Written by Kitty Griffin and Kathy Combs, Illustrated by Mike Wohnoutka
Clarion Books, 2001
Might could be Cowboy Sam was the most favorite man in the whole town of Dry Gulch.
The plot in a nutshell: A cowboy knows how to keep secrets.
Everyone tells Sam all their secrets and he keeps them, as he always says, under his hat. One day, however, his hat gets too full of secrets and won’t stay on his head anymore. Those who have told him secrets before try to help fix the problem by tying the hat to his head or weighing it down with horseshoes, but it doesn’t help. All the townspeople pitch in with suggestions, but nothing seems to work. When Little Leroy tries to cheer Sam up by giving him a pie, he adds that Sam’s heart is as big as Texas, which gives Sam the idea to keep secrets in his heart. Tight-lipped Tessa, who has never told Sam a secret before, steps forward to tell him one now, telling him she trusts his heart.
You can tell from the opening sentence that this is going to be a fun read-aloud book, especially if you go all in on the Texas drawl. Authors Kitty Griffin and Kathy Combs met at a writing workshop and this is their first picture book together. They throw in a dang tootin’ truckload of fun phrases here from Western lingo (and make up a whole passel of new ones for us city dwellers to enjoy, too). But while it’s a lot of fun to read, I wasn’t a huge fan of the actual story. Mostly, I just felt like the ending didn’t work for me. If we’re meant to buy into the town’s secrets being real physical manifestations (which we see in the book as wisps of purple sparkly smoke) then how exactly is Cowboy Sam going to keep them in his physical heart? And Tessa came out of left field, so her act of finally revealing a secret didn’t mean much. I wish she had been introduced earlier on.
Mike Wohnoutka’s acrylic paint illustrations perfectly capture an early frontier town and the people you’d expect to find there. Cowboy Sam has an adorably round face with chubby cheeks and a cute smile. I noticed on my second read that Tessa shows up in the background in several pictures throughout the book, although we don’t find out who she is until the end. When the secrets blow a hole in Sam’s hat, they escape in all directions and we never see what happens to them, which kind of diminishes our investment in having Sam keep them, since the townspeople don’t seem too upset about them being gone. A cute story, but I wish there had been a little more substance to it.
And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that secrets should be kept somewhere safe, where nothing can happen to them.