This poignant children’s picture book is based on the life of Joel Gagnon, who was born with Goldenhar syndrome—causing incomplete development of his ear, soft palate, and facial bone structures. Written by Joel and his family—his parents, two biological children, and five adopted children with special needs—and complemented by illustrator Seth Yoder’s lively artwork, the book was created to help children deal with bullying and understand they are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139).
Set in the Wild, Wild West—an imaginary place to which the real-life Joel goes when he’s bullied—the story begins with Cowboy Joel and his sidekick Blackbeard the Lizard, who is missing some parts, entering Tumbleweed Town in the heat of the day. Tired and thirsty, they seek out the Sideways Saloon. They order a drink of root beer for Joel and a Mug o’ Bugs for Blackbeard. Immediately, El Maton, “the fastest tongue-slinger in the West,” begins to bully them because they’re different.
Afraid to speak up in their defense, Cowboy Joel sits unobtrusively with his back to El Maton. But Blackbeard stands up to the bully and commits Cowboy Joel to a duel with him. Though Cowboy Joel has no desire to face off with El Maton, he knows he has no choice but to do so.
After Cowboy Joel wins the duel, he learns a valuable life lesson: “It’s not always the bullies that cause problems; it’s the lies. I need to fight the bad thoughts about myself and believe the truth. I AM brave. I AM loved.”
Parents, teachers, grandparents, and church leaders who spend time with children will discover a resource that speaks to the reality of bullying that many children face for multiple reasons. The message of God’s good creation of each child and his love for all people underscores this story. The book may be ordered at joelsfriends.com. (JPV Press)