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 that 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.”
I can’t recommend this book highly enough!
Published by Candlewick Press, 2011