Friday, November 16, 2012

Book #321: Stagecoach Sal by Deborah Hopkinson, Illustrated by Carson Ellis

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“I was knee high to a grasshopper when Pa first lifted me up to the shotgun seat.”

Sal loved to help her father drive the stagecoach. As they bumped along the dusty roads Sal sang her favorite songs, which not only helped to pass the time, but also kept the passengers quiet. One day Pa couldn’t drive the mail, so Sal volunteered to drive alone all the way from Ukiah to Willits. Ma worried because the bandit, Poetic Pete, was on the loose, but Sal reminded her mother that she took first-prize in “ropin’, trick ridin’, and shootin’.” The journey was uneventful until a dapper gentleman flagged the stagecoach down. Sal knew this had to be Poetic Pete, who was so polite he would never interrupt a lady, but had still robbed hundreds of stagecoaches. Sal worried, but then came up with a plan. She invited the bandit to sit on the shotgun seat, but before he could say a word Sal began singing so Poetic Pete couldn’t get a word in anywhere. She sang through the night and into the morning. She sang until the bandit fell asleep. She sang until she delivered Poetic Pete to the Sheriff in Willits.

“And that’s the story of how I single-handedly snared the cantoing crook.”

Inspired by the true story of Delia Haskett Rawson, the first and quite possibly the only woman to deliver mail by stagecoach in the state of California, Hopkinson has created a rollicking tall tale of the Wild West. The text is written from Sal’s point of view and is frequently punctuated by her own renditions of her favorite songs. Lyrics are printed in a looser, painted looking font to differentiate it from the narrative in regular print. Ellis’ illustrations are stylized and based in a palate of dusty pinks, browns, and greens. The western setting is integral to the story and the illustrations feature the rocky terrain of Northern California. The round-faced characters are dressed in styles of the day. More information about Delia Haskett Rawson and the real bandit, Black Bart, known as the “poetic robber,” is included in an author’s note at the end of the book.

When you read the story sing out Sal’s songs loud and proud. You may want to stop on one or two songs so kids can join in for a second chorus. After you read the book teach the kids the songs featured in the book, She’ll Be Coming around the Mountain, Polly Wolly Doodle All Day, and Shoo Fly, Don’t Bother Me. Follow up by reading/singing Jonathan Emmett and Deborah Allwright’s picture book, She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain.

To add even more music to your storytime, play all or part of the video of the All Northern California High School Honor Band playing the world premiere of Gary P. Gilroy’s Take the Ribbons, a piece commissioned by the Northern California Band Association and inspired by Delia Haskett Rawson.

Discuss the difference between a story inspired by true events and a historical account of events. Read other tall tales that feature spunky women of the Wild West, such as Thunder Rose and Dust Devil.

Share more information about the real Delia Haskett Rawson. Good kid-friendly sources include an article in the San Dimas Community News and a page on Stagecoach Etiquette written by Katy Tahja for the Keely House Museum.

Use chairs or cardboard boxes to make a stagecoach for kids to reenact the story. Please discourage “cowboy and Indian” play as this perpetuates stereotypes of Native Americans. Instead encourage kids to take on roles as stagecoach drivers, passengers, sheriffs, or bandits.


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