Wednesday, September 23

Are You a Horse?

by Andy Rash
Arthur Levine / Scholastic

Our in the old West, cowboy Roy receives a new saddle as a birthday present. "What is this thing?" Roy asks, and he's instructed to 1. Find a horse and 2. Enjoy the ride. Roy is one clueless cowboy to not recognize a saddle, and he continues his clueless way through the picture book asking every animal, vegetable, and mineral he sees if they are horse. The absurdity is compounded by the impossible (a crab? a sloth? a zebra?) until Roy finds what he's looking for. With a final page turn readers are given the twist that is a natural combination of Roy's cluelessness and the reader's natural assumptions.

Are You a Horse?
is saved in that final page turn. Up until then it has meandered its way across the pages like an updated version of Are You My Mother? and despite reinforcement on every page that Roy is as dense as black hole the reader is never clued in that Roy's instructions aren't specific enough. I seriously almost wrote this book off as derivative and unfunny until that last page, and then recognized the rewards of seeing a book through to the end (hey, it's only a picture book, no need to abandon it) and chuckled (sort of) at my own blind spot.

Having watched new readers page through picture books it would be easy for them to skip along and think they know what's happening without actually reading it first (on their own, kids will often read a book's pictures first, then go back and read the text) and on the visual level the story works just as well. Where most pages are full-bleed illustrations, the page with the sloth is drawn out across the spread in a series of panels that slow the visual reader down to appreciate the sloth's slow response.

My one lingering question – and this is mostly a personal question and nothing to fault the book necessarily – is how and why cowboys endure as lasting icons of the imagination. It's an era full of images that seem isolated from the rest of the world, almost like a fantasy world or the fanciful imagining of a pirate's life. Growing up, I remember thinking that the whole world went through an Old West phase, that somehow people went from dark suits and stove-top hats of Lincoln's day, to wearing chaps, then back to suits in the same way that the disco era's polyester leisure suits briefly supplanted traditional sartorial styles on either side.

But what is it about this particular era in American history that fascinates so? Why don't we see picture books set in, say, the Jazz Age or even the beloved Disco Days? What makes the West so special, what sets it apart and gives it appeal? Is it simply that so much of its imagery is iconic? The hats and the boots, the cactus and the unspoiled prairies? But then, couldn't we convey similar messages set during the Flower Power days with long hair and bare feet and psychedelia?

Sometimes I wonder whether these icons and images persist because we keep feeding them to children, or whether there's something larger that children would be drawn to without the extra reinforcement.
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