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Big Picture Image
Nina Crews.
See permission.
The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Griffith, Helen V. Cougar; Greenwillow, 1999. [112 p]
ISBN 0-688-16337-8   $15.00   Gr. 4-7

Nickel has recently moved in with his young aunt Starla and her husband Joe, and he has traveled with them back to Joe's parents' farm, which Joe had left in anger five years before. Mr. and Mrs. Clendaniel are in favor of rapprochement now, and Nickel thinks that the quiet welcome in their house may mean a belonging he hasn't known. He's particularly intrigued by Cougar, the black horse who had been young Joe's faithful companion but who recently died in a barn fire; since then Pop Clendaniel and, more recently, Nickel have been catching glimpses of Cougar galloping around the farm large as life. Then the barn where Cougar died offers up another treasure of Joe's youth-a bicycle, thought destroyed in the fire, that Joe, Nickel, and Pop restore and that proves to have a spirit all its own, carrying Nickel to a triumphant routing of the jealous bullies who have plagued him.

Boy meets ghost horse, ghost horse becomes bicycle, boy rides bicycle is not exactly a well-worn plot, but there's not a gimmicky or labored moment in this book. Griffith quickly gets readers rooting for Nickel, yet this is a book more interested in emotion and action than explanatory details-it seems that Nickel's trying to put a bad foster-care or homeless period behind him, but the book never states exactly why he's moved in with Starla and Joe, and nor does it need to. It's clear that he's a good kid who "just wanted to play sports, have friends who made him laugh, learn a little bit in school, have a family that looked out for him." It's clear that his school enemy, Robbo, cannot forgive Nickel for outshining him, day after day, on the soccer field and cannot find Nickel's straightforward joy in play ("Didn't he understand that there would always be a better player coming along?" wonders Nickel. "There was always somebody better than everybody. It didn't make the game any less fun"). It's clear, in short, that Nickel is a boy well and truly deserving of an inspirited bicycle.

The book's quiet craftsmanship carefully lays the foundation for that imaginative premise. Pop Clendaniel's corroborative viewing of Cougar demonstrates the reality of the horse's appearances, and Pop himself links the ghost to Nickel, saying "Cougar's your horse now." Nickel's horse guides him when Robbo and his toadies pursue Nickel onto home ground, and his hiding place from his prospective assailants proves to be Cougar's grave; it is from that grave that Joe's old bicycle protrudes. Polished up, that bicycle is no longer its original blue but Cougar's black, and it throws Robbo when he attempts to steal it-just as in real life Cougar thwarted Robbo's attempts to ride him. Carefully drawn too are the familial implications behind the phenomena: Joe left Cougar, his bike, and his place in the family behind; all three wait for Nickel, aided by Joe and Pop-Pop who sees that Cougar has been waiting for Joe but has shifted his loyalty to Nickel, Pop who feels he drove Joe from home and plans to do better with Nickel. From the ashes of the barn fire rises a new and stronger family just when Nickel needs it.

Stylistically, Griffith keeps a tight and effective rein on this unusual fantasy. This premise could have turned cartoonish, hyperdramatic, or grandiose, but the book's firm grounding in reality makes the events a mysterious but believable enhancement of daily life. Like Pop Clendaniel, the writing is laconic but warm and knowing, economical (the book runs just over one hundred pages in length) but never patronizing. Its accessible language and succinct chapters are expertly employed to make this rich and rewarding for a host of readers (and listeners-this would make a stellar readaloud) ranging from middle-graders in search of something more atmospheric than goofy to teen reluctant readers unwilling to sacrifice sophistication for approachability. There are some wonderful books where the brilliance of the author is evident in every polished line; Griffith more modestly effaces herself entirely, employing her expertise not to draw attention to herself but to draw inexpert readers into her compelling and imaginative drama.

-- Deborah Stevenson, Associate Editor

Big Picture Image
March's Bulletin cover illustration
by Nina Crews from
Cougar,
Copyright 1999. Used by
permission of Greenwillow Books



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