Review: Ghetto Cowboy

Ghetto Cowboy by G. Neri. Candlewick. 2011. Audio: Candlewick on Brilliance Audio. 2011. Narrated by JD Jackson. Odyssey Honor Book.

The Plot:  Twelve year old Cole’s mother doesn’t know what to do with Cole. He’s cut so much school that he may be left back, he’s getting into trouble, there’s nothing else for her to try  — so she drives from Detroit to Philadelphia, to leave him with the father he hasn’t seen since he was an infant.

Northwest Philly is just like Detroit… Except for the horses. Horses? In the city? And his father is one of the people who rides and takes care of horses? Impossible, thinks Cole: cowboys don’t live in cities. Cowboys aren’t black. His father can’t be a cowboy!

Except his father is a cowboy. Cole is about to learn some lessons: about life, about family, about horses. And about cowboys.

The Good: JD Jackson’s narration was excellent! I felt like Cole was right there in the car with me, telling me his story.

Cole, his mother, and his father are all stubborn. Cole is skipping school and getting into trouble, even though he’s smart enough to know better. His mother was stubborn enough to exclude Cole’s father from their lives and, now that she fears that her son is on a path that she is powerless to stop, is stubborn enough to drive him from Detroit to Philadelphia to a man he doesn’t know, in a last ditch effort to put Cole on a better path. Cole’s father is stubborn enough that when Cole’s mother took her infant son and left, he let them go. Cole is stubborn in his reluctance to see anything positive about the stranger that is his father.

Cole may be stubborn, but he’s not so stubborn to let pride or anger get in his way. Despite himself, he is curious about these “ghetto cowboys,” and learns a bit about their history and culture. Cole connects to one of the horses, and that connection, becoming responsible for another’s well being and safety, gives him a positive place to put his stubbornness, his independence, his strength and intelligence. It’s not just caring for a horse: it’s fighting for them. Cole’s visit to his father coincides with a city crack down on such urban stables, which threatens both the stables, their horses, and their riders, but also the positive contributions those cowboys and stables make to their local communities.

I love learning about subcultures; here, learning about cowboys in cities. Who knew? I didn’t! As G. Neri explains in a guest post at Cynthia Leitich Smith’s blog, Cynsations, the ghetto cowboy plot is based on real life. There really are such stables! Before this book, when I heard “horse” I thought of two types of people. Wealthy people, who can afford to buy and care for a horse. Or people in the country, who work with horses. This opened up my eyes to a bigger world.

Because I loved Cole. Because JD Jackson’s narration made me feel like this was happening around me. Because I am fascinated by these cowboys. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Other reviews: Guys Lit Wire; Finding Wonderland; The Happy Nappy Bookseller; Girls in the Stacks (with author interview).

Review: Yummy

Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty by G. Neri, illustrated by Randy DuBurke. Lee & Low. 2010. Graphic Novel. Review copy from publisher.

It’s About: A fictionalized account of the life and death of eleven year old Robert “Yummy” Sandifer.

The Good: Yummy’s story was brought to national attention in a 1994 Time Magazine article, Murder in Miniature.  Yummy’s life was short and brutal, full of abuse and neglect. Raised in Chicago, he was a member of the Black Disciples. Because of his age, when he was arrested for the crimes he committed he was let out: “see, back then, the laws were set up so that no shorty [i.e., someone as young as Yummy] could be convicted of a felony. Even for the worst crime, they’d be sent to Juvie and be back on the streets by the time they were 21. So the gangs put shorties to work.” At eleven, Yummy’s crimes escalated from robbery and arson to murder when he shot at gang rivals and accidentally killed an innocent fourteen year old girl, Shavon Dean. Yummy hid from the police for several days; at first, his gang assisted him. When they realized that Yummy had become a liability, he was killed by two of his fellow gang members, brothers aged fourteen and sixteen.

  Neri only fictionalizes the framing device to tell Yummy’s story, creating a young neighbor (Roger) to show Yummy’s life, the different views people had of him, and the impact of Yummy’s life on those around him. Neri’s website has additional resources; reading them, exploring more, shows that all the quotes about Yummy and his life are pulled from primary sources.

Using a graphic novel format to tell Yummy’s story creates a sense of immediacy, of being there with Roger and Yummy. Violence is spoken about, but what is shown is not explicit. It’s just enough to show the horror, the loss, the death, without being gratuitous. DuBurke’s black and white illustrations bring the reader into the story, removing any safe distance from Yummy. It also presents the story to those kids who would never pick up a “real book” — a novel, historical fiction — but will pick up a graphic novel.

There is nothing glamorous about Yummy; it is tragic, a waste. By using Roger as a  narrator, Neri can ask questions — how did this happen? Could something have been done different? Did Yummy have choices? What about those around him?  A final note from Neri does not answer the question as to whether Yummy was “a cold-blooded killer or a victim,” but does clearly give a take away to readers: “Like the preacher at Yummy’s funeral said: make up your mind that you will not let your life end like Yummy’s. Easier said than done, no doubt. But if you can find a way to make the choice of life, then other decisions may be easier. Choose wisely.”

In addition to the choices that Yummy faced, and the choices of other young men and women in similar circumstances, Yummy raises questions of both juvenile justice and the social welfare system. Yummy didn’t just fall between the cracks — he fell between the cracks over and over and over. Was there a point when something different could have been done so that Yummy could have been saved — or, could have realized he had different choices?

This is a middle school book, with its prime readership being those who, like Yummy, are about to face choices; and those who need to see the dark side of what they may see as a glamorous life.