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Will James

Will James (1892 - 1942) wrote and illustrated 24 horse stories in the first half of the 20th century. He was born Joseph Ernest Nephtali Dufault in Quebec, Canada in 1892, and was an average student who constantly drew horses and cowboys. He left home to become a cowboy, reinventing himself with several new names until he settled on Will James. After a short time in jail after a shooting, he moved to America, with a new invented background as an American. He was imprisoned for rustling cattle, and after he was released, worked as a stunt man in films and served in the US Army. In 1919, he enrolled in the California School of Fine Arts, but found the teaching style did not suit him. His wife encouraged him to write and draw, and the magazine Sunset bought a series of his drawings, publishing them in 1920. Scribner’s Magazine started publishing his stories in 1923, and James’ literary career was launched. He produced a series of very popular books, and wrote his “autobiography” Lone Cowboy - My Story, in 1930. Some of it was fiction: his real background in Canada was completely ignored. The strain of keeping his real origins secret, when so much of his fame, as he saw it, depended on his “real” cowboy background, was enormous. His life continued in drama: he had problems with drink, his wife left him, and he died from alcoholic complications in 1942.


Ironically, his fame now rests on his depictions of the cowboy life he really did experience, and not on his supposed history. His books were written in cowboy vernacular - he wrote as he presumably spoke! As a first-time James reader, I found the vernacular difficult, but once I’d got my ear in I found the book well worth the effort.


Perhaps his best known story in the UK is Smoky, which was a Newbery Medal winner. It was published as a Penguin paperback in their first run of children’s stories. Smoky was one of K M Peyton’s favourite stories, and she chose to include an excerpt from it in the selection of short stories and excerpts she edited for Puffin: The Puffin Book of Horse and Pony Stories (1993).


Will James wrote for all ages, and thanks to the wondrous Terri Wear, I have been able to attach a suggested age range to quite a few of his books. His books were reprinted many times, and I have included the first editions and current printings only in the bibliographies, unless I’ve come across other editions myself.


Finding the books: if you want first editions, most titles as far as I can see were published in the UK and America at the same time - these will generally be very expensive if in very good condition, always providing you can find them. His most famous book, Smoky, was reprinted many times, and most of the reprints are easy to find. Mountain Press have re-issued all his titles (many in hardback), so they can all be bought new.


Links and sources

Allen Jensen on Will James as a Canadian

Will James in the Nevada Writers’ Hall of Fame

The Will James collection of images at Yellowstone Museum

C M Russell Museum on Will James

A little of Will James’ artwork

More on Will James

There is a society devoted to Will James: the Will James Society

Buy Will James’ books here - all are still in print at Mountain Press Publishing Company

Terri A. Wear: Horse Stories, an Annotated Bibliography, Scarecrow Press, 1987


Many thanks to Susan Bourgeau for all her help and to Lisa Catz and Alison for the photographs of the earlier editions. There are many more printings than I’ve mentioned; I’ve just listed the first edition and the one that’s in print. Many thanks to the Mountain Press Publishing Company, who have republished all of James’ works, for allowing me to use their photographs to illustrate this feature.


Uncle Bill

Uncle Bill, a Tale of Two Kids and a Cowboy

Look-See With Uncle Bill
In the Saddle with Uncle Bill

Smoky the Cowhorse
Scribners, New York & London, 1926,
illus the author (left)

Grosset & Dunlap (second left)

Puffin, 1945 (second right)

Mountain Press, 2000 (right)

Recommended for juniors.






“The bronc twister Clint takes a special interest in the mouse-coloured
horse he calls Smokey and turns him into a one man ranch horse, but the
horse is stolen and abused until he becomes a rodeo outlaw.”

Uncle Bill, a Tale of Two Kids and a Cowboy
Scribner, New York, 1932, illus the author

Mountain Press, pb, 1998

Recommended for juniors.


“Scootie and Kip visit their uncle’s ranch for their summer and old Uncle Bill teaches them how
to saddle their horses, ride and rope.”

Young Cowboy
(a combination of Big Enough and Sun Up)

Scribner, New York, 1935, illus the author

Mountain Press, hb, 2000

Recommended for juniors.

“Big Enough was born the same day as Billy Roper and as the two grew up, one
was trained to be a good ranch horse and the other learned reading and writing
by looking at saddle catalogues.”



In the Saddle with Uncle Bill
Scribner, New York, 1935, illus the author

Mountain Press, hb and pb, 2001

Recommended for juniors.


“Kip and Scootie get separated from Uncle Bill while chasing some renegade range horses, but
they are able to survive the adventure even after they lose their own mounts.”

Big-Enough

Scribner, 1931, illus the author

Mountain Press, 1997

Technically a book for adults, but recommended for younger readers too.


“Billy and the horse Big-Enough were born at the same time, so Big-Enough is

educated to be a good ranch horse and Billy is educated through saddle
catalogues until he sets out on Big-Enough to see the world.”

Scorpion - a Good Bad Horse

Scribner, New York, 1936, illus the author

Mountain Press, hb and pb, 2001

Recommended for adults.


“Tim gets away on a roman-nosed chestnut named Scorpion after he holds up the train bandits
taking the money that they stole, and the horse is alternately good and bad until he meets the
Bernard family and Jane rides him.




Horses I’ve Known

Scribner, 1940, illus the author

Mountain Press, pb, 2004

A collection of short stories. Technically a book for adults, but recommended
for younger readers too.
“Includes “The Two Ghosts”, about a joke that is played on two black men

after two loose white horses spooked them into thinking that they were ghosts,
but the joke backfires when it makes the cattle stampede.”



Dark Horse

Grosset & Dunlap, 1939

Mountain Press, pb, 2003

Technically a book for adults, but recommended for younger readers too.


“Two horses, one a Thoroughbred and the other a wild horse, join together
to roam the wild country when they  escape from their human masters.”

My First Horse

Scribner, 1940, illus the author

Mountain Press, hb, 2003


“A boy reminisces about his first horse, a large rocking horse and a succession
of small gray toy horses, all of which he saddled and brushed and cared for as
if they were real.”



Sand

Grosset & Dunlap, 1929, illus the author

Mountain Press, 1996

Recommended for adults.


“Tilden stumbles into a cow camp after a night of partying and decides to
stay so that he can shed his city ways, learn to ride and catch the wild black
stallion, proving something to himself, to Rita, and to his father.”

Sun Up - Tales of the Cow Camps

Grosset & Dunlap, 1923, illus the author

Mountain Press, pb, 1997

Recommended for adults.


A collection of short stories. “A humorous and revealing collection of James’
Western tales of cow camps, wild horses, rodeos and cowboys.”

Cowboys, North and South

Scribner, New York, 1924


Lone Cowboy: My Life Story

Scribner’s, New York, 1930


All in the Day’s Riding
Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1933, illus the author

Mountain Press, 1988



Non Fiction

The Drifting Cowboy

Scribner’s, New York & London,1925, illus the author

Mountain Press, pb, 1997

I assume this is recommended for adults.


A collection of seven stories about the lanky cowboy Bill, who journeys through the West, from
Montana to Arizona.

Cow Country
Scribners, New York, 1927, illus the author

Grosset & Dunlap, New York, (left)
The Mountain Press, pb, 1996 (right)

I assume this is recommended for adults.

A collection of eight short stories.

The Three Mustangeers
Scribner, New York, 1933, illus the author

Mountain Press, hb and pb, 1999


Andy, Stub and Hugh aren’t amongst the most honest of cowboys, but try to start an honest ranch.  

Home Ranch
Scribner, New York, 1935, illus the author

Mountain Press, hb and pb, 1999


John B Mitchell started out in life with nothing but a saddle and a long rope. So, he roped someone
else’s cattle and took them off to start his own ranch.

Cowboy in the Making

Scribner, New York, 1937, illus the author

Mountain Press, hb, 2001


This is a coming-of-age story, taking Billy from the age of 4, and through his life in north Canada
with Bopy, an old trapper.




Look See With Uncle Bill

Scribner, New York, 1938, illus the author

Mountain Press, hb and pb, 2002

Aimed at children.


“After a dreary winter of studying hard and making good grades in their big eastern-city home,
Kip and Scootie are ready for another summer out west. Their first night out a terrible thunderstorm
incinerates a pine tree and scatters the herd. Kip and six of the bulls are lost in the confusion.”


Flint Spears - Cowboy Rodeo Contestant

Scribner, New York, 1938, illus the author

Mountain Press, hb and pb, 2002


Flint Spears [is] on a quest to be the best all-around cowboy on the rodeo circuit, from busting
broncs in the very first rodeo on the range to roping steers in front of royalty in Europe.”


Will James Cowboy Book

Scribner, New York, 1938, illus the author

Mountain Press, hb, 2003


This is a collection of short stories, originally published as a supplemental reader in Texas.

The American Cowboy

Scribner, 1942, illus the author

Mountain Press, 2004, pb


A story which spans three generations of cowboys.


Will James’ Book of Cowboy Stories

Scribner, 1951, illus the author

Phoenix House, London, 1952

Mountain Press, hb, 2006



A collection of stories.



Bibliography - horse books only

The Big Book of Favorite Horse Stories
[Ed] P.C. Braun, Platt & Munk 1965, illus Sam Savitt

Contains The Seeing Eye

 

C.W. Anderson's Favorite Horse Stories

Dutton 1967, illus C W Anderson

Contains The Last Catch and Chapo -- the Faker



Short Stories