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.

The January Stars by Kate Constable

When Clancy and Tash visit their pa in his resthome they have no idea about the journey they will take over the coming days. What starts out as freeing their pa from his resthome and visiting their old family home turns into a mission to give their pa a better life with his family that will take care of him. They will travel by taxi, car and train to visit their aunties in the hope that they will be able to take care of their pa.

I loved this road trip with Clancy, Tash and their Pa. I admit to not really liking the girls to start with but the more time I spent with them the more I liked them. I really admired their determination to give their grandfather a better life than the one he was living in his rest home. Their mission to take their grandfather to live with one of his daughters takes them far and wide, from the city to the country, from their grandparent’s old home to a yoga retreat in the bush. Their journey tests their relationship with each other but ultimately strengthens their bond. There is also a sense of magic about their journey too with unusual encounters and signs from their dead grandmother that help to point them to where they need to go.

Also, how cool is that cover! It certainly drew me in and made me want to know more about the story.

January Stars is a story that will stick with me.