Take a minute and think about classic images of the American West. What animal is always featured? The Wild Mustang: Horses of the American West, First Second’s latest entry in the middle grade History Comics series, sets out to tell a story beyond the animals themselves, one of migration, colonization, Indigenous people in North America, and the importance of activism, along with a little zoology thrown in.
After an introduction from Paul Andrew Hutton, professor of history at the University of New Mexico, The Wild Mustang begins with a short history of the animals, giving the reader an overall look at what they’ll be learning through this graphic novel. Our three narrators are then introduced, one of which is a talking mustang. The narrators act as a mirror to the reader throughout the book, asking the kind of questions readers are likely to have. Falynn Koch’s art is full of warm tones and detailed panels, giving the graphic novel a natural quality accompanying the history being retold.
We’re transported to the Atlantic Ocean, upon a European ship tasked with bringing horses and other animals to America for the purpose of starting a livestock colony. But wait! Horses have been in North America before people even were, as we discover in the first “Mane Idea.” “Mane Ideas” are short subchapters sprinkled throughout the book, and they give the stories a scientific context and background. They also introduce a multidisciplinary approach to thinking for young readers, intertwining history and science.
Much of the book focuses on the dynamics between various Native American tribes living in the West alongside millions of horses. The maps showing Native lands alongside both stolen territory and horse dispersal are an excellent resource. When one of the narrators questions the action of stealing horses as opposed to trading them, another character does an excellent job of explaining in a more modern context, focusing on how it wasn’t a crime but a positive benefit to the community. Why do horses have so many names? By diving into the etymology of different words for wild horses, the narrators consider and learn about different groups across the West and their connection with the animals.
Once again tying science into history, the book ends by highlighting more recent efforts to protect and maintain the mustang population in the United States. Readers meet Velma Bronn Johnson, an animal activist who worked to prevent mustang extermination and mistreatment, and learn about the work she put in to protect the horse populations in the West. As is the case with others in the series, the book closes out with a note from author Chris Duffy, a timeline, and a thorough bibliography. Plus, there’s two appendices that will inspire some readers to research even further!
The Wild Mustang: Horses of the American West is a worthwhile complement to curricula on the West, Native Americans, and animal activism. There is a lot of information in this under 200 page book, so it is recommended for readers looking for a highly detailed historical narrative as opposed to a more straightforward account of the facts. Readers who enjoy both History Comics and Science Comics titles will find themselves drawn into the complex relationship of wild horses and the American West.
History Comics: The Wild Mustang: Horses of the American West
By Chris Duffy
Art by Falynn Koch
First Second, 2021
Publisher Age Rating: 9-13
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)