I like to go and visit the blog of author/illustrator Jarrett J. Krosoczka (”the JJK blog”) when I have the time. He’s funny and I wanna hang out with him. It’s that simple. I mean, just look at this Christmas tree he and his sister and brother and cousin did up one year (and here are some other creative ones).
I also, of course, get handy-dandy tidbits ‘o information on his blog. I think I squealed when I read that he’s just finished Punk Farm on Tour and that it will be hitting bookstores and libraries everywhere in the fall of ’07 (if you haven’t read Punk Farm, why then there’s a hole in your life. Run now to the nearest library or bookstore and experience it). And he sometimes generously writes about other authors and/or illustrators and their new titles on his blog. Thanks to one of his posts about Cowboy Ned and Andy by David Ezra Stein (published by Simon & Schuster Children’s Books; July 2006), I was eager to go pick up a copy. And what a treat it is to read . . .
This is David Ezra Stein’s first picture book, and thank heavens he’s making more (including another picture book featuring Cowboy Ned and Andy, hitting the shelves this year in July, according to his site). Why do I say that? ‘Cause this story is sweet and tender. Even vulnerable. Even “nurturing” comes to mind — but it’s all these things without being too syrupy. Hard thing to pull off.
The story starts out simply and straightforward: We meet Cowboy Ned and his horse, Andy, as they wake up in the desert, wake the cows, drink cool water from the river, and generally get ready for their day. Then we find out that Cowboy Ned’s birthday is just around the bend, and he’s bummed that his family is not with him to celebrate. After thinking on this for a bit, Andy sets out to find the one thing he figures a cowboy — anyone, for that matter — must have for his birthday: a cake. On his journey, he meets a melodious cricket, an owl, and a tetchy scorpion. They all turn him down, revealing that they have no cake. Though disgruntled, the scorpion does send Andy towards the house of an old, loner cowboy, strumming on his banjo. And what bit of wisdom does he have for Andy? “The best thing to have on your birthday is a friend to share it with.” Ah, stating the obvious, but Andy had to learn the circuitous way. (And don’t we all need reminders like that every now and then when we get all worked up over the party-planning?). Andy goes racing back to his friend to . . . well, just to be there with him and celebrate his existence.
And then there’s my favorite part — the very ending, in which “Cowboy Ned hugged Andy, and Andy wished him a happy birthday.” Lovely illustration here by Stein that is touching in its simplicity and artlessness. Then, it gets even better: “And all the cows sang a birthday song in their low and gentle voices.” The End. Ah, perfect ending.
I must confess my bias here: that I flippin’ love birthdays. My own and my friends’. I know it’s dreadfully corny of me, but I really dig sending a birthday greeting, which is just another way of saying, glad you are in my life, glad you choose me for a friend. I think they should be celebrated for an entire week, too, and not just one day. It’s your one, particular time of year, man, to celebrate you . . . and eat lots of cake (or, as Harold would do, nine kinds of pie). But being with friends is better. This book nails it (the real glory of birthdays, that is).
And this isn’t one of those picture books about cowboys that’s heavy on the Old-Western- Cowboy dialect for comic effect: “Shootfire and pony up, Andy! It’s my dang birthday! Simon pure! I ain’t shooting my mouth off. Let’s wind up this business and go home to my kin.” Its heart, its very center is that it’s a straight-up, sincere story about friendship between characters who happen to be a cowboy and his trusty horse. And Stein’s ink and watercolor illustrations bring to life the wide-open desert landscape in which our two characters travel. There’s something about his art work that seems all aglow, particularly the expressions he gives our duo.
Here’s to Ned’s New Friend, the aforementioned title coming out this year, which I will eagerly anticipate (and Leaves doesn’t look like anything to sneeze at either). Anyway, welcome to Stein, and thanks to JJK for pointing him out.
Now skedaddle, and go make sure you aren’t forgetting any of your friends’ birthdays. ‘Cause that lonely, old banjo-playing cowboy is on to something . . .