Ghetto Cowboy, by G. Neri, is based on a true story of horse raising that does actually occur in North Philadelphia. Cole has never met his dad and his mom isn't thrilled with bringing him back into their lives, but it's her last option.
"He's different is all, but maybe different is what you need."
The practice of caring for horses in the city emerged a couple decades back in some of Philly's neighborhoods. One way to discourage gang violence was introducing kids and teens to horse care. The documentary program This American Life visited those neighborhoods a few years ago and shot this great film.
In the book, Cole's dad Harper runs this entire operation. Cowboy is a funny and emotionally real look at a kid lost in a new culture, with a new parent, and his ability to adapt and grow in the face of change. It doesn't start off easy for the boy though.
When faced with the prospect of sleeping in a large closet, Cole protests, "I ain't no Harry Potter." Chores such as shoveling horse....business are no picnic either, but a friendly mix of stablehands help Cole with the new life: The Cowboy Way.
Cole (named after John Coltrane) soon learns that there is a long and proud tradition of black cowboys in America. He begins to see value in his work when he connects with skittish horse, naming it Boo.
Harper's initial attitude toward his son seems to be tough love without the love. He takes his job incredibly seriously, which is partially what led to Cole's mother leaving. The neighborhood Harper lives in is run down, suffering due to gentrification and the construction of a freeway over the buildings. The city owns much of the property, but they don't do anything with it. They haven't picked up trash in weeks.
Harper and his posse are the only people trying to maintain the place. Right after a big storm blows through and does some damage, the city government conveniently chooses to inspect and condemn the place. The group hasn't even had the chance to fix or clean anything up. All of the horses are taken away, including Boo.
Cole wants to help get them back and make his father proud of him, but he's still headstrong. What he might think of as helping could actually make things much, much worse.
In Neri's book we see a mix of internal, ideological and realistic conflicts, none of which are solved by any sort of violence. The neighborhood's solidarity is an essential part of Cole and Harper's struggle. Jesse Joshua Watson's illustrations depict that unified spirit, combining the spirit of the old west with urban edginess.
Neri's voice is refreshing, and his focus on issues of race in America is both complex and engaging. Just look at his graphic novel Yummy, which examined a Chicago gang shooting committed by an eleven-year old boy and the media firestorm that followed. Ghetto Cowboy offers more hope that that previous book. It is a charming middle grade novel for reluctant readers and I cannot wait to see what topic Neri delves into next.
Cross-posted on Librarypoint.org