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Real Cowboys

real-cowboysMost of us associate illustrator Jonathan Bean with a more representative style and a less saturated medium. (Think Building Our House and This Is My Home, This Is My School.) But of course the Real Committee can’t be thinking about that, and anyway Bean made the right artistic choice for this book’s impressionistic text. The art is composed of “hand-stenciled shapes and textures layered with the computer and printed in four Pantone colors,” and I love the effects Bean achieves. With the stenciling and textures you practically breathe in the dust, feel the beating-down of the sun, experience the stampede. The double-page spreads are dramatic when appropriate, a little more subdued when that’s appropriate, too. Almost every spread keeps the eye moving forward, toward the right, toward the next page-turn, whether with the placement of text or the direction horse or cowboy or steer is moving. Clouds, rain, snow, dust storms, stars — all feel so immediate, and the truly glorious skyscapes (with clouds or shooting stars incorporating cow or horse shapes) take the viewer’s breath away.

Just look at the cover for an example of what Bean is doing here and how he does it. Note how the shapes and colors work together. The angles of the calf’s head and hooves and knee (do calves even have knees? — but you know what I mean) contrasts with the curve of the cowboy’s arms, which encircle it; the dark colors of the flashlight, cowboy hat, and cowboy boots punctuate the composition; the light from the flashlight helps even more with where to look — and somehow the contrasting patterns of the cowboy’s shirt and scarf and the dappled colors of the calf, sky, and sand work in harmony together. And the content of the cover is important, too — the cowboy is not swaggerin’ or spittin’ or throwin’ a lasso; he’s nursing the calf, tenderly giving the calf a bottle, so we know not to expect the usual macho cowboy treatment once we open the book.

I think there might be a little push me-pull you tension, though, between how careful the text is to note that real cowboys “are as many different colors as the earth” and that they can be “girls,” and how few clear, intentional examples of those things we get throughout the book. We do see some brown faces; I’m not sure we see any definitely female cowboys except on the page where it’s mentioned. But if that’s a bump on the trail rather than a roadblock for the Real Committee, I can see this book getting some Real Love.

Martha V. Parravano About Martha V. Parravano

Martha V. Parravano is book review editor of The Horn Book, Inc., and co-author of the Calling Caldecott blog.



  1. Yes, you pointed out exactly what I noticed about this beautiful book, Martha. If real cowboys are diverse & female, then why not reflect that on every page, not just a few spreads towards the end. The cowboys we get to know in the story are phenotypically White & then… “Real cowboys are multicultural…and girls too!” but it goes back to White cowboys. Such amazing art, really interesting look at cowboy life and perceptions of maleness, but a little shallow about highlighting (and honoring) the diversity/history of real cowboys (and girls).

  2. As a bookseller this holiday season I was grateful for this title. I had so many people say, “I need a book for someone I love, but we just don’t have any values in common.” And people were genuinely in pain over their lack of moral connection to family members. But I’d hand them this title and say, “I bet you’ll find shared values in here.” And usually they did. That is as much to do with text as art. Still.

    I have a question though and please bear with me because I’ll have to wade through the biggest snowfall of the winter to get to a copy of REAL COWBOYS at the shop tomorrow and double check my impressions. How are you determining the race, ethnicity, and gender of the cowboys in this book? Just looking at the cover image which everyone reading this post can easily see–can you say definitively that this is an image of a man? And if so what connotes maleness to you? The position of the rancher and the calf obscure hips and breasts which would provide the most obvious marker. Is there something else in the illustration that communicates gender? And in a similar vein, what about the cover image communicates race. I see (and perhaps this is a feature of how the cover reproduces on a computer screen) a person with a medium brown face, a lighter brown right hand and a darker brown left hand. I’m pretty sure the coloration differences reflect which parts of the body are in the light of the flashlight and which are in shadow. The hair is black. The eyes are closed. If there’s a clear indication of race or ethnicity, I’m missing it. But I’ll definitely take a more detailed look, and I’d love to hear from someone who can show me what I’m not seeing.

    Has anyone used this with a diverse group of kids and sussed out whether they felt any of these cowboys or girls looked like them?

    For me the drawback in the book is in the words. I know many small independent ranch owners and they much prefer to be called ranchers. They find the term cowboy pejorative because it suggests a movie cowboy, a stereotype-laden caricature of a dignified and extremely difficult profession. Why couldn’t they have called it Real Ranchers? In addition to being more palatable, it’s gender neutral.

  3. Sam Juliano says:

    Martha, I’m a huge fan of this book and of Jonathan Bean’s work in general, but I haven’t yet sat down with it to gather together all my impressions. I will do so within days. As to your final point about female identification, which hasn’t been clearly enough showcased, I think you have a fair enough point there, as is Alia’s follow up comment. You mentioned some Bean titles at the outset to support your contention that REAL COWBOYS veers away from the illustrator’s “more representative style” but I’d like to point out there is actually some similarity with his extraordinary GOOD BYE BAD BYE in this sense. i do definitely like your incisive examination of the cover and how it portends the thematic angle of the narrative. I see this book as a sleeper. From the minute I laid eyes on it I thought it would be on the Caldecott radar in a big way. I haven’t changed my position though 2016 is another year in this amazing run where the competition is fierce. Wow, I’ll have to ponder Roseann Parry’s pointed and comprehensive comment.

  4. Martha V. Parravano Martha V. Parravano says:

    Thanks, Sam! Yes, I was aware that Bean used a similar style in “Good Bye Bad Bye” but I didn’t want the post to get bogged down in discussing his previous work, since the Caldecott committee is not supposed to pay attention to that. But thank you for bringing the book/fact to readers’ attentions.

  5. Sam Juliano says:

    Thanks very much Martha!

  6. I took a closer look at Real Cowboys today. Here’s what I came away with. And please chime in if I’ve made a mistake or if you are seeing things differently. I saw 39 human figures total, of which 19 are small silhouettes which do not carry obvious race or gender. Of the 20 remaining images 10 look definitively male to me, judging by baldness or facial hair. I am looking at the dashes of black on the cheek as seen in the cover image above as an indication of male sideburns. So that leaves an equal 10 figures which could be female given that men and women generally dress alike and do all the same work on a ranch.

    Ethnicity was more difficult to determine because many skin tones in the book were not in the usual skin spectrum found in humans.

    All the characters with visible eyes had black or dark brown eyes; zero blue or green eyes.
    16 had black or dark brown hair
    3 had red hair
    One child figure had either a yellow scarf or long blonde hair. I’m pretty sure it’s a scarf because anybody with hair that long would keep it braided rather than let it flap in the wind.

    9 had pink or red skin
    4 had brown skin
    5 had pink-red skin with an overlay of brown dots
    1 had crayon yellow skin and red hair in a figure I assume was meant to be white
    1 had traffic cone orange skin and a sombrero in a figure I assume was meant to be Hispanic
    If you assume that pink-red skinned figures represent white people, and brown and pink-brown skinned figures represent persons of color, then you have a fairly even representation of race.

    Some of the horses had the same pink-red coloring as some of the cowboy faces. I don’t really know what to make of that. Palomino? Maybe. I don’t really have a firm conclusion from all this digging. I suspect that if you are accustomed to not seeing yourself on the page you would assume that all these cowboys, excepting the three at the end specifically called out as persons of color, are white. On the other hand, since nobody really has red or pink skin in the shades found in this book, and since there are no blond haired people, and nobody with blue or green eyes, a reader could conceivably assume all these characters are persons of color except for the three red heads. Children see so little of the American west in contemporary culture, I don’t really know what the concept of a cowboy conjures up for them.

    And I guess that’s the biggest take away for me. Why are there so few picture books about the contemporary rural west?
    Thanks for indulging my lengthy thought process here. I’m glad I took a closer look.

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