by Barbara Hay
illustrated by Steven Walker
cover art by Tim Jessell
Roadrunner Press, 2012
Dru, Bo, Cecil and Scotty are 13-year-old cowboys who have formed the Bulldoggers Club. Together, they train with their horses to rope calves, and fish near the ranches in rural Oklahoma where their families live. When two bullies drive the boys from their regular fishing hole, they decide to fish at Nurse Blanchett's pond, in spite of her reputation as a witch, since she is rumored to be out of town. When Dru catches a record-breaking whopper of a fish, he lies about where he caught it, which leads to blackmail by the bullies and a whole string of misadventures, culminating in a life-threatening event.
Barbara Hay paints a believable picture of early adolescent life in the rural west. Dru's father teaches agriculture at the local college to supplement the family's ranch income. The boys are all expected to help out with chores on the farm (and babysit younger siblings) before they have time off to play. A lot of information about the history of rodeo is also seamlessly woven into the story.
The boy heroes are loyal and hard-working and regret their mistakes. The villains are sneaky and mischievous but not alarmingly cruel. And kindness and honesty triumph over resentment and deceit. But the tone of the writing isn't heavy-handed or overly moralistic.
The biggest detraction from the book are the interior illustrations. While the cover art, designed by Tim Jessell, and reminiscent of Huckleberry Finn, is appealing and age-appropriate, the black and white cartoon-like illustrations within the book, drawn by Steven Walker, portray the boys as looking much younger than their stated ages, which will be off-putting to sensitive pre-teen readers. Walker's map of Bootleg, Oklahoma, where the story takes place, is much more appropriate for this audience. The font size is also unusually small, which may intimidate struggling readers, although the (intended?) result is a thinner book.
The Tale of the Ill-Gotten Catfish is the first title in The Bulldoggers Club series which will likely find fans in middle school boys in search of adventure and parents who want their kids to read something wholesome yet realistic.
Barbara Hay is author of the acclaimed young adult novel Lesson of the White Eagle. The Bulldoggers Club Series is her first series. The widowed mother of four children, she lives and write at her home in Oklahoma.