Cardboard Cowboys

Authored by Brian Conaghan
Published by Bloomsbury

Cardboard Cowboys explores relevant and contemporary themes of bullying, body image and mental health, but does so through a very well-plotted story (it was extremely hard to put this book down, and I read the whole thing in two large gulps), and is told through one of the most brilliant and engaging voices I’ve heard in pre-teen fiction. This, for me, sets it firmly up there with Jelly by Jo Cotterill, Wink by Rob Howell and The Super Miraculous Journey of Freddie Yates by Jenny Pearson.

Lenny regularly bunks off school. Why bother with the place when pretty much all he’s met with are jeers and jokes about his weight? His dad is busy with work, his mum too distracted by his older brother, and his teachers more concerned with rules than to care much about noticing Lenny’s worries. Only when he meets Bruce, a man living in the woods in a house made out of cardboard boxes does Lenny start to feel he can truly open up to someone.

Masculinities are strongly placed at the centre of this book. Like Wink and Freddie Yates, the book subtly shows (rather than loudly screams) the sensitivities and confusions that lie in the male pre-teen mind. There are also the men in the book to consider too. Lenny’s brother, Frankie, their dad, and Bruce, too, all have their secret stories; shame is a terrible thing, and just because grown-ups have grown up, it doesn’t mean that they can solve their own problems either. There is much to discuss around all of this, and I commend this book (as with all the other books mentioned in this review) to form a crucial part of those conversations that need to happen in schools.

Around the ages of 10-13, it’s so important for boys and girls to learn about what’s going through each other’s minds, to understand how the outside appearance of each other can actually hide very similar anxieties and joys. It can be difficult to find a book that is mature enough in its themes and outlooks without edging into Young Adult territory: those books are designed to come later. Reading a book like Cardboard Cowboys will be not only a life-enhancing experience for the story it tells but for the opportunities for connection and reflection it offers its target audience. Teachers should open up vital discussions with their classes about the vulnerability shown in Lenny: ‘Why is it dangerous for him not to be in school? Why does he so quickly trust a stranger he meets in the woods? How has he put himself in potential danger by doing so?’. My head was ringing with alarm bells around his and the book’s young readers’ personal safety from the start: one might hear Lenny’s blithe voice – ‘I’m OK, really; I can deal with this’ – but it is deeply discomforting to hear it in the context of Lenny’s emotionally frozen family-life, his cruel days at school, and of course his risky wanderings around the canals and woods.

Mention must also go, though, to the outstanding humour shot through the book – as well as actual tears; I spent a lot of the book grinning broadly at Lenny’s cheeky nonchalance and his send-ups of family relationships and laughing out loud at some of his narrative asides. His is a beautifully crafted voice that truly carries us through the novel and all its darknesses with buoyancy and increasing positivity and strength that left me wanting to meet him again.

The cover of the proof-copy says:

“This is mine and Bruce’s story. You don’t have to believe it happened, but it did. All of it.”

And here lies a fundamental challenge to the reader. It’s maybe easier to gloss over the stories that exist below the surface of each other than to face them and to listen; it’s even easier to read a book even and say ‘Ah that’s just a story’; but to pay proper attention, to look deeper, to understand, to empathise – that all takes time and commitment. There will be children who read Cardboard Cowboys and know exactly how Lenny feels about the bullying or whose family lives are echoed in the story and hopefully draw comfort and strength from its messages. Still, there should be many, many classes and their top Reader-Teachers who will share this book and talk about it, laugh with it, be moved by it and ultimately be changed by it. For the better.

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