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“Don’t you worry, Pa,” I told him.  “I’ll get the mail from Ukiah to Willits on time.”

“It’s a long journey,” Pa managed to squeak out.  “No passengers tonight, just the mail.”

“No passengers!”  Ma flapped her apron in distress.  “You mean she’ll be driving alone at night, with Poetic Pete roaming the countryside?” 

(from Stagecoach Sal)

At the recent National Book Festival in Washington, D.C., while The Girl (age 11) was making bookmarks and browsing the free books in the Penguin tent, we heard a story being read and sung for a group of younger children.  When they announced that the author would be signing free copies of the book, we went to check it out for my nephew, who just turned 3.  The Girl said we couldn’t send the book to him yet because she was drawn to the cover because of the horses and the fact that the book was inspired by a true story, and she insisted we had to read it first.

Stagecoach Sal, written by Deborah Hopkinson and illustrated by Carson Ellis, is the story of Sal, a young girl who has been riding shotgun in her father’s stagecoach since before she could reach the floorboards.  She loves driving the stagecoach and collecting fares, but most of all, she enjoys singing for the passengers.  Interspersed with the narrative are the lyrics to the songs “Polly Wolly Doodle” and “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain,” among others, and The Girl had fun singing those parts while I read aloud.

When Sal’s father is stung by hornets and can’t drive the stagecoach due to swelling, Sal takes it upon herself to deliver the mail, despite the fact that a bandit named Poetic Pete is on the loose.  Poetic Pete is known for robbing stagecoaches while speaking in rhyme, and when Sal encounters him on the road, she uses the fact that his manners prevent him from interrupting a lady to her advantage.

Stagecoach Sal is based on Delia Haskett Rawson (1861-1949), who according to the author’s note, was the first and probably only woman to deliver the U.S. mail by stagecoach in California.  She was 14 when she started driving stagecoaches, and her nickname was  “Singing Delia Haskett.”  Poetic Pete is based on Black Bart, a gentleman bandit known for leaving behind poems after robbing stagecoaches.  Black Bart, whose real name was Charles Earl Bowles, never robbed Rawson but had ridden in her stagecoach, according to her recollections.

Stagecoach Sal is a fun picture book, and with the prose and the songs, makes reading more interactive for parents and their children.  Both adults and children alike will find the historical aspect of the story interesting; The Girl and I had never heard of Delia Haskett Rawson or Black Bart until reading this book.  Children will find much to admire in a young girl who is not afraid to set out on a solo journey and who doesn’t lose her cool when trouble arises.  They’ll have fun singing and learn a little history at the same time.

Disclosure: We received a free copy of Stagecoach Sal at the National Book Festival, with no review obligation. I am an IndieBound affiliate and an Amazon associate.

© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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