Cowboy Joel And The Wild Wild West, written by the Gagnon family, illustrated by Seth Yoder
[Note: This book was provided free of charge by Adams PR Group. All thoughts and opinions are my own.]
Sometimes good books come out of bad experiences. Such is the case here, as the Gagnon family drew a lot of attention when their adopted son Joel, who was born with a horrible disease called Goldenhar syndrome, which causes parts of the body to be missing and requires a great deal of medical work, received stares from the children at a church they visited. Speaking from my own personal experience, children can be pretty cruel, and this book deals with the subject of awkwardness and bullying in an insightful way, by putting it in a strange context that allows one to be hostile to it without necessarily feeling like one is being singled out. After all, this book is set in an alternate reality wild west scene with talking animals and a cartoonish villain, which allows everyone to indulge in their hostility to bullies, without necessarily feeling as if they are part of the crowd whose passivity in the face of bullying being directed at the vulnerable outsider enables that bullying to happen in the first place.
This book is a straightforward one with didactic aims as is often the case for children’s literature. The book begins with various virtues that the authors expect children to model, namely: courage, respect, modesty, friendship, and loyalty. After this the plot of the story begins, with Joel and his lizard friend Blackbeard showing up in Tumbleweed Town on a hot day, setting up the classic stranger in town Western. After arriving in town the two of them go into the Sideways Saloon and seek to get some drinks quietly and discreetly, only to draw the attention of the the bully El Maton, who has a gang of flunkies to support his oppression. While Joel is timid, his lizard speaks up for the two of them and provokes a duel with someone who had chased out the law in the town and set himself up as a corrupt authority. The duel takes place, with words as weapons, and Joel wins, at which point Joel realizes that the problem with bullies isn’t so much they themselves but the lies they tell that we can believe about yourselves, at which the book ends with some humorous Old West expressions and an introduction to Joel, his lizard, his family, and the book’s illustrator.
It is easy to recognize this book as a labor of life, and though the book is certainly simple it also has a worthwhile point. Those who stand out and are different and either look or behave oddly will tend to draw a lot of negative attention. Such people are often already rather nervous and timid and feel as if they don’t belong, and the response they receive from others often confirms that feeling of being unloved and unwanted. There are a great many efforts, especially in contemporary schools, at attacking bullying, but so long as children (and adults) react towards outsiders with reflexive hostility, there will be bullying around. Indeed, it may even be argued that the hostility to outsiders has a good and worthwhile purpose and does not deserve to be stigmatized as a whole, but merely focused on those differences that reflect genuine moral issues rather than, in the case of Joel, merely someone who looks different because of a disease he suffers from. There can be a great deal of gain that one receives in life from being kind to the right kind of outsider, as it would appear that Joel is, and it is touching that a negative experience led to such a touching book as this.