As quiet as a cowboy is not the first simile that would generally pop into my mind.
Maybe as rowdy as a cowboy. Tough as a cowboy. Sunburnt as a cowboy.
Not that I really dwell on the whole subject of cowboys often…or ever. It’s one of those categories that seems to belong to Small Loud Boys and John Wayne.
But if I did bring Cowboy up on the radar screen of my mind, I would not be coming up with words like gentle, peaceable, artistic. Until I read this extraordinary book.
Real Cowboys, written by Kate Hoefler, illustrated by Jonathan Bean
published in 2016 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
I’ll admit, when I first saw this title on the to-be-published lists, I did not see how it could grab me. Just…cowboys. I don’t watch Westerns. I live in Minnesota. I don’t even eat much beef. This was not ringing any bells for me.
But. Jonathan Bean was illustrating it. And you just don’t overlook any of his work. So.
Then I began to see some spreads, little previews of what was coming in this book. And I was amazed at both the text and artwork.
The moral of the story is: If cowboys in general don’t trip your trigger, you should still give this book a whirl. It IS about cowboys, but honestly, it’s about a lot more than cowboys.
I would be interested to know how Hoefler became interested in this subject. However it was, her poetic, thought-provoking depiction of these men and women of the West is most surprising. Digging behind the stereotypical face of swaggering, rough, callous guys with quick tempers and itchy trigger fingers, Hoefler finds authentic, skilled, deeply human individuals.
These folks are gentle, coaxing frightened cattle through storms and canyons, singing them to sleep, patiently moving “with the slow rhythm of the herd,” shedding tears for dogs lost to a dust storm, crafting stories under the wide night skies. Every stereotype busted. In their place, a beautiful, moving portrait of what strength really looks like.
Hand a text like this to Jonathan Bean, and I promise you, you will get images beyond your wildest expectations. Returning to the large, geometric-leaning shapes of One Starry Night, Bean first fills the pages with strength. Massive cattle. Impressive horses. Endless herds. The cowboys, on the other hand, are depicted variously. Sometimes they are quite small against the vast landscapes. Sometimes, bent with fatigue.
Their faces, when we see them, are mainly marked with stolid endurance.He sets all of this in the panoramas of the West, blazing with heat, shrouded in dust, glittering with stars.
There’s one heart-stopping, thunderous stampede that’s simply spectacular. And then he adds such unexpected color and sophisticated textures. All of it works to echo the strong-yet-gentle, understanding of the text. Of cowboys and humankind.
As you can tell, this is a remarkable piece of work. Grab it for ages 3 and up.