Have Cowboys and Indians had their day? Is there life in the old topic yet? If so where are the books to sustain it?
We asked publishers to send us anything they thought was relevant passed it all on to Mary Pearce and waited to see what she and her class of top juniors came up with.
Were you a fan of Hopalong Cassidy, the Cisco Kid and the Lone Ranger? Did your toy box include a cap gun, leather holster and sheriff’s tin star? Well, that puts you well into the pre-Galactic age of Star Wars and ET.
Cowboys and Indians were once the popular culture of childhood and imaginations were fired by stories and films of baddies and goodies fighting it out at high noon, uttering cliches like, `the only good Indian is a dead Indian.’ With’ the arrival of the Space Age the heroes became vinyl-clad supermen charging across the prairies of the universe confronting alien mutants with laser guns instead of six shooters. However, to judge from recent reactions, the glamour of the American West is not entirely lost on today’s children and for the Galactic War-weary teacher could be the basis for an exciting project with primary and lower secondary classes. I found it an excellent way to explore and perhaps explode myths: to discover more about the settlers and their pioneering spirit, to investigate the culture and history of the Indians who lost their land, to find out how the West was really won.
Jumping Off Points
Jumping off points for a project are often better found in fiction. A good story sympathetically told engages interest and stimulates curiosity. These two books provide just such a launching pad.
Martin Waddell/Philippe Dupasquier, Andersen Press (1983), 0 86264 052 0, £4.95
An excellent talking and sharing book, best used perhaps in the primary school with a small group. In lively action-packed pictures the story is told of a family of settlers setting off on a wagon train, facing the dangers and hazards of Indian attacks, appalling weather, suffering sickness and death, eventually finding `home’ and building a log house. It has all the elements of a great film epic, with the reader as cameraman shooting panoramic views of the western town or the desert trail, zooming in for a close-up. Double page picture spreads lead the reader through the action, giving `information’ which makes it possible to predict the next turn in the adventure. As the wagon train winds its way across the rock strewn desert only the reader is aware of the lone Indian scout stalking them from the bluff. Each busy picture or close-up inset is full of interest and authentic detail, providing many starting points for discussion and further research.
The text is young Kate’s diary. The sentences are short, to the point, a simple commentary on the pictures. This makes for easy reading and is a useful model for imitation. (Older children may need to be persuaded that a simple text doesn’t necessarily mean a `baby’ book!)
A Western Town
A Panorama Pop-up Book Ill. Marvin Boggs and Borge Svennson, Text Kenneth Ulyatt, Kestrel (1983), 0 7226 5797 8, £3.95
This ingenious book opens out to form a street scene of a Western town. The cut out interiors show a general store, the sheriff’s office, the Telegraph office and the Livery Stable; when tabs are pulled the blacksmith shoes his horse, and a boy and girl play hide and seek behind some barrels. An excellent basis for improvised drama which is often a marvellous way to start a project which involves people. Through role-playing children are challenged to find out more about their characters: what they would have worn, where they lived, the reasons for their behaviour. This scene provides setting and characters. On display it becomes an intriguing feature in a book corner, a starting point for discussion and a useful catalyst and reference point for imaginative storytelling and writing.
A project on the American West could develop in several ways according to the children’s and teacher’s interest and enthusiasm. Settlers, pioneers, cowboys, Indians, bandits and outlaws are all subjects about which more information might be needed. From this collection of in-print books there is not one which could be used by average primary children for fully independent research and investigation. Older, more skilled book users and readers should find them manageable: but for younger children they would have to be interpreted and mediated by the teacher. There is a yawning gap in the market for non-fiction titles written by experts and enthusiasts which are useable by children at infant and junior levels. Faced with problems the independent researcher resorts to mindless copying of whatever he or she finds nearest to a likely looking picture or word. And why in indexes is there so much capitalisation and a predominance of proper nouns over more generalised terms? It makes them much less easy to use effectively.
With that as an overall reservation, what have these books to offer?
The Story of the Indians of the Western Plains
0 7214 0339 5
The Story of the Cowboy
0 7214 0332 8
The Battle of Little Big Horn, Custer’s Last Stand
0 7214 0434 0
Frank Humphris, Ladybird (1976), 60p each
Do not be misled into thinking that because these are Ladybird books they are going to be simple: the language of the text is quite difficult in all three. Useful reference for teachers, although the historical information in the Indian book is unfortunately not in chronological order. Children found it difficult to follow the events of Custer’s last stand with so many unfamiliar names and the need to interpret a sophisticated map. Nevertheless these are undeniably value for money if only for the pictures which in the Cowboy and Indian books are a good source of information. Many teachers might feel that at 60p they could afford to remove the pictures and use them mounted with simple captions as a resource pack.
The American West
Robin May. Macmillan Colour Library (1982), 0 333 32864 7, £4.50
This has to be the star of the show. This very (over?) large colourful book attracts immediate attention and is good for showing to groups and putting on display. Its size though does have its drawbacks: put this on the average primary school desk and ‘there’s no room for us to work, Miss!’ However, size apart (the best place to read this is on the floor) this book is a very rich source of information and, using pictures, maps, photographs and original and contemporary artists’ work, it covers very well all the areas of this subject.
The size of the book allows for a spacious layout. The quality of the paper means that the colour reproduction is exceptional. The main text is clear and well-spaced (although still too difficult for any but the best readers). The text of the captions is a little easier. All in all an attractive and useful book eagerly welcomed by children of a wide age range.
When the West was Wild
Robert J. Hoare, A & C Black (1977), 0 7316 1619 9, £3.95
Never judge a sausage by its skin. The cover is dull and looks very dated yet this is a goldmine of information full of enthralling black and white contemporary photographs and authentic sources. It would be particularly useful and interesting to upper junior and lower secondary groups looking for the ‘reality’ of the American West. The index has too many proper nouns but the main text is very readable either in sections or as a continuous ‘story’.
Indians of the Crow Tribe
André Chesneau, Macdonald, Living History series (1980), 0 356 06753 X, £3.25
André Chesneau is-clearly an expert in his field: the text is packed with factual information and conveys the true richness of Indian culture. A very good reference for teachers and for children in the upper end of the age range. It includes a glossary, a list of main historical events and there is a helpful index using generalised terms. The intricate and careful illustrations convey the creative and decorative skills of the American Indians in arts such as beadwork and painting, which could be adapted for classroom art and craft work.
If only information of this quality could be presented in an accessible way for younger researchers.
Macdonald, Topic Book series (1980), 0 356 06277 5, £2.25
By comparison with the previous book this appears to have been written not by an informed enthusiast but by a committee (of teachers?) which has produced the proverbial camel.
The contents include a ragbag collection of games, folk stories, a rather dubious playlet and some craft ideas. The latter – for a Thunderbird mobile and a parfleche (an Indian carrier bag) – may be helpful to the teacher but the rest is a spurious red herring for a child. Information is condescendingly communicated in the dramatic present and the simplistic, crude style of illustration conveys an impression of the Indians as wild savages. A classic example of what happens when a publisher sets out to produce a book for younger children with no idea of what their real information needs are.
Indians of the North American Plains
Virginia Luling, Macdonald, Surviving Peoples series (1978), 0 356 05950 2. £2.25
Each double page spread reviews a different aspect of American Indian Life, past and present, and covers quite a wide span using maps, photographs, diagrams and illustrations. The text is conveniently sub-headed and this makes an otherwise difficult text more accessible at least to upper juniors especially if they are directed to particular sections by the teacher. A useful tool.
Dee Brown, Fontana Lions (1979), 0 00 671341 6, 90p
This is an important book for those wishing to pursue this subject. Adapted for children from Dee Brown’s best selling Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, this is an abridged history of the American Indian. It is a teacher’s or interested secondary child’s reference, giving an account of events from the point of view of the Indians. Authentic photographs offer a genuine perspective on Indian chiefs and their people which is far from the fantasy figures of Hollywood or the spaghetti western.
More Information Please
Because of the scarcity of in-print books we decided to survey what the library had to offer. These books are currently out of print but worth looking for in the library.
North American Indians
Robin May, Macmillan Fact Finders
By the author of the large-format The American West (you’ll recognise many of the same pictures). The text is large and bold but still spiked with technical words. However this is the nearest we come to a book suitable for lower juniors.
Growing Up with Red Indians
Anne Palmer, Wayland (1978), (STOP PRESS: Now back in print, 0 85340 545 X, £3.95)
Overland to the West
Pat Hodgson, Wayland (1978), An Eye-Witness History Book
Both these are set out under broad chapter headings and in each title sub-headings are neatly packaged beside authentic pictures. They literally give a little information about a lot, so would be good for limited investigation or as a starting point. For real development other sources are needed. Both include a useful glossary of new words.
A Closer Look at : Plains Indians
Christopher Davis, Hamish Hamilton (1977)
Another well-illustrated and well presented book. The size of print and the level of the language make it difficult for independent research but there are some intriguing snippets of information not to be found elsewhere which would add interest and colour to the investigation.
Traditional Tales to enrich or extend the topic.
Where the Buffaloes Begin
Olaf Baker, Warne (1982), 0 7232 6195 4, £4.95
A tremendous picture book for upper junior or lower secondary which might well be overlooked because of its monochrome cover. Open it and read it and you are in for a delightful experience. It is the haunting tale of a small, courageous Indian boy and a mighty herd of buffalo. The poetic language and powerfully moving black and white drawings reflect feelings of strength and reverence and arouse empathy. Fact and legend mingle and we learn that Indians were just as afraid of other merciless warrior tribes as they were of the domination and interference of the white man. Lots of potential.
The Legend of the Bluebonnet
Tomie de Paola, Methuen (1983), 0 416 45340 6, £5.50
This book also has the power to move. This time it is the sacrifice of an Indian girl that saves her people. The Bluebonnet is the state flower of Texas and there is an interesting author’s note about the origins of the legend. The stylised pictures exactly suit this simple tale and the expanse of the page gives a sense of the prairie and the sky.
Coyote and the Trickster
Gail Robinson and Douglas Hill, Piccolo, 0 330 26263 7, 95p
A very useful collection of Indian legends cheaply available to the teacher. For younger children use as source material and find your own way of re-telling.
The Girl who Loved Wild Horses
0 333 32176 6
The Gift of the Sacred Dog
0 333 35165 7, Paul
Goble, Picturemacs, £1.95 each
Beautiful, intricate pictures fill the pages of these picture story books done in the style of the Plains Indians of the late nineteenth century. The stories, conceptually quite sophisticated, are about the respect and amity between man and animals in the Indian world. Interesting background material for the factual aspects of the project as well as good food for the imagination.
Fiction on the classroom bookshelves provides independent reading to extend and complement the project for those who become hooked.
Little House on the Prairie
Laura Ingalls Wilder, Methuen, 0 416 07140 6, £4.50 Puffin, 0 14 03.0204 2, £1.10
All the Little House series would be relevant but this one especially so. The family leave the Big Woods and go west to start life again in Indian territory. The presence of the Indians is menacing and extracts read aloud could lead to discussion of the rights of the Indians versus the settlers.
Children on the Oregon Trail
A. Rutgers van der Loeff, Puffin, 0 14 03.0172 0, £1.25
Another story of a pioneering family heading west in their covered wagon. Good follow up to Going West for the older reader, 9+.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Piccolo, 0 330 24761 1, £1.50
334 pages make this a book only for the most dedicated readers. Jody a lonely boy whose family are settlers in the Florida scrublands, brings up a fawn as a pet. Together the boy and the animal grow up in a tough uncompromising world. The tragic conclusion brought a tear to my eye.
An abridged version would be a useful addition to junior booklists. (I discovered on test that it was possible to skip ten or twelve pages without losing the sense of the story.) Less cosy than the Ingalls Wilder stories: the hunts here are dangerous, unexpected and exciting. (This along with a boy hero may explain why the book is more acceptable to boys.) Throughout one is aware of the harshness of the settlers’ life and the independent and resilient spirit of the people. Short episodes and extracts provide interesting background for the class when read aloud.
For reading aloud or leaving lying around.
Son of a Gun
Janet and Allan Ahlberg, Heinemann (1979), 0 439 92502 0, £3.50
A very amusing almost farcical romp through all the cliches of the film and TV Western; it turns every convention on its head. Just thinking of it still makes me chuckle. Funniest for those already familiar with all those conventions so check first – or leave it to the end of the project. It is written in American cowboy drawl so brush up your accent. Quality Ahlberg.
Terry Deary, A & C Black (1982), 0 7136 1829 9, £3.50
Easily dismissed as inconsequential, especially at the price; but children enjoyed the knockabout slapstick humour. It was seized upon by those ‘taking off’ with reading and recommended and exchanged with enthusiasm. The Western setting is hardly central to the story but your project might provide an excuse for drawing attention to it – and similar others like Alan Coren’s very funny Buffalo Arthur.
Colin McNaughton, Heinemann, (1983), 0 434 94992 2, £4.95
After all the serious business this is sheer joy and if you met and loved Bruno the Bear in Football Crazy you will be delighted with his cowboy fantasy (one of four in this book). Colin McNaughton makes fun of the film Western conventions and all my book testers from 4 to 11, and some considerably older, were engrossed in the comic-strip style and the pages of exploding onomatopoeia. Great fun, as indeed the whole project should be.