Black Cowboy, Wild Horses: A True Story by Julius Lester, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney.
Dial Books for Young Readers, Penguin, New York, 1998.
Picture book nonfiction, 40 pages.
Lexile: 710L .
AR Level: 4.5 (worth 0.5 points) .
One expedition of a cowboy named Bob Lemmons, famed for his ability to bring in herds of wild mustangs solo.
As a young reader I acquired a childish interest in the West. Actually, I’m pretty sure it was from Laura Ignalls Wilder (and yes, I now know how problematic that was, and our kids read Louise Erdrich instead). In adult life, I’ve been learning just how very much was wrong, or omitted, from my early education. Even so, it was surprising to learn that the common all-white image of cowboys were actually roughly a third Hispanic and that one in four cowboys was African-American.
Luckily there are several diverse books about this, so I can share a much more accurate and sensitive culturally appropriate portrayal of the West with our kids. Since we love Jerry Pinkney, of course this was our first title.
My absolute favorite part of this lovely book is actually the final page, in which friends Lester and Pinkney, two experts at the top of their game, describe how they came to write this book together after both separately working on similar projects back in the 1970s. Lester writes about how they each felt the other had the harder job, and Pinkney about how he hopes kids playing in the future will know about cowboys of color.
The illustrations here are gorgeous and look like paintings. They start off fairly quiet and get more and more active or tense as the book goes on.
The words match perfectly with the style of the pictures. This is definitely a picture book for either advanced independent readers (quivering, enclosure, surge, lightning) or as a read-aloud to kids with a good attention span. We read this as a family with the older kids. They were not so interested at first (the color palette is muted which they generally dislike) but the story drew them in.
Sadly, a part of that is the novelty. Even today, many people find it difficult to believe that cowboys were racially mixed and that the early West allowed for occupational and social mixed race contact.
Although this is a true story and that fact is boldly proclaimed on the cover, I’ve since seen this book in several libraries cataloged as fiction, and the interior cataloging information indicates the same. It’s true that the specific story told here is not exactly known. We don’t have that much detail on any particular trip that Bob Lemmons took, but this is a vivid imagining of one trip based on information about his methods.
I don’t see where this book is substantially different to Dave the Potter or the many Washington/Lincoln stories that are often categorized as nonfiction. Since students are unlikely to be familiar with Lemmons as a historical figure and may not read the endnotes, cataloging this in fiction is also one more step in the constant erasure of black history.
Speaking of erasure, I should mention that there’s no mention of Native Americans or Latin@s among the spare characters in this book. I’d have higher expectations of a book more recently published or intended for older readers. For a book from 1998, at least there are no negative or stereotypical portrayals.
Spoiler | There are some intense moments in this book, and a wild mustang calf dies from a snakebite. It’s portrayed as simply part of life in the west, not celebrated but not particularly grieved over either. However a sensitive child could be troubled by that scene. | End of Spoiler
Bob Lemmons is a fascinating and far too little-known historical figure. I’m glad that these two greats got together to work on this story they were both passionate about. Recommended.