Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Riding Into People's Hearts

They are songwriters and crooners.  They are poets.  They have words specific to their craft. They are animal whispers of the highest order.  They are predictors of weather shifts.  They are survivors.  They are cowboys.

Some excel at performing in an arena.  These hardy souls ride bulls and broncos at rodeos, displaying feats akin to those of superheroes.  Let 'Er Buck!: George Fletcher, the People's Champion (Carolrhoda Books, a division of Lerner Publishing Group, Inc., February 5, 2019) written by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson with illustrations by Gordon C. James chronicles the career of a black cowboy who rode with passionate persistence.

The Old West may be
gone, but memories
and legend live on.
Ask any cowpoke and, boy howdy, he'll tell
some tales.  Ask a cowboy from Umatilla
County, and he'll for sure come around to the
story of the Saddle Bronc Championship at the
1911 Pendleton Round-Up---and a bronc buster 
named George Fletcher.

At ten years old, George Fletcher and his family moved from Kansas to Pendleton, Oregon.  George had a tough time at home and also in the community because of his skin color.  He found respite with the children and families on the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Their language and way of life was studied by George.  Riding on a bucking bronco fashioned from a barrel pulled by ropes was something George could do all day.

He quickly moved to riding beef calves and then horses.  He learned from his Native mentors to work well with horses.  He valued their spirit.  When he was sixteen, George Fletcher rode for prizes.  He was rarely treated fairly, and sometimes he was not allowed to compete, but that did not deter George from doing what he loved most.  George rode animals no one else would ride and stayed on them.

In 1911 at the Pendleton Round-Up, George faced stiff competition in Jackson Sundown, a 48-year-old Nez Perce and in John Spain, a 30-year-old white rancher.  George was twenty-one years old.  A coveted

silver-trimmed Hamley saddle

worth $350 was the prize.  Area ranchers brought their wildest horses to the Saddle Bronc Championship.  The rules were firmly in place and understood by participants.  The names of the horses ridden by the contestants were drawn from a hat.

One of the three riders fell from his horse.  Another was said to have pulled leather, grabbing hold of his saddle or horse with his free hand and a third rode and rode and rode until the crowd went wild from the spectacle.  When the winner was announced the crowd was stunned into silence.  Quickly, a man, Sheriff Tillman Taylor, stepped up to deliver the truth as witnessed by the spectators on this day in 1911 at Pendleton, Oregon.  George Fletcher was the

People's Champion!

With her introduction prior to the title page, author Vaunda Micheaux Nelson reaches out to readers and wraps them in the past.  Her use of language is superb in its rhythmic truths, embedding rodeo and western words easily into her narrative.  Each portion of his life described is purposefully, and with suspense, leading us to the final event of the 1911 Pendleton Round-Up.  The skill of Vaunda Micheaux Nelson is masterful to the point of readers will want to stand up and cheer as if they are in those stands on that day.  Here is a passage.

George was purely tickled when he moved up to riding beef calves.  But when his hip pockets first landed on a horse, he was smitten.  He got thrown a lot at first but just kept getting back on.  Every day George marveled more at these magnificent animals.  He was spellbound by the drumming of hooves beneath him, the swirling and swaying, the rocking and reeling---his dance with a wild mustang.  This was where he belonged.

The majestic mountains bordered by green trees and grass on the front of the matching dust jacket and book case extends over the spine to the far-left side of the back, as does the expanse of sand and dirt.  The pure pleasure George Fletcher found in riding a bucking bronco radiates from his face as he thrills the crowd in the stands.  The artistic design used as a frame, reminiscent of the period, used here is found throughout the book to differentiate sections and to provide pacing.

A rich maroon canvas is placed on the opening and closing endpapers.  A double-page image spans the title page.  A blazing sun against a brilliant sky on the open plains supplies a setting for George Fletcher to be riding a bucking bronco.  His back is to us as he rides with abandon.

Each illustration rendered by Gordon C. James with

oil on board

is a study in the exquisite use of light and shadow, his brush strokes imbued with emotion and meaning. His characters seem to breathe as we look at each page.  Each picture is a sensory experience whether it is a two-page picture, a full-page image, or smaller visuals on a single page.  Sometimes we are close to the action or farther away to get a broader sense of a moment.  We may even only see a spur slipping or gloved hands.  What we see repeatedly is love; the love of a man riding a horse.

One of my many, many favorite illustrations is of a younger George Fletcher.  It is a smaller image, a square placed on a black background with white-lined framing.  Much of the image is filled with the head of a horse, his nose lowered.  In the lower, left-hand corner George's head is tipped so his nose and mouth are next to the horse.  They are sharing breath.  Behind them pastel shades indicate a day filled with rose and peach sunlight over a green field.  This is a radiant and moving portrait of a boy destined to greatness through his pure courage.

This 2019 publication, Let 'Er Buck!: George Fletcher, the People's Champion written by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson with illustrations by Gordon C. James, has garnered multiple awards.  (A full list is on the author's website.)  It is an inspirational tale, thrilling in every respect through words and art.  At the close of the book a page is dedicated to Rodeo and Western Words and one to George Fletcher.  A portion is written About the Research, Jackson Sundown, John Spain, Sheriff Tillman Taylor and more facts in Bits and Pieces.  There is a Selected Bibliography of books, articles, videos, and interviews.  I believe you will enjoy reading the acknowledgements.  This book comes with my highest recommendation for your personal and professional collections.

To learn more about Vaunda Micheaux Nelson and Gordon C. James, please follow the links attached to their names to access their websites.  Gordon C. James has accounts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.  At the publisher's website you can view interior images and read an excerpt.  On the publisher's blog you can read an interview with the two creators about this title.  On her blog author Caroline Starr Rose chats with Vaunda Micheaux Nelson about her work.

Please take a few moments to visit Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher to view the selections of other participants in the 2020 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge for this week.

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