Written and Illustrated by Joan Walsh Anglund
Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1959
Once there was a cowboy. He was strong and brave.
Recommended by: Dirk (South Carolina)
Who is Dirk? I’m an engineer, husband and father of three who tries to make every day as fun as possible and is still figuring it all out. I don’t have near the attention span required to actually read, so picture books is a particularly fitting subject to ask me about. I’m also 6’1″, a Sagittarius and enjoy long walks on the beach.
How did you discover this book? My parents read it to me when I was a kid.
What do you like about it? On a very basic level, this book reminds me of a simplicity that is almost impossible to experience outside of childhood and one I am trying to create for my children in a very different age than I grew up in. The cowboy in this book reminds me of all three my children and I have read it to all three of them many many times.
The plot in a nutshell: A young cowboy imagines his life in the west
The cowboy in this story is not afraid of anything. He has a full cowboy outfit, including a two-holster belt. Every morning, after breakfast, he puts on his outfit and sets out to take care of all his cowboy duties, including rounding up rustlers, hunting Indians, rattlesnakes or mountain lions or just riding his horse. Sometimes he has other cowboy chores, such as bringing provisions or rescuing damsels. Some things go well for him and other things are more challenging, but he faces the challenges with tenacity and courage, never giving up. At the end of the day, he takes off his cowboy gear, says his prayers and goes to sleep, to dream of more cowboy adventures.
Author/illustrator Joan Walsh Anglund was a favorite artist of mine when I was a little girl. I had her first book, A Friend is Someone Who Likes You, and coloring books and paper dolls. So the nostalgia factor on this book was sky high for me, even though I don’t this I read this one as a child. To underscore Dirk’s comment about the book’s simplicity being impossible in the contemporary world, this book was re-released in 2000, with the negative references to Indians removed. A quick search found lots of reviews accusing it of racism, sexism and the promotion of weapons. Ms. Walsh Anglund was reflecting the culture of the 50’s, where ‘Cowboys and Indians’ was a common theme in TV, movies and playgrounds everywhere. But the book isn’t about any of that. It’s about imagination and creative play in a less judgmental and more playful world.
Her artwork, done in pen and ink, is classic and charming. The children in her drawings were modeled on her own son and daughter. They have round cheeks and dotted eyes, with no other facial features, which give them a sense of innocence and wonder. It’s especially noticeable here, when the adults in the book all have well-defined and expressive faces. A follow-up to this book, Cowboy and his Friend, featured the cowboy interacting with an imaginary bear friend. In both of these books, the imaginary world is drawn in a different color, to differentiate what’s real and what’s imagined. I used to sing Harry Nilsson’s ‘Little Cowboy’ to my kids at bedtime and this book reminded me of its warm and loving tone. A wonderful recommendation.
And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that life is full of all kinds of adventures, real and imagined, and the strong and brave are always prepared to face them.