Cardboard Cowboys by Brian Conaghan

Cardboard Cowboys is one of those books that you want to keep reading, so that you can find out how the story ends, but you desperately don’t want the book to end and have to say goodbye to the characters. I knew, as soon as I read the blurb for this book, that I would love it, but I underestimated how much it would work its way into my head and heart.

Lenny is 12 and has just stated big school. He hates almost every minute of it because he is bullied because of his size. Lenny hates his body and the way that he gets treated because of it. He doesn’t get much attention at home and he thinks that his parents hate him, because of what he did. His brother, Frankie, was sent away as a result and his mother is struggling to deal with this. Lenny’s father is a lorry driver, so he is often away for long periods of time. With things the way they are at home and at school, Lenny often skips school and goes to his bench beside the canal. When he throws his Irn Bru can into the canal one day he meets Bruce, an old guy in a red bobble hat who lives in a cardboard house beside the canal. Lenny is intrigued by Bruce and he returns to the bench more often to talk with him. Bruce is the only person in Lenny’s life who will listen to him and Lenny finds himself opening up about his life and what happened to Frankie. Lenny knows that the only way to make things right is to go on a road trip to talk to his brother. Lenny can’t tell his parents about his plans so he has to convince Bruce to come with him. First though, they’ll have to earn some money to help them get the 177.3 miles to Frankie. Lenny isn’t even sure that Frankie will want to see him, but he has to try.

Cardboard Cowboys is an incredible, unforgettable story about two unlikely friends and the bond that grows between them. I loved every minute that I spent with Lenny and Bruce, whether it was watching them busking together or opening up to each other. Brian portrays two male characters, of completely different ages, dealing with complex emotions, whether it be guilt, shame or love. This is a story that helps you become a better person because you can’t help but feel empathy for these characters. You worry for Lenny and the guilt that he holds on to, and wonder what has happened in Bruce’s life that means he now lives in a cardboard house. Both Lenny and Bruce are complex characters, and Brian drip-feeds us details about them throughout the story. What is it that has happened to Lenny’s brother, Frankie, that means he isn’t at home anymore? And where has he gone away to? Why is Bruce living by the canal and where does he get his fancy clothes from? All these questions make you want to keep reading to get answers.

I love Lenny and Bruce’s friendship and the way that Brian addresses the strangeness of their relationship. They get on like a house on fire and have some great banter. In Bruce, Lenny finds someone that understands him, but also someone who just lets him talk. Lenny knows that Bruce will listen and offer advice, unlike his parents who don’t talk about their problems. Bruce sees the good inside Lenny and tries to bring it out. Bruce also does what he can to help Lenny out, including pretending to be his dad at an interview at his school. I loved watching their relationship develop throughout the story.

Music plays an important part in the story too, especially in connecting people. Lenny’s Mum clutches on to her favourite song and plays it on repeat after Reggie goes away. Thanks to Brian I now have Billie Jo Spears’ song ‘Blanket on the Ground’ on repeat in my head as I write this. Lenny and Bruce share a love of country music and go busking together to earn the money for their road trip. While they perform they comfort others with their music.

Lenny and Bruce are going to be hanging out in my head for a long time. Cardboard Cowboys is a book that I’ll be recommending to anyone who wants to listen. I highly recommend it as a read aloud or class novel for Years 7-9.

Lonesome When You Go Blog Tour – Interview with Saradha Koirala

Saradha Koirala is the author of the wonderful Lonesome When You Go, a YA novel that follows Paige and her high school rock band in the lead up to Rockfest.  To help spread the word about Saradha’s book, her publisher, Makaro Press has set up a blog tour.  I’m very pleased to be part of the Lonesome When You Go blog tour and today I get to share my interview that I did with Saradha about her book.  Thanks for joining me Saradha!


  • What inspired you to write Lonesome When You Go?

I was on a train heading out to Johnsonville to see my brother and his oldest friend and just started thinking about when we all played in a band together in high school and what an excellent and tumultuous time that was in the midst of all the other dramas that those years can throw at you.

I wrote the briefest idea out on a scrap of paper there and then and talked to them about it when I arrived. We had a good old reminisce!

Our high school band’s rise and fall was pretty ordinary really and I wanted the story to be much more dramatic than that. It was a chance to revisit that time but I also ended up amalgamating a bunch of different high school experiences – as student and teacher – and a whole lot of rock and roll times, real and imagined. It seemed like a fun concept and it did turn out to be a lot of fun to write.

Being a high school teacher lent itself quite naturally to wanting to write for teenagers too, and I had an idea of what I thought some of the young women I’d been teaching might want to read about – a cool rock chick who isn’t fixated on a mysterious sparkly boy!

  • What are the songs that shaped teenage you?

I spent a lot of my early teen years listening to whatever I could find in the house, which was mostly popular tunes from the 60, 70s and 80s. It wasn’t until people started giving me mixed tapes and I could buy my own CDs that I really saw how music could change my views of self and shape my teenage identity.

Radiohead, Violent Femmes, Smashing Pumpkins, Dinosaur Jr, Stone Temple Pilots and Shihad were often on high rotation in my CD player. Music is much easier to access these days, but back then I really got to know the few albums I owned inside out! I would analyse the lyrics, read the liner notes, talk to my friends about them, sing along and all that.

I really think those bands of the mid-nineties tapped into a collective feeling that teenagers hadn’t been able to vocalise yet. They gave us permission to feel moody and outraged, while also acknowledging the sweetness we desired from the world. But it’s been a long time since I was a teenager, so maybe that’s Paige talking.

  • What genre of music best sums up your life?

Some days I would say it’s been a bittersweet folk album in the vein of Joni Mitchel’s Blue, but mostly I like to look at life as an Indie pop band full of cheesy catchy lyrics, bright colourful beats and frivolous synthesizers.

If Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan could write a soundtrack for the novel then everything in the world would make sense to me!

Actually I say that because I think he’s a master of creating story and character in very few words, but his music probably isn’t quite garage rock enough to capture the rock and roll aspect of the book.

So in that case, I’d say The Pixies. I kind of had The Pixies in the back of my mind as I described Vox Pop playing and I think they’re just an incredible band with a totally kick-ass bass player.

  • What is the most important lesson that you learned from being in a band?

Because I tend to be quite a self-sufficient person and my favourite things to do (writing and reading) are largely solo tasks, I think playing in bands taught me how to be part of something beyond myself. I never really played team sports, but was always in school orchestras, choirs, chamber music groups and, later on, rock bands.

In all those groups we had competitions to work towards, tours to organise, performances in front of sometimes many, but often very small audiences, rehearsals to get to on time and other band members to consider when making decisions and playing. It isn’t enough to just learn your part well and play it through, you really need to tap into what everyone else is doing and how they’re going, what they need and how what you’re doing affects all of that.

  • As well as being the author of Lonesome When You Go you’re also a poet.  Is the process of writing a novel similar to writing poetry for you?

They’re really very different processes for me and I’ve continued to do both simultaneously since finishing Lonesome. I enjoy being able to shift between the different forms.

When writing a novel I find I can set myself much more tangible goals – 1000 words a day, complete a particular scene etc. It’s a more continuous process too, as you’re developing and building on what you wrote last time and thinking about where you left your characters and what might happen to them next. With a novel there’s a lot of planning involved (for me, anyway) and behind the scenes stuff that helps inform my picture of the characters and their world.

I find poetry more difficult to describe in terms of a process as I’m less systematic about it. The poems come from everywhere and sometimes when I least expect them. I find I need to be open to poetry’s own schedule rather than try and force out a number of lines a day or give myself a deadline to complete something. Poetry doesn’t have to stay within a certain world or voice either, so there’s less need for continuity or meeting reader expectations.

The crafting process is probably similar for both. I think you need to be able to look at the world in a certain way to be a poet, and it’s a way of seeing the world that I really value.

Picture Book Nook: Do Your Ears Hang Low sung by The Topp Twins, illustrated by Jenny Cooper

Last year Scholastic NZ brought Kiwi legends, The Topp Twins, together with one of our top illustrators, Jenny Cooper, to produce a wonderful illustrated edition of the song, There’s a Hole in my Bucket.  Now, this fantastic team have come together once again to produce a very cute and funny, illustrated edition of the song, Do Your Ears Hang Low.

Based on the original song, Do Your Ears Hang Low? is a new arrangement by The Topp Twins, that ties in perfectly with Jenny Cooper’s illustrations.  I’d love to know what came first, the lyrics or the illustrations, because they’re made for each other.  The Topp Twins’ lyrics are funny and you can add some easy actions for children to sing and play along.  Who would have thought there were so many uses for big ears?  The CD of the Topp Twins performing the song (that comes with the book) is a great addition to the book and it’s that classic Topp Twins sound that we love.

I absolutely love Jenny Cooper’s big-eared illustrations!  They’re cute and made me crack up laughing.  Jenny is amazing at capturing animals, especially the wrinkled skin of the dog and the curly fur of the llamas.  The expressions on animals faces are hilarious too.  I love the shock on the dogs face as the mouse ties up his ears, the mellow look on the llama’s face, and the expression of pure joy on the pig’s face.  The animals all look so cuddly and loveable that you just want to give them a big hug.  Book Design have also done a fantastic job of the design of the book, from the layout and size of the very cool font, to the flaps and the cute end papers.

As well as the wonderful song and illustrations, you also get the added extras of some strange, but true facts about ears.  Do Your Ears Hang Low? is the perfect book for Kiwi kids with ears of all shapes and sizes.

4 out of 5 stars

Books to Treasure: Herman and Rosie by Gus Gordon

‘This is a tale about a big city.
It’s a tale of hotdogs and music and the summertime subway breeze.
It’s a tale of singing on rooftops and toffees that stick to your teeth.
But most of all, it’s the tale of Herman and Rosie.’

This wonderful little blurb captures the essence of Gus Gordon’s magnificent new picture book, Herman and Rosie.

From the moment I set eyes on the stunning cover of Herman and Rosie, I fell in love with this book.  Every time I see it I want to read it again. You know that this is a story that Gus loved bringing to life because you can see all the love that has gone into the creation of the book.  Each page is so detailed and filled with different characters.  One of things I love to do in Gus’ books is find all the different characters on each page.  For example, on one page, there’s a bear on a scooter, a fox and a mole in suits, and a mother hippo taking her baby for a walk.   One of the things I especially love about the illustrations in Herman and Rosie is the different media that Gus has used on each page. You can see he has used pencil, crayon, water colour paints, photos of objects, coffee cup stains, bits of newspaper and advertisements, and postcards (among various other bits and pieces).  He’s used all of these different types of media in interesting and imaginative ways to achieve different effects on the page.

The story is all about the two characters of the title and Gus really brings them to life.  I think the reason I love the story so much is because both Herman and Rosie are interesting and quirky characters.  I really like the way that Gus describes them and their likes.  Herman likes ‘pot plants, playing the oboe, wild boysenberry yoghurt, the smell of hotdogs in the winter and watching films about the ocean,’ and Rosie likes ‘pancakes, listening to old jazz records, the summertime subway breeze, toffees that stuck to her teeth, singing on the fire escape…and watching films about the ocean.’  By telling us their likes, we figure out that they’ve got something in common.  It’s a story filled with hope and it and leaves you feeling incredibly happy.  It’s guaranteed to cheer anyone up and put a spring in their step.

Teachers or school librarians who are looking for great picture books for older readers should add Herman and Rosie to their collection.  Older readers will enjoy the story and they’ll love the intricate illustrations.

Herman and Rosie truly is a book to treasure and to read over and over again. It will make your toes tingle and make you feel like you have ‘eaten honey straight from the jar.’

5 out of 5 stars