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Saddle up for a wild ride in Greg Neri’s ‘Polo Cowboy’

A new novel for young readers by the Temple Terrace author is a satisfying sequel to “Ghetto Cowboy,” which became the hit Netflix movie “Concrete Cowboy.”
Idris Elba stars as a Philadelphia horseman named Harp in "Concrete Cowboy."
Idris Elba stars as a Philadelphia horseman named Harp in "Concrete Cowboy." [ Courtesy of Greg Neri ]
Published Oct. 7

If your kids, or you, loved the hit Netflix movie Concrete Cowboy, the man who wrote the story has a sequel for you.

Author Greg Neri’s latest book for middle-grade readers, Polo Cowboy, continues the adventures of young Cole into unlikely territory.

Concrete Cowboy was based on Neri’s 2011 novel Ghetto Cowboy, which began with young teenager Cole being dropped off by his exasperated mother at the Philadelphia doorstep of his estranged father, Harper.

Harper is one of the cowboys of the title, part of a long tradition of Black riders. He has a troubled past and still struggles, but horses have turned his life around. The book’s characters and story are fictional, but Neri based them on the real-life Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club in Philadelphia, a nonprofit group of Black riders who work to give second chances to horses and to kids.

The book became a movie, re-titled Concrete Cowboy, that debuted at No. 1 on Netflix in April. It stars Idris Elba, Caleb McLaughlin and Jharrel Jerome and was filmed on location in Philadelphia.

Related: Read an interview with Greg Neri about the movie "Concrete Cowboy."

Neri, who lives in Temple Terrace and has written many books for young readers, hadn’t thought about writing a sequel to Ghetto Cowboy until kids began asking him for one and writing fan fiction based on his characters. When he found out that the only African American polo team was based in Philadelphia, another story for Cole began to form.

Polo Cowboy is fictional, as are the teams Cole plays for. It begins right after Ghetto Cowboy ends, with Cole telling his mother that he doesn’t want to return to Detroit with her. He wants to stay with Harper and go to high school in Philadelphia.

She’s not happy, and neither is Harper, but Cole stays, mainly because he can’t bear to leave Boo, the horse he bonded with and rescued in the first book. In the time he’s been with his dad, Cole’s riding skills have gone from none to impressive; riding is the one thing he feels confident about.

Harper’s condition for him staying is that he get a job, even though he’s only 14. And Harper has one in mind — after a stressful first day of school, he delivers Cole to the posh grounds of the George Washington Academy. He’ll be working there as a stable hand, tending to horses — excuse me, they’re called ponies — used by the military academy’s polo team.

The job is a distinctly mixed bag. As always, Cole loves being around horses, and the polo team’s coach gives him her support and encouragement. On the other hand, he has to deal with the team’s players, called the Generals, three cadets with the Top Gun-style nicknames Maverick, Bandit and Brick who are not only obnoxiously entitled but relentlessly racist.

He puts up (mostly) with their bullying because of his growing friendship with Ruthie, a girl his age who is a skilled polo player — and the first girl to attend the school. When Cole first meets her, he’s distracted (and ashamed to be) by her vitiligo, a condition that is turning some of her dark skin white.

But soon he just sees her, a girl with a sense of humor who calls herself “the first freak on the polo squad” and, even more important to Cole, who loves horses as much as he does.

Ruthie starts schooling him in polo, even though the chances of him playing for the team at a school with tuition of $31,000 per year are nonexistent. She begins to visit his neighborhood, Strawberry Mansion, and teach the kids there some of those skills, which they use to invent an exuberant game called cowboy polo, played on horseback, bicycle and foot with DIY equipment and creative uniforms.

The novel is enhanced by vibrant black-and-white illustrations by Jesse Joshua Watson. Neri skillfully weaves together the evolution of Cole and Ruthie’s friendship into a tentative romance, Cole’s changing relationship with Harper and several exciting throwdowns on and off the polo field for a satisfying story for young readers. And it seems ready-made for a movie sequel, too.

[ Candlewick Press ]

Polo Cowboy

By G. Neri

Candlewick Press, 288 pages, $17.99

Author Greg Neri's new book is "Polo Cowboy."
Author Greg Neri's new book is "Polo Cowboy." [ Courtesy of Candlewick Press ]

Watch

Tombolo Books will host a virtual launch party for Polo Cowboy, with Greg Neri in conversation with Times book editor Colette Bancroft, at 7 p.m. Wednesday. Free; register for the link at tombolobooks.com/events.