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Review of the Day: Cowboy Up! Ride the Navajo Rodeo by Nancy Bo Flood

Cowboy Up!: Ride the Navajo Rodeo
By Nancy Bo Flood
Photography by Jan Sonnenmair
Wordsong (an imprint of Highlights)
ISBN: 978-1-59078-893-6
Ages 8-12
On shelves now

Sometimes I think half my job simply consists of making lists. Not that I’m complaining. I love lists. I love making them, and checking them, and adding to them. Lists let the organizational part of my frontal lobe feel needed and wanted. Still, once in a while you get stuck on a list and it’s hard to move. For example, just the other day I was asked to come up with a list for Kindergartners of books that talk about Native American tribes. Some of the books, I was told, would also have to talk about American Indians living today. Now I don’t know anything about you. I don’t know if reading this review you’re a teacher or a librarian or an interested parent or my mom. Whosoever you might be, you are still probably very aware that asking for nonfiction titles for very young children on Native Americans is akin to asking for the moon and the stars above. Half the stuff on library and bookstore shelves is woefully out-of-date and offensive while the other half is written for kids ten-years-old and up. The pickings for small fry are slim. Enter Cowboy Up! Ride the Navajo Rodeo. The rare book that is both poetry and fact, with content for both big and little, here we have a title that finally fills that gap. Best of all, you don’t have to be looking for school or specialty fare to enjoy this one. Like wild bucking stallions and bulls that could impale you without so much as a snort? Welcome to the world of Navajo rodeo.

“Can’t sleep. Can’t eat. Mind keeps figuring, figuring, figuring – how tight to hold, how far to lean, how hard to squeeze to stay on top.” That’s just a sample of the thoughts going through a person’s head before the Navajo rodeo. Though it has its roots in places like Arizona and Texas, rodeos can be found all over the Navajo Nation and are family affairs. Setting her book during the course of a single rodeo day, author Nancy Bo Flood plunges readers into what might be an unknown world. We see children near bucked from woolly riders (sheep), adults flung from broncos, women who sweep the barrel racer events, steer wrestlers, and, best of all, bareback bull riders. Saturating her text with facts, background information, and tons of photographs, this is one title that will prove tempting to kids already familiar with the rodeo world and those approaching it for the very first time.

It’s a challenge facing any work of standard nonfiction for kids: How do you prefer to present your material? In this particular case, Ms. Flood has a wealth of information at her fingertips regarding the Navajo rodeo circuit. Trouble is, you can fill your book to brimming with the brightest and shiniest photos that money can buy, but if you’ve long blocks of nonfiction text you might lose your readership before you’ve even begun. Now in this book Ms. Flood presents her material over the course of a single rodeo day. It’s a good format for what she has to say, but the downside is that there are sections at the beginning that aren’t all that thrilling. If kids are coming to this book to see some high-flying riders, they’ll have to first wade through explanations about the announcer and the arena. That’s where the poetry comes in. Sure, there are big blocks of explanatory text before the action begins, but Flood tempers each two-page spread with not just photos and explanations but also poems. The advantage then is that younger children can read the poems while older ones get something out of the nonfiction sections. Win win!

It sounds strange to say but in many ways the book that to me feels the closest to the format of Cowboy Up! is Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz. Both books find that the best way to get kids to swallow a spoonful of nonfiction is with a bit of first person narration. With that in mind, the poems in Cowboy Up! offer great promise. Each one is written in the first person and could easily be considered short monologues. The small child auditioning or the teacher who wants to do a theatrical presentation with readily available material would do well to take these poems and use them freely. Now granted, the poetry can be touch-and-go at times. I’ve a friend who personally cannot stand free verse in children’s books because to her it just looks like the author took a paragraph and broke it up into arbitrary lines. I happen to like free verse, insofar as I like any poetry, but I admit that the ones found here varied widely in terms of quality on a case-by-case basis.

Much like the poetry, the photography in this book can vary. Some of the shots (created by photographer Jan Sonnenmair) are brilliant. I’m quite fond of the image on the jacket as well as shots of riders mid-air (one hand waving freely about their heads), the portraits (love those endpapers, though the decision to flips the images was a poor one when you consider library processing techniques), and even one of a rainbow rising behind the honor guard. On the other hand, there are times when it feels as though the book ran out of the good photographs and had to rely on some of the lesser variety. For example, there’s a shot of an announcer that looks like it appears twice in two pages, only flipped. This is a rare occurrence, but it happens early enough in the book that a reader could be forgiven for wondering if more duplication is bound to happen.

When I think of books that talk about contemporary Native Americans today, the pickings for kids are slim. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian isn’t exactly meant for the 12 and under crowd. Walking on Earth and Touching the Sky is pretty good, if a bit poetic (this might have something to do with the fact that it’s a book of poetry). And the book Native Americans: A Visual Exploration by S.N. Paleja covers a lot of ground, but only in brief. No, the whole reason Cowboy Up! even works is because it’s not trying to be about anything but how particularly cool this kind of rodeo is. This is Navajo life in the 21st century. So forget depressing texts that cover the past with all the interest of a phone book. Flood and Sonnenmair have culled together a look at the just-as-interesting present, and given it a format that will stand it in good stead. Cowboys and cowboys-to-be everywhere, stand up and rejoice. Your rodeo is here.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

Professional Reviews: Kirkus

Interviews: ReaderKidz


  • A lesson hard learned.  When searching for this book on any online site, I advise you to search via the ISBN 978-1-59078-893-6 rather than typing in the words “Cowboy Up”. Let’s just say that the bulk of titles you’ll find with the same title are a bit . . . ah . . . saucy.
  • Download a free activity guide here.
About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. Thank you, Elizabeth, for such a thoughtful, positive and comprehensive review. I wish I could bring you to a Reservation back-yard rodeo. There is nothing better than watching the whole family help each competitor – and horse – get ready for the next event. Meanwhile horses and riders are loping around the outside, warming up their racing muscles while spinning their lassos. What a mighty fine feeling. Again, thank you.

  2. Rosanne Parry says:

    I liked this book a lot too and I’d love to see more like it. A powwow would be a great subject for this age group, or a day on the river fishing for salmon. I’d love to see a First Foods picture book.

    • More good books are needed about contemporary Native American life today, I agree! Rosanne, we sure do need them. I suggest these additions to Betsy’s list: POWWOW’S COMING by Linda Boyden, a variety of recent bilingual books by Salina Bookshelf (Flagstaff, AZ), SECRET OF THE DANCE by Scow and Spalding, WHALE SNOW by Debby Dahl Edwardson, and one of the first – JINGLE DANCER by Cynthia Leitich Smith.

  3. Love to read about Native Americans and the combo with the rodeo is perfect. I write children’s nonfiction and know how difficult it can be to maintain interest. That is why I use lots of pictures with mixed media and include a fictional character to make it interesting,

  4. What a thoughtful review. Who doesn’t love a good rodeo?!

  5. Laurel Sharp says:

    George Ancona, Powwow (0152632697)