Cardboard Cowboys – Brian Conaghan (Bloomsbury, $17.99)
reviewed by Louise Ward, Wardini Books
Twelve-year-old Lenny's having a terrible time. He's a big lad and is bullied mercilessly at school. He enjoys reading, composing haiku and singing, but no one knows because he can't stick his head above the parapet. On top of all this, his big brother Frankie is no longer living at home, everyone is sad, and it's all Lenny's fault.
Lenny has a bench on which he likes to sit when he wags the horror house that is school. On a particularly miserable day he lobs a crushed can of Irn Bru into the canal and gets quite the telling off by a homeless man who has made his cardboard castle on its banks. Intrigued, Lenny returns to nose further into this bloke's life — his name is Bruce, he plays a mean guitar, and he might just be Lenny's friend.
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This is a heartfelt, lovely story of a young boy who's really doing it tough. A grown-up reader knows where Frankie is, and where their mother sends her letters, but the slow reveal and the sub-plot behind it will work a treat for younger readers.
Lenny's woes find a seasoned, wise ear in Bruce and again, the adult reader, although loving the simplicity of the relationship, soon starts to feel a little uneasy – a 12-year-old kid hanging out on a canal bank with a 40-something year old bloke? Dodgy. I was delighted to have all my plot fears addressed and allayed in a clever tying up of threads by the end of the book.
Cardboard Cowboys is a very special story. It deals with loneliness, grief, misunderstanding and hurt in a gentle, sensitive way.
Lenny is fully aware of his situation and, as this is a first person narrative, there is much saying of rude words in his head and some truly entertaining Glaswegian colloquialisms.
This is a book for children, and adults, who have ever felt bullied or marginalised, and for everyone else to read in order to become kinder. Lenny is a cool kid — it just takes the right people to lead him to that realisation.