Cover of Ghetto Cowboy by Greg Neri. A teenage, African-American boy stands in a blighted neighborhood, holding the bridle of a black horse

About the Book

Title: Ghetto Cowboy
Published: 2011

Cover Story: He Followed Me Home, Can I Keep Him?
Drinking Buddy:
Of Course, Of Course
Testosterone Level:
We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Badges!
Talky Talk:
I’m Your Huckleberry
Bonus Factors:
Black Cowboys, Lassie, Come Home!, You’re Not My Real Father
Bromance Status:
The Tough Loner With a Heart of Gold

Cover Story: He Followed Me Home, Can I Keep Him?

Despite the somewhat gritty nature of this book, this is just a story about a kid and the animal he loves. No drugs, no violence, no sex, just a boy and his horse.

The Deal:

Twelve-year-old Cole has pushed his mother too far. Cutting class, vandalism, basically being a pain in the ass. And one afternoon his mother informs Cole that she’s had enough. Detroit is no longer his home. His mom is going to drop him off in Philadelphia to go live with his dad, Harper, a man he’s never met.

Cole is suddenly alone in a new city with a man who is not looking forward to getting to know his son. Cole, however, is shocked when he finds just what his dad does: raises horses. Right in the middle of inner-city Philly. He keeps a horse inside his house. He races in the park. Uses horseback riding as a way to keep troubled kids from making bad choices.

Who ever heard of an urban cowboy? Or a black cowboy?

Drinking Buddy:

Two pints of beer cheersing

Cole is a likeable kid. He wants to fit in, to be liked, to be loved by his mother. However, he lives in a neighborhood where you can be shot for walking down the wrong street (both in Detroit and Philly). He wants something in his life…but riding horses? Who does that in the city?

Testosterone Level: We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Badges!

So the city fathers have overlooked Harper’s rogue stables because the whole area is blighted and no one cares. But now that some developers are interested in building condos in the area, the city starts talking permits and licenses. The garbage collectors suddenly refuse to pick up the manure. News crews start poking around. Police, who have ignored the neighborhood for years, are suddenly enforcing livestock regulations.

But Harper and his friends aren’t bums. They’re COWBOYS. And ain’t no cowboy gonna be pushed around by no durn city slicker (that was either John Wayne or ebonics, you choose). When the bulldozers come to knock down the stables, there’s gonna be a posse of angry cowpokes there.

Talky Talk: I’m Your Huckleberry

This book could easily be a middle grade book. Nothing PG-13, and it’s fairly short. At the same time, this has great high school appeal. Teens can relate to disaffected Cole, who is used to being ignored and shortchanged by the system. And it’s a rare book with an almost entirely African-American cast, which is sorely lacking in literature today.

Bonus Factor: Black Cowboys

19th century photo of a Black cowboy

Cole is under the impression that all cowboys are white, just like in Hollywood. Harper’s buddy Tex explains how African Americans have been riding the ranges for hundreds of years. In fact, the very term ‘cowboy’ was originally a pejorative, meaning the slave who took care of the livestock (as opposed to the houseboy). Cole learns that you can’t rely on what’s in the movies to teach you history.

Bonus Factor: Lassie, Come Home!

Title screen of Lassie, featuring Timmy and Lassie the collie dog

Cole sees himself as a hard ass gangsta, just like any other junior high boy. But then he meets Boo, one of the horses at his father’s stable. Like Cole, Boo is unwanted, awkward, and hard to get along with. They instantly form a bond. Cole grows to love the ugly horse, learns how to take care of him, and how to ride him. It’s beautiful.

And then the faceless bureaucrats from the city declare that all the horses are neglected and come to confiscate them…including Boo.

Excuse me? Take a cowboy’s horse? Smile when you say that, partner.

Bonus Factor: You’re Not My Real Father

Darth Vader reaching out to Luke Skywalker, proclaiming 'I am your father'

Harper hasn’t exactly been father of the year. In fact, Cole has never even seen a picture of him, let alone talked to him. Harper’s not thrilled with having the son he never wanted to know suddenly dumped off on his stoop. And Cole has no desire to live with the man who abandoned him and his mother. But hey, it was this or summer school.

Bromance Status: The Tough Loner With a Heart of Gold

I expected this book to be too badass for me, but it has a softer side too. Not that it still wouldn’t kick my ass.

FTC full disclosure: I’m adding this nearly a decade after I wrote the review, and I’m pretty sure I got a free copy from the publisher, but no money at any rate.

Brian wrote his first YA novel when he was down and out in Mexico. He now lives in Missouri with his wonderful wife and daughter. He divides his time between writing and working as a school librarian. Brian still misses the preachy YA books of the eighties.