful community work. My son who loves horses would enjoy this one. Thanks for this great review!

  9. Some parts of this book remind me of The Kings of Colorado, and that intrigues me. It does sound like a quite amazing and heartwarming story. I also think it’s neat that it was based on a true story and that there is such a feel good message associated with the book. I bet this would be something that I would enjoy, so I will have to add it to my list. Your review was both enticing and enthusiastic, and I loved it!

  10. What a great program for kids, and probably those adults involved. I hope I can find this one at my library. I’d love a book I can cheer about at the end.

  11. I love stories like this that are based on real life. I haven’t heard of the book and probably would have walked right past it. I’ll have to keep it in mind for my older son.

  12. Wow! I love your review and I love the sound of this book. What an amazing story! Thanks so much for sharing!

  13. How nice to know that such a group exists. The power of animals to help and save us is always something amazing.

  14. Love the first-hand account. Powerful place.

  15. Totally unexpected plot, and based on a true story? A great pick for a parent-child read-along or multi-generational book group.

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