Melanie Williamson, Cactus Annie

Hodder Children’s Books, 2011, ISBN ISBN-13: 978-0340981429

It is Cactus Annie’s first day at Cowgirl School. The other girls love it, but Cactus Annie doesn’t. She is scared of the rat hustlers, falls off her cow and ties herself in knots in lasso practice. When her teacher tells her that if she believes in herself she can do anything, Annie is not convinced. Next day she is secretly delighted when the school closes because the cows have been stolen. As she skips home, she hears plaintive moos. Peering into a barn, she spies terrified cows slung from an udder-shaker, and the rat hustlers operating a scary cheese-making machine. She doesn’t feel brave enough to intervene, but with a snake slithering close, she finds herself tumbling through the barn window. No choice is left. She urges the cows into attack. Success! Cactus Annie is the best cowgirl in town. Now she trusts what her teacher told her.

That’s the story, but what really brings this book to life are the pictures. The cows and Cactus Annie herself have delightfully woebegone expressions, at least until their luck turns. The cheese-o-matic machine is a contraption worthy of Heath Robinson. The rat hustlers are wonderful creations in masks and stetsons who terrorise the neighbourhood from their bikes. (The final end-papers show them venting their frustration behind prison bars, having met their come-uppance.) Cactus Annie has two rabbit companions, never mentioned in the text, who have bandannas round their necks and carrots in their holsters.

This will be a popular book and will appeal particularly to three to six year-olds. Adult readers will enjoy William’s combined homage to and pastiche of the western.