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Friday, August 31, 2012

Boss of the Plains, written by Laurie Carlson and illustrated by Holly Meade. DK Publisihing, 1998. $16.95 ages 6 and up

"Then he sliced a strip of hide off the rabbit skin and tied each end of the strip to the hickory stick. It looked like an Indian's bow. Next he flicked the bow, blowing puffs of fur up in the air to settle back down on the blanket until they made an even layer. As everyone watched John took a swig from the canteen and gently sprayed water through his teeth onto the fur until it matted."

You know I am intrigued by the amazing collection of picture book biographies that we can offer our children and students to help them learn about the people who have made a difference in our world. Over the years I have heard about this book and had never seen a copy. Now that I have, I want to share it with you.

Laurie Carlson tells the story of John Stetson, from his beginnings in the family's hatmaking business through the illness that led him to seek his fortune in the west, fulfilling a dream he had as that young boy working alongside his siblings to create headwear for the masses:

"Everyone wore some kind of hat, though, because the weather was likely to be either burning sunshine, drenching rain, whipping wind, or swirling snow. A hat was important protection."

His first stop was St. Joseph, Missouri. John wanted to make a difference. When asked to join an expedition to Pikes Peak and the fortunes it might hold, he jumped at the chance. The trip was long and arduous; yet, John's health improved. Nights were cold, and John used his hatmaking skills to fashion a warm felt tent to keep he and his fellow travelers warm.

Upon arrival at Pikes Peak, the the sun and wind took a toll on John. He found that the derby hat he wore, though fashionable, offered little protection. He set to work to create something more substantial. Despite its strange shape, it did the trick. He sold that first one, and when the search for gold proved fruitless, John moved to Philadelphia to do what he did best. Patience proved he had stumbled onto a good thing, and the rest is history!

The Stetson had so many uses that soon everyone wanted one! I would compare it to a recent email I read about the real purpose for aprons in an earlier time. Now, who is going to write that story?

This is a fun and informative book to read, not only for the lively telling but for the rich and detailed illustrations that Holly Meade creates to give readers a clear understanding of the process of felting and hatmaking. Her artwork shows us what life was like for those who lived in the 19th century, and why the 'Boss of the Plains' became the hat to have, no matter who you were. Her ever-changing perspectives and beautifully constructed collages add interest and appeal for all who share this book.

We are left with a cowboy's homage to his hat on the back cover. Lovely!

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