Ghetto Cowboy by G. Neri

Ghetto Cowboy tells a heartwarming story of family, hard work, and horses in the midst of urban Philly.

Ghetto Cowboy by G. Neri and illustrated by Jesse Joshua Watson. Candlewick, 2011. 224 pages.

  • Reading Level: Middle grades, ages 10-12
  • Recommended For: Teens, ages 12-15
Cover image of Ghetto Cowboy

Coltrane’s mom is driving him to his dad’s and leaving him there? But he’s never even met his dad. Promising to do better, begging her to turn around, regretting his decision to skip school for weeks at a time…. Nothing makes a difference, and she does indeed drop him on his dad’s doorstep in Philly. Harper doesn’t want his son, either. He’s got an inner city stable to run, a horse he’s rehabilitating, and urban kids he’s trying to keep off the streets.

Based on the real “ghetto cowboys” of Fletcher Street, Neri brings the classic tale of troubled youngster who learns about hard work through caring for an animal to a gritty urban environment. No less powerful than stories like The Black Stallion, Ghetto Cowboy is a contemporary story for city kids. Coltrane and his dad come to know each other better through working side-by-side for a cause they both love. Older men invest in kids like Coltrane. Horses are saved from the slaughterhouse. And a city comes together to give them all a second chance.

Ghetto Cowboy doesn’t end in a fairy tale: Coltrane’s parents aren’t back together. He still has to do summer school to keep from repeating seventh grade. And the stables are still in danger of being closed down by the city. But—and this is an important “but”—the story ends on a distinctly hopeful note. Individuals have matured through the story; their maturity enables them to relate better to one another, too. Each character is committed to continuing to grow, too. Family is important, even when it’s fractured. And hard work and teamwork can do a lot to give kids purpose, keeping them off the streets and out of gangs.


  • Language: As you might expect from a story set in the inner city, there’s some rough language in this book. The occasional “d—” and its ilk along with slang terms like “gangbanger.” They feel authentic to the setting and not overdone.
  • Father-son dynamic: this is a great father-son story in which each comes to understand and respect the other through the story.
  • Hi-low book: Hi-low books are those that are high interest, but written on a slightly lower reading level. Ghetto Cowboy fits that bill nicely if you need an engaging read for a young teen who doesn’t like to read or struggles with reading.
  • Discussion starters: Do some research on the urban horses. Talk with your kids about how they feel after hard work, or meaningful work. What makes for meaningful work? Since we’re created by God to do good works (Ephesians 2:10), what does that look like? What does working together in a common cause do for our relationships? If you’re in a position of privilege, how can you help/serve those in your community like the children in Philly? If you’re in a position like Coltrane, are there places in your community where you could serve/volunteer like he does with the horses?

Overall Rating: 4.25/5

  • Worldview/moral rating: 4.25
  • Artistic rating: 4

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Betsy is the Managing Editor at Redeemed Reader. When she reads ahead for you, she uses sticky notes instead of book darts and willfully dog ears pages even in library books. Betsy is a fan of George MacDonald, robust book discussions, and the Oxford comma. She lives with her husband and their three children in the beautiful Northwest.

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