Off Like the Wind!: The First Ride of the Pony Express by Michael P. Spradlin, paintings by Layne Johnson, Walker, 2010
Today, every thought, observation or news event can be instantly communicated from anywhere in the world through cell phones, blogs, Twitter, and Facebook. The idea that it would take weeks to receive news and mail is almost unfathomable.
...which is exactly why books that share stories like this are important.
Michael Spradlin and Layne Johnson re-enact the first ride of the Pony Express as a composite of the many challenges that riders had to contend with as they carried the mail between St. Joseph, Missouri and Sacramento, California. The sheer distance took a toll on horses and riders as did weather and encounters with wildlife and native tribes. Spradlin narrates the story as a timeline, following the riders through the geography of the route during the eleven day trip.
Layne Johnson's riders, gallop, from left to right across two page spreads. The action often moves towards the reader as if it would burst out of the book. Stampeding buffalo thunder straight on. Johnson's landscape and charging horses bring the artwork of Charles Russell, Frederic Remington and John Ford movie westerns to mind. The endpapers of the book are a map showing the route of the service across half the continent as well as a time-line. This is worth noting as pleas for examples of time-lines are regularly requested on school library listservs.
The book concludes with an outstanding compilation of facts, insights and resources. There are suggestions for further reading and a bibliography (which is important to point out to students--you have to cite your sources!) A list of Pony Express websites, associations and museums round out the resources.
Spradlin is an author I am drawn to because he writes about things that are interesting to me. The Texas Rangers, the Knights Templar, Daniel Boone.
I am a huge fan of picture book storytelling of history. Candace Fleming, Louise Borden, Spradlin, and others share stories, in this format, which would go untold otherwise. In a too-busy school day, the drama of these important moments in history would never be told. These books are perfect launching points for research or lesson extensions.
When stories like this are brought to life, with a strong narratives and engrossing pictures, then readers' and listeners' imaginations are engaged and connections with history are made.