Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Little Joe, by Sandra Neil Wallace

All over the country, children raise animals for showing at county and state fairs. For some, this simply means they compete, win ribbons (or not), and take their animals home to try again next year. For others, the competition is a means of advertising their animals' qualities in order to get top dollar in a sale which occurs before the fair is even over.

Imagine you are a nine-year-old boy. Your first show animal is an Angus bull which you helped to pull into the world when he got stuck on the way out of his mama. You spend nine months nurturing the bull, watching him grow from a gangly new-born into a nine-hundred-plus pound animal who trusts you and follows you around. You know that in the fall, you will be showing him, hoping for the blue ribbon, but dreading the inevitable separation as he is sold for beef or breeding. Either way, he won't be yours anymore.

Eli Stegner is nine years old. His father gives him the bull calf born on Christmas Eve to be his first show animal. As the months pass, Eli learns how to break Little Joe to halter, how to feed him for health and for bulk, and how to train him for the show ring. Along the way, he has to deal with his "hardened up" father, an obnoxious neighbor, and a know-it-all little sister.

Debut author Wallace has given us a novel full of wonder and heartache, but with enough of the distraction a real nine-year-old boy would encounter that we are not in dread as the end approaches. That end leaves a few dangling ends and questions, but I am not certain middle-grade readers will even notice them.

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