About the Holiday
Observed annually on the fourth Saturday of July, the day commemorates the “contributions of the Cowboy and Cowgirl to America’s culture and heritage.” The heyday of the cowboy and cowgirl came after the Civil War when Texas experienced a booming wild cattle population. As the population of the United States grew, the demand for beef increased. Cowboys and cowgirls drove nearly 5 million head of cattle north to meet the demand, sparking tales, legends, and a rich history of the Great Plains in their boot and hoof steps. With no written laws on the books, cowboys even came up with their own code of conduct, which included living each day with honestly and courage, taking pride in your work, standing up for what’s right, and many more rules to live by. For more information visit The Day of the Cowboy website.
Written by Kate Hoefler | Illustrated by Jonathan Bean
Real cowboys wake with the dawn’s light and are careful not to make too much noise for the people still sleeping in the “little houses in the hollow, and up the mountains, and at the edge of fields in the distance.” It is natural for the cowboys to think of others. Their job is to care for the herd; to help a stranded calf and their dog who is trying to lure it to safety; to soothe the herd when thunder rumbles overhead.
Real cowboys sing soft, slow songs to their cows to encourage them to continue moving when the path is narrow and dangerous and to sleep when coyotes howl in the night. Cowboys are good listeners—heeding the advice and warnings of the trail boss and other cowhands. “Sometimes they listen for trucks, and wolves, and rushing water. And sometimes they just listen to the big wide world and its grass song.” Along the way cowboys keep themselves safe with their wide-brimmed hats and leather chaps.
Because the cattle drive is long—lasting “for hours, or days, or weeks”—cowboys learn to be patient. “Even on a fast horse, they have to move with the slow rhythm of a herd….” When they need help, real cowboys don’t hesitate to ask, using hand and hat signals to alert other cowhands. “Real cowboys want peace. They don’t want stampedes, where all the cattle spook, and thunder over the earth, and scatter in dust storms.” Sometimes, however, this happens, and sometimes a few cattle and dogs are lost. Thinking of them when times are quiet, “real cowboys cry.”
At night cowboys take turns eating and sleeping so there is always someone to watch over the herd. When they pack up camp and move on, real cowboys are mindful of the earth, and when they are far from home, inside themselves they can feel homesick, even if they look tough on the outside. “Real cowboys are as many different colors as the earth. Real cowboys are girls too.” In their hearts “real cowboys are artists,” creating stories that are bigger than the wide open prairie. “They wonder what’s past the horizon. And one day, when their work is done, real cowboys find out.”
Kate Hoefler’s moving tribute to cowboys and cowgirls demonstrates the qualities of kindness, thoughtfulness, and mindfulness that we want to share with our children. With lyrical language she follows cowboys on a cattle drive, where they experience the joys and sorrows that life entails for all. Hoefler’s pacing echoes the day-to-day movement of the herd as well as readers’ daily life. Delving into the responsibilities and characteristics of these men and women is a unique way to open the world to children and promote discussions about the traits of caring individuals.
Jonathan Bean’s hand-stenciled illustrations printed in four Pantone colors are particularly effective in portraying the life of the cowboys and cowgirls entrusted with herds of cattle. Early morning dawns to rose skies that color even the horses and reflect in the drinking trough. Cattle, obscured by dust raised on the trail, form the backdrop to a cowboy worriedly watching his dog coax a calf from a cliff, and afternoon turns to night in a two-page spread where a cow nuzzles her calf as it sleeps. Depictions of the enormity of the herd traveling from one place to another amid sweltering days, rain storms, and blizzards are beautifully rendered, and the emotions of the cowboys are clearly discernable and touching.
Real Cowboys is stunning in both language and illustrations. For quiet story times, bedtime, or times for reflection and inspiration, this book would make an excellent addition to children’s bookshelves.
Ages 4 – 7
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016 | ISBN 978-0544148925
To view a gallery of illustration by Jonathan Bean, visit his website!
National Day of the Cowboy Activity
Rootin’-Tootin’ Round-Up Maze
These cowgirls and cowboys have a surprise waiting for them. Can you help them round it up in this printable Rootin’-Tootin’ Round-Up Maze?
You can find Real Cowboys at these booksellers
Picture Book Review