I love happy surprises. One of my favorite picture-book surprises this year is a nuanced tribute to cowboys. Didn’t see that one comin’. Written by Kate Hoefler, Real Cowboys is a book that takes a realistic look at modern cowboys but with a poetic flair, and it will be on shelves in early October.
Now, Jonathan Bean, who has illustrated Real Cowboys, is someone whose work I consistently like. For this reason, I’d probably put him, if forced to make one, in the top five of a Best Contemporary Picture Book Illustrators list. There. I said it. (For various reasons, such grand declarations make me uncomfortable.) I’d put him in the top five, because I think he is incredibly talented. And I always look forward to his books. When, about a month ago, I saw him share this cover on Facebook, I was intrigued. I may have squealed and even texted an image of the cover to a fellow picture-book friend. Now that I’ve seen the book, I know it doesn’t disappoint. It’s a beauty.
Hoefler, who has an MFA in poetry, sees her picture book debut in Real Cowboys. At least that’s what my quick research tells me. And what a strong debut it is. With a gentle and measured pace, as well as evocative, poetic prose, she lays out the real work of real cowboys – not the stereotypes we’ve often seen (and still see) in the arts and in literature. Real cowboys, she tells readers, are quiet, thoughtful, gentle, careful, willing to ask for help and take turns, and mindful of and good to the earth. They seek peace. They can be “strong, and tough, and homesick at the same time.” They are “as many different colors as the earth”; they are artists; and they are also girls. Here, we see a female animal herder. Try Googling “cowgirl” and see if what you get is the strong, determined woman Bean depicts here. (You won’t. You’ll see lots of results about sexual positions.) His cowgirl is refreshing to see for this very reason.
But this is more than just a listing of qualities. Using precise examples, Hoefler illuminates the work of cowboys, fleshing out their landscapes and the world around them. The responsibilities they take on are monumental ones – working cooperatively with their trail boss and other cowhands to take care of animals, while avoiding stampedes and not leaving destruction in their wake. They know the world is big and beautiful, and they take it upon themselves to respect it. Hoefler’s no-nonsense writing gets right to the heart of this work. She has a deep reverence for it, one that almost has you reading the book in a quiet, rather amazed hush.
Bean’s palette, dominated by browns, cool teals, and bright yellows, is dynamic, and he does much to add to the poetic, dream-like aspect of many moments in the book with his rich textures and compelling lines. Many of his cowboys are in profile, always looking ahead to the horizon. In one brilliant spread, he brings us a day – in the center is a cow (right in the book’s gutter), and to the left is day and, to the right, night. He doesn’t shy from showing the cowboys’ fatigue as well; we see cowboys wilt in the heat and tire from a day full of work. He does much with shadow: A series of stampede spreads are breathtaking in their beauty, and it’s followed by the haunting spread of a lone cowboy, who mourns “those cattle and dogs … never found.” The text states, “Real cowboys cry.” It’s a striking moment. The illustrations that show animals of the West in star formations in the sky—so many sweeping streaks of vivid white—are worth the price of admission alone. These wrap up the book – and even make a nod to the afterlife that awaits real cowboys.
Contemplative and meditative, this one strikes a beautiful tone. Be sure to saddle up for the ride, come October.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
REAL COWBOYS. Copyright © 2016 by Kate Hoefler. Illustrations © 2016 by Jonathan Bean. Illustrations reproduced by permission of the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston.