Hopkinson, D. (2009). Stagecoach Sal. New York: Hyperion Books.
Appetizer: Based on the true story of Delia Haskett Rawson, Sal helps her father drive his stagecoach as he takes passengers and mail between Ukiah and Willits. When her dad falls on a hornet's nest, it falls to Sal to drive the stagecoach, a responsibility she is happy to accept even though it might mean she'll have to face Poetic Pete, a stagecoach robber.
The strength of this story is Sal's voice. Right away, it captured my attention as a reader and set the timing and atmosphere of Sal's story. Adding to this, lyrics from Polly Wolly Doodle and other folk songs are shared throughout the story and enter into the plot later on in the story.
While I enjoyed this picturebook and liked the way the voice and illustrations captured the feel and time of the ol' West setting, I almost wish the picturebook hadn't claimed to be inspired by a true tale. As I read through the story, I assumed Sal had been a real person, it was only when I reached the author's note that I learned, no, Sal didn't exist at all. Instead there was this woman named Delia Haskett Rawson whose tale seemed very different than the one shared in the picturebook. So, after reading that, I felt kinda betrayed. It was like there'd been a story of a tiger climbing to higher ground, but instead someone decided to tell a story of a kitten climbing a hill. Still potentially interesting, still kinda related, but not the same.
A teacher could help counter-act betrayed feelings (of course, chances are good I'm alone in this) by reminding students that "inspired by" a tale is very different from being true and being based in truth. A teacher could also turn that into an assignment by having them look for inspiration in narratives for their own stories.
"I was knee high to a grasshopper when Pa first lifted me up to the shotgun seat.
"Take care, tadpole," called Mama. "Those tiny toes of yours don't even touch the floorboards."
I didn't mind."
"I loved to sit high on the stagecoach seat, the breeze in my face and the thunder of hooves in my ears. But the truth is, on this whole wide earth you won't find anything more dusty and bouncy than a stagecoach journey."
"Now, I didn't mind helping Pa out, but more than anything I longed to drive myself."
"Every soul west of the Mississippi knew Poetic Pete. He carried out his holdups by speaking in rhyme. Folks said he was so polite he'd never interrupt a lady, yet he'd managed to rob hundreds of stagecoaches."
To Go with the Meal:
This is one of those books that can really help to make history come to life for young readers. A teacher could further that sensation by doing sing-a-longs to songs like "Sweet Betsy from Pike" and "Polly Wolly Doodle."
A teacher could also focus on how tough and brave Sal was. When thinking about the period when the West was being settled to as resent as the late 1800s, most young students only think of cowboys as being tough. So, it's fun and refreshing to hear the story of a female stagecoach mail carrier who can show how women were just as tough.
After reading this book, students can research the real first stagecoach mail carrier in California, Delia Haskett Rawson. They could also research other historic accomplishments by women and minority figures and create those peoples' biographies to present for the class.
Tasty Rating: !!!