The Paper Cowboy by Kristin Levine.

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Tommy just wants to be a good guy that people would look up to, like the Lone Ranger. But the truth is he is a bully. He doesn’t want to be and he feels terrible afterward, but he can’t help what he does when he’s angry. Kind of like his mother. His mom’s tantrums are becoming more frequent. She’s always been moody, but now she starts beating Tommy for small infractions that aren’t usually his fault.

It started getting worse after Tommy’s sister.  Mary Lou offered to burn the trash for him one morning and accidentally was severely burned as a result. Tommy feels awful and guilt-ridden about it, and he is also lonely and defenseless without his older sister to protect him from his mom’s anger. As things escalate at home, Tommy takes it out on the kids at school, especially Little Skinny McKenzie, a fat boy whose father owns a store that Tommy stole from.

When Tommy is caught, his punishment is to help at the store. Angry about being punished, Tommy slips the Communist newspaper he found in the town recycling drive onto the counter where it is discovered by a shopper. Mr. McKenzie’s store starts to go downhill because of the newspaper and Tommy feels horrible because it’s his fault. He resolves to find the real Communist who recycled the paper, but is shocked when he finds out who owned it. Throughout the story, Tommy’s life gets worse and worse, adding to the suspense and the hopelessness. When you can’t take it anymore as a reader, it finally comes to a head and is resolved. The resolutions aren’t too clean, they’re believable and satisfying. I think this book is a nice way to introduce students to the mood of the Cold War Era.

The characters are genuine and readers realize with Tommy that the so-called enemies aren’t all enemies or bad people; some ideas a better in theory than in practice; and that anyone can be redeemed even if they’ve done awful things. The Paper Cowboy also shows kids that they can change from a bully to a friend and that it’s never too late to fix your mistakes. Even though there are real consequences that you can’t make disappear, you can try to make the situation better. And although we shouldn’t be sympathetic to all bullies, even the bullies have emotional consequences they have to pay for their actions. This is a good conversation starter to talk about bullying and what realistically you can do.

Levine’s thoughtful writing style makes the tone emotionally intense yet allows for Tommy to be introspective. Through Tommy’s realistic reactions to emotional and family problems, we see Tommy as a relatable and sympathetic person even though he is technically the “bad guy.” Readers will cheer for Tommy’s behavioral change and success in conquering his anger.

Read-alike: Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt