The Wild West possesses an appeal all its own. Rugged mountain ranges and arid plains, mysterious Indians and vicious outlaws—such things offer intrigues and adventures you just can’t find east of the Mississippi. In recent years, though, pop culture has cast up increasingly grim iterations of the western when it bothers with it at all. Gone are the days of Gene Autry and John Wayne with all their concomitant charm. Fortunately, families who want to introduce their little ones to westerns can turn to Roy Gerrard’s picture book Rosie and the Rustlers, which sets an appropriately cheery tone with its opening stanza:
Where the mountains meet the prairie, where the men are wild and hairy,
There’s a little ranch where Rosie Jones is boss.
It’s a place that’s neat and cozy, and the boys employed by Rosie
Work extremely hard, to stop her getting cross.
Yes, Rosie Jones raises cattle with the help of a posse of hardy cowboys such as Salad Sam (who loves greens), Singing Sid (who strums the guitar), and Utah Jim (who, to put it kindly, lands on the lower-left side of the intellectual bell curve). Life is a sweet routine of roping, rounding, and resting — until Rosie’s cows get stolen by the notorious outlaw Greasy Ben and his pack of dastardly ruffians. (“They were sinister and seedy, good-for-nothing, grim and greedy, / And their manners were a positive disgrace.”) With the help of their Cherokee friend Chief Hawkeye John, they plan to track down the outlaw. But how will they retake their herd?
Penning a western for kids requires a very careful touch. Make it too twee, and little ones won’t much care about the outcome. Take things in too dark a direction, and you risk parental outrage. Rosie and the Rustlers neatly straddles the divide. Gerrard’s lavishly detailed illustrations enrich each page with true-to-life images of frontier life. Steer skulls, sabers, and branding irons adorn the walls of plain-board bunkhouse. You can count the stitches in a brace of hide tepees erected at the feet of tree-studded hills. Scree splays by the feet of Rosie and her men as they peer into a rocky gorge during their pursuit. And don’t forget the scenes of action, which feature the flash of black-powder rifles, a cowboy’s frantic flight on horseback, and a very watery confrontation with Greasy Ben. It all really captures the spirit of the subject matter. But Gerrard also keeps the proceedings kid-friendly in two ways. First, rhyming verse that recalls old cowboy ballads catches up little readers and listeners in its cadence. Second, the design of Gerrard’s characters is strikingly original. Oval heads. Squat bodies. Hats and headdresses that are as tall as their wearers. Think finely drawn Cabbage Patch Kids decked out for the range. Gerrard deserves kudos for pulling it off without pitching headlong into parody. If you’ve a hankering for the old west, rest easy: You can ride off into the sunset with Rose and the Rustlers.
(Picture: Copyright 1989 by Roy Gerrard; used under Fair Use)