Ghetto Cowboy

Book Reviews

Neri, G. Ghetto Cowboy; illus. by Jesse Joshua Watson. Candlewick, 2011 [224p]

ISBN 978-0-7636-4922-7 $15.99
Reviewed from galleys Ad Gr. 5-9

After his mother has had enough, Coltrane finds himself dropped off to stay in Philadelphia with the father he never knew. The already reeling twelve-year-old is thoroughly confused to find himself sharing quarters with a horse in the middle of the city. It turns out his father is one of the legendary black cowboys of North Philadelphia, championing an urban tradition that’s kept many kids in the stables instead of in trouble, and one that’s now threatened by the city fathers, who want to develop the land on which the stables stand. The city cowboys of Philadelphia and elsewhere are a fascinating and little-documented topic, and this is an eye-opening glimpse into that world; readers will particularly appreciate the close male bonding of the group, with its multigenerational relationships and friendly racing rivalries. Coltrane’s narration is written in easy-reading colloquial language, making the book a likely sell to reluctant readers and possibility for older readalouds. The treatment is largely superficial, though, with characters and relationships never really developing and events lacking compelling or credible setup. Watson’s black-and-white paintings use strong borders on figures, enhancing the moralistic flavor of his style; while the draftsmanship is a little stiffly literal at times, the portraiture is dramatic. Despite the book’s flaws, it’s got broad application and considerable appeal, and kids may be moved to look into their own town’s lesser-known traditions. An author’s note attests to the reality of the Philadelphia cowboys but unfortunately doesn’t offer any sources or further directions for those whose interest has been piqued.  DS

Ghetto Cowboy.
Neri, G. (author).  Illustrated by Jesse Joshua Watson.
Aug. 2011. 224p. Candlewick, hardcover, $15.99 (9780763649227). Grades 5-8.
REVIEW.  First published September 15, 2011 (Booklist).

When 12-year-old Cole acts out one time too many, his beleaguered mother drives him from Detroit to Philadelphia to live with the father he’s never known. To Cole’s astonishment, his father, Harper, turns out to be a kind of urban cowboy, living in the ghetto, where he and a group of friends keep and care for old racehorses they’ve saved from the slaughterhouse. The horses, in turn, are used to provide a safe zone for street kids and to teach them responsibility. Unfortunately, the land Harper and his cohorts use belongs to the city, which now wants to use it for commercial development. It may be up to Cole to save his father’s program and the horse with which he himself has bonded. Based on the real-life, inner-city black horsemen of Philadelphia and New York City, Neri’s story, though occasionally didactic and heavy-handed, is original in theme and inspirational in tone and content. — Michael Cart

Horn Book Guide:
Neri, G. Ghetto Cowboy
   218 pp. Candlewick 2011. ISBN 978-0-7636-4922-7
(4) 4-6 Illustrated by Jesse Joshua Watson.

Based on the real-life community of black horsemen of North Philadelphia, this novel traces the experience of Cole, whose depressed mother drops him off with the father he barely knows. Cole’s dad Harp is a leader of the Chester Avenue horsemen, stabling and training abandoned equines, and Cole learns (too easily) to ride and follow the “Cowboy Way.” Formulaic, but boy-pleasing and swiftly moving.

Reprinted from The Horn Book Magazine [or Guide, as applicable] by permission of The Horn Book, Inc.,

School Library Journal:
NERI, G. Ghetto Cowboy. illus. by Jesse Joshua Watson. 224p. CIP. Candlewick. 2011. RTE $15.99. ISBN 978-0-7636-4922-7; ebook $9.99. ISBN 978-0-7636-5449-8. LC 2010007565.

Gr 5-8–Cole has been skipping school so much that he might have to repeat seventh grade. His fed-up mom drives him from Detroit to North Philadelphia to live with the father he’s never met. Feeling abandoned, Cole at first struggles to get along with his father. But eventually his dad’s vocation as a horse-whispering cowboy–he runs a stable in the inner city, which is a safe haven for local kids–gives them a chance to connect. Cole learns the history of black horsemen and how to live the “Cowboy Way,” befriending a horse of his own and joining a fight to save the stable when it’s threatened by the city. This well-written book is based on a true story of urban cowboys in Philadelphia and New York. Cole’s spot-on emotional insight is conveyed through believable dialogue and the well-paced plot offers information about a little-known aspect of African-American history as well as a portrait of contemporary urban stable life. Watson’s illustrations punctuate the intriguing aspects of the story and make the novel more appealing.–Shawna Sherman, Hayward Public Library, CA


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