Title: Ghetto Cowboy
Author: G. Neri
Illustrator: Jesse Joshua Watson
ISBN: 9780763649227
Pages: 218 pages
Publisher/Date: Candlewick Press, c2011.
Publication Date: August 9, 2011

The front door’s open. I walk in and the first thing I smell is . . . horses? I ain’t never smelled a horse before, never even saw one up close before a few minutes ago. But if a horse got a smell, I think this is it, ’cause that’s all that’s in here: horse stuff. A coupla old saddles, blankets, brushes, work boots, horse things like you see on TV. Instead of furniture, there’s even them square things of hay to sit on.
This ain’t no house–it’s a barn.
To top it off, there a big ol’ hole from floor to ceiling knocked into the side of the living room, leading into the place next door, like he just wanted to epand his crib and took over the abandoned one next to his.
I peek inside the hole, but its dark ’cause all the windows is boarded up. But man, it really smells like animal in there. Suddenly, something big moves in the dark, and I jump back.
“That’s Lightning,” says Harper.
My eyes adjust to a pair of dark eyes staring back at me.
It’s a horse. He got a horse in the house.
No wonder Mom left him. (22-23)

Fed up with Cole’s behavior, skipping school and getting into trouble, his mother drives him through the night to Philadelphia, to the house of the father he’s never met. Cole isn’t sure which parent is crazier, his mother for doing this to him or his father for claiming to be a cowboy and caring for horses out of a rundown stable in an abandoned lot. But Cole realizes that his father isn’t the only crazy one, as he quickly meets the rest of the black cowboys trying to maintain country lifestyles in the city. Will the fight for the horses finally bring Cole and his father together, or just drive them farther apart?

I’m always up for a good “based on a true story” book, and this is no different. G. Neri does a great job with the dialogue and urban dialect without going overboard with language that would force it into the teen area. I could still see teens enjoying this book, especially the reluctant/struggling/hi-lo readers. The conversations and flow is typical of everyday speech patterns, which makes it a very fast and easy read. But the relationships are what make it compelling, as we see that not everything is black and white. Cole’s father probably says it best when explaining that the city has turned some people against them, while other city people are glad that the horses provide an alternative activity for youth besides gangs. Cole realizes the complexity of the issue when he finds out that Cole’s father is even friends with a cop who used to stable a horse in the city.

This seems to be an ongoing issue, with no cut and dry answers. Neri respects that struggle by not giving his own story a cut and dry happy ending. Even with the epilogue, the characters still have their own battles to fight, but it in no way makes the ending any less satisfying. This is a book ready-made for discussion, with Mr. Neri providing websites, videos, and even a discussion packet on his own website, http://gregneri.com/cowboy.html that teachers and librarians should really check out. Looking through some of the news stories, you can tell that the author did his research and based some of the events in the book on actual events in the Federation of Black Cowboys history and experience. Although I read the physical book, and the illustrations are phenomenal, the audiobook did receive an Odyssey Honor Award and an AudioFile Earphones Award, so I guess that format would be just as impressive.

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