The Paper Cowboy: A Book Review


The Paper CowboyTitle: The Paper Cowboy

Author: Kristin Levine

Published: September 4th, 2014 by Putnam Juvenile

Pages: 352

Genre: Middle Grade / Historical Fiction

Source: Library / Hardcover

Series: Nope!

Summary: Though he thinks of himself as a cowboy, Tommy is really a bully.  He’s always playing cruel jokes on classmates or stealing from the store. But Tommy has a reason: life at home is tough. His abusive mother isn’t well; in fact, she may be mentally ill, and his sister, Mary Lou, is in the hospital badly burned from doing a chore it was really Tommy’s turn to do. To make amends, Tommy takes over Mary Lou’s paper route. But the paper route also becomes the perfect way for Tommy to investigate his neighbors after stumbling across a copy of The Daily Worker, a communist newspaper. Tommy is shocked to learn that one of his neighbors could be a communist, and soon fear of a communist in this tight-knit community takes hold of everyone when Tommy uses the paper to frame a storeowner, Mr. McKenzie. As Mr. McKenzie’s business slowly falls apart and Mary Lou doesn’t seem to get any better, Tommy’s mother’s abuse gets worse causing Tommy’s bullying to spiral out of control. {Goodreads}

My Thoughts: There are several authors I can always trust to deliver a good story; Morgan Matson is my go-to for YA contemporary, Ally Carter will forever be my favorite for mystery and espionage, and Heather Vogel Frederick has proven herself again and again with her middle grade fiction. With her newest historical fiction release, Kristin Levine has only secured her spot on my list! While I have raved about both her debut, The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had, and her sophomore novel, The Lions of Little Rock, in years past, Levine’s third book, The Paper Cowboy shows her strength and growth as an author. If she was already good, Levine has now improved to be an amazing writer. This Cold-War era novel is difficult to read, but it’s needed literature for kids, adults, and everyone in between.

Tommy’s life seems to be falling apart. His beloved older sister suffered an awful injury, his mother’s feelings and actions are unpredictable, and he’s made a grave mistake in judgment. Despite his hardships, it’s no secret that Tommy is also a bully, teasing his classmates daily and stealing from a local shop. While Tommy’s story is set in 1953, the causes and effects of his bullying are no different from those suggested by modern-day studies; he bullies because of his rough home life, gaining some power by bringing down others. Many books, justifiably, focus on the victims of teasing, but I admire Levine for taking a different approach. I can’t excuse all of Tommy’s behavior, but it is harder to peg him the “antagonist” when you learn what he’s dealing with outside of school. Furthermore, Tommy’s character is developed and complex, gradually growing from a young, selfish boy to a mature and more-accepting young man.

Tommy is a strong protagonist, but a story is nothing without its supporting characters. Fortunately, Levine’s character development does not end with Tommy, it extends to the family and friends that live in the small town of Downers Grove. I love that the community grows into a tight-knit family of sorts, but the secondary characters that  shine are Tommy’s parents and siblings. Levine doesn’t shy away from mental illness, providing readers with  intense and emotional scenes between Tommy and his mother {who, Levine later writes in her author’s note, would likely be diagnosed with bipolar disorder today}. Readers can observe the strains his mom’s illness puts on Tommy’s family, especially after his sister, Mary Lou, is admitted to the hospital. The tension this storyline brings packs a powerful punch to the narrative, but I’ll be the first to admit that the ending felt too “tidy” when compared to earlier chapters.

Levine has a knack for bringing readers back in time, and her research clearly shows in The Paper Cowboy. I seek out books set in the 1950s and ’60s like a kid looks for presents; these time periods are rich with historical events that fit well with storytelling. Here, attention is placed on the nation’s communism scare and the era of McCarthyism, and the story is modeled after the childhood of the author’s own dad. The addition of personal anecdotes brings another layer to the plot and prevents the novel from ever feeling like a history textbook.

Fans of Kristin Levine’s previous novels need not worry: The Paper Cowboy not only meets her previous reputation, it exceeds it! Historical fiction can be a tough balance to strike when writing for a younger audience, but I would happily pass on Levine’s novels to any middle grade reader. In the meantime, I’ll be anxiously waiting for her next release.

Pros: Powerful, well-written storyline and complex main character.

Cons: Though I appreciate bringing the mother’s mental illness to the forefront, I felt that the ending was too “tidy” for the storyline.

Heads Up: The emotional impact of this book is better suited for mature middle grade readers, teenagers, or adults.

Recommended for: Fans of The Lions of Little Rock, historical fiction fanatics, and those who don’t mind a flawed protagonist.

Around the Web: “This is a difficult and beautiful read, worth engaging in during our winter season. A beautiful tale without question” {read the rest of the review at Book Peep Wonders HERE}.

“This is a beautifully written story of a bully whose behavior spirals out of control as his life in small town, post-war America unravels before him” {read the rest of the review at Sagging Bookshelves HERE}.

The Paper Cowboy is a thoughtful novel about acceptance, compassion, and overcoming life’s struggles. Inspired by the author’s father’s childhood, the book ends with interesting notes and photographs” {read the rest of the review at Jillicious Reading HERE}.

Have an amazing Monday!



7 thoughts on “The Paper Cowboy: A Book Review

  1. […] The Paper Cowboy by Kristin Levine | “While I have raved about both her debut, The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had, and her sophomore novel, The Lions of Little Rock, in years past, Levine’s third book, The Paper Cowboy shows her strength and growth as an author. If she was already good, Levine has now improved to be an amazing writer” […]


  2. […] If Elizabeth Wein is the queen of young adult historical fiction, Kristin Levine is certainly the master of middle grade. All three of her novels have developed Levine’s signature style; her books always feature layered character relationships, a tense historical setting, and a well-paced plot of events. My personal favorite of Levine’s work is The Lions of Little Rock, which covers the integration of Little Rock students in the 1950’s. {reviews: 1 / 2 / 3} […]


  3. […] I had been eagerly awaiting the release of The Paper Cowboy ever since I devoured Kristin Levine’s novels, The Lions of Little Rock and The Best Bad Luck I’ve Ever Had, back in middle school, and I’m oh-so happy to say that she didn’t disappoint. Her third book shows the complexity of a “schoolyard bully” at the height of communist fear, illustrating once again her talent for historical fiction stories. I’m only angry with myself that I didn’t read it as soon as it was released last September! {review} […]


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