The Cow-Pie Chronicles – review and author interview

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Cow Pie ChroniclesI’m on a mailing list that alerts me to authors looking for reviews of their books and allows me to request review copies, and through that mailing list I found the book The Cow-pie Chronicles by James Butler. I wasn’t impressed by the cartoonish cover of the book nor, on the second page, the footnote explaining that the word “smirk” was bolded because it was in the glossary. That, combined with the advertisement for the free teacher’s guide available online made me wonder if I had picked up a book that was someone trying way too hard to get a mediocre product accepted into a school market. Happily, I was wrong.

The book is really well written. It has cute stories, good themes, and the teacher’s guide actually gets to some of those themes. My children enjoyed the story. It was easily accessible to them, though they have little to no acquaintance with farms.


Tim Slinger is mischievous and a reckless, and the farm is inherently unsafe but that’s life. Unfortunately the farm is also unprofitable, and the book starts foreshadowing right near the beginning that things are going to change for Tim and his family. The book takes time though to really introduce the reader to a child’s eye view of farm-life before Tim moves off the farms so we get a sense of how the farm has shaped his existence and his identity, and therefore what he’s giving up and how foreign the world of town and city are to him.


One of the things I really liked in the story is the relationship between Tim and his sister Dana. They have a very normal complex relationship being both each other’s best friend and worst enemy, and it is weird realizing that moving off the farm changes that relationship. No longer are they required to be each other’s best friends.


For me the book was like a visit to the past. I was a town kid, not a farm kid, but I had friends who were farm kids. My best friends had goats instead of dairy cows, but I could still use the book as a jumping off point for sharing with them the stories of my own adventures with electric fences. Moreover, reading about the craziness of farm life helps put the craziness of urban motherhood in perspective. We’re supposed to watch our children every second, never leave them at the park alone for fear of who knows what, and once upon a time kids were climbing up to hang ropes from the rafters of multistory buildings.


I had the chance to email some questions to the author of the book, and here are my questions and his replies.


I know you have a son, so I’m curious is the last chapter of the book, where Tim returns with his son, based on your own experience? Do you have other children?


Answer: We just have our one son. He is a freshman at Notre Dame now and on the crew rowing team there. He was 17 when I took him back to see what was left of the farm. The conversation was similar to that in the book.
Safety – or at least a lack of it – plays a big part in your book. How do you feel about risks these days, for yourself or for other children? Are schools and parents coddling children too much with all the safety efforts? Does your son ever attempt stunts as dangerous as yours were, and what would you reaction be (or have been)?


Answer part 1: The risks children, then and now, face on the farm are pretty much self-induced, a matter of common sense vs sense of adventure. And the amount of time away from adult supervision offers more opportuties to avoid the common sense choices.


Part 2: The dangers I faced after moving to town and that my son has faced have much more to do with external forces; other kids, adults who are strangers, drugs, peer presures, organized sports, etc. My son was injured worse in gym class than ever was on the farm, although that was largley a matter of luck on my part! I think schools in particular and parents sometimes go overboard in protecting kids from things that might cause an injury that will heal while doing too little to protect them from the kind of dangers that hurt them forever, or kill them. It is a complicated subject that no one can truly understand until they are a parent.
Part 3: My son has been pretty cautious in his activities. Even the sports he played were on the safe side, varsity swimming for example. If he had been stunt proned, I would have strongly discouraged those activities. Keep in mind that my father and mother did not approve of my stunts either, but that did not stop me.  
Did you choose which words to include in the glossary, or did your publisher?


Answer: The publisher. I had the opportunity to review the list and thought the choices were pretty good though.
Do you think family farms will ever return in popularity? Or is factory farming the way things are going to be?


Answer: Ecomomics dictate that a farm needs to be pretty massive to make enough money to support a family these days. (The US has very low food prices relative to cost of living.) Even most private farms owned by families these days are incorporated and have a lot of emplyees working them. Farms the size we had are called ‘hooby farms’ now as the owners must work a ‘real job’ to make enough money to survive.
During those first years on a farm, did you have access to a library? Did your family read much?


Answer: I used the school library occasionally, but my grandfather’s library was my main source of reading material. He had a ton of books, especially Zane Gray westerns. My favorite childhood books were the “Big Red” series by Jim Kjelgaard
The little bit I’ve read about you says you like science fiction, so I’m wondering, do you follow the news about space programs, like the potential for a trip to mars? Or is science fiction just escapism?
Answer: I love science and mostly wrote Science Fiction genre for 30 years. I follow science news in all areas, especially the break-throughs in understanding the foundation of the universe, like the project to accelerate a particle past the speed of light. I firmly believe we know less than 10% of what there is to know about the environment around us. For example, we know al the parts of a human cell and pretty much how they work, and yet scientists have no clue how one stem cell becomes a bone cell and another becomes a brain cell.
(Linking up to the Kid Lit Blog Hop #27. Check there for lots of other great book reviews!)
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  • Reshama

    Thanks for linking up the well written review and interview on Kid Lit Blog Hop! One of the things that left me wondering about the book was what age group it was targeted towards? If the theme of the relationship is central and complex then it might be more for MG readers do you think? In any case I really like the theme around farms and how they are slowly changing.
    -Reshama @ Stackingbooks

    • ChristyK

      The relationship theme is subtle. It is there, but it doesn’t matter if a child doesn’t notice it. The chapters are reasonably episodic while still being linked by a lot of foreshadowing, so the story makes a decent one to read outloud. My five year old loved it, as did my eight year old. I don’t know what age it is marketed too though.

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