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'Gingerbread Cowboy' finds fans

Posted: April 17, 2010 8:30 p.m.
Updated: April 18, 2010 4:55 a.m.
Janet Squires reads her children’s book to eager listeners at the OutWest store in Newhall. Janet Squires reads her children’s book to eager listeners at the OutWest store in Newhall.
Janet Squires reads her children’s book to eager listeners at the OutWest store in Newhall.
Janet Squires and her children's book "The Gingerbread Cowboy" which has sold more than 250,000 copies. Janet Squires and her children's book "The Gingerbread Cowboy" which has sold more than 250,000 copies.
Janet Squires and her children's book "The Gingerbread Cowboy" which has sold more than 250,000 copies.
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There's a stampede at the OutWest store in Newhall, but wild horses are nowhere to be found.

Instead, four children are excitedly slapping their hands against their folded legs as Saugus author Janet Squires reads a particularly exciting passage from her popular book "The Gingerbread Cowboy."

The Western take on the classic "Gingerbread Man" tale has sold more than 250,000 copies since it was published in 2006. Squires has read "The Gingerbread Cowboy" to thousands of children across the country, yet she's never lost her enthusiasm in bringing the characters on each page to life in front of young fans. She will read and sign the book at the Buckaroo Book Shop during the Cowboy Poetry Festival in Newhall on April 24 and 25.

"If you're gonna do it, do it right, don't just read the words," Squires said. "Literacy is very important to me. I'm a writer and a reader. How can I not do everything in my power to help children find as much fun and joy in it as I do?"

Born in Hollywood, Squires is the descendant of pioneers that traveled through Texas and New Mexico in a wagon train. Her grandmother cooked on a wood-burning stove until the day she died and Squires, who is part Cherokee Indian, can remember waking up in a cast-iron bed as her father chopped wood outside.

"There was no getting away from it. The West was bred into my bones," Squires said.

The Squires family gardened, milked goats, raised chickens and looked out for one another, as well as their neighbors.
"Family, community, was all a part of it. Today, people get caught up in their day-to-day stuff. We forget to slow down and think about what's really important," Squires said.

Squires put herself through college shoeing and grooming horses and earned a teaching degree from California State University, Northridge. She settled in Saugus with her husband Richard, a professor, more than 30 years ago.

"We liked the wide open spaces," Squires said.

She quit teaching to raise daughters Katherine and Caroline, now both teachers, and began freelance writing non-fiction articles in her spare time. Squires was initially inspired to do so after contacting a horse-related magazine editor about an article in which she had found many factual errors. Challenged by the editor to do a better job, Squires submitted a story, which was published by the magazine.

As her children grew older and spent most of the day in school, Squires went back to work as a library media specialist in the Saugus Union School District, which she continues to do part-time.

Surrounded by children's books, the seed for "The Gingerbread Cowboy" was planted in 1999.

"The Gingerbread Man is an old folk tale that's been around for 150 years and has had about 1,000 different interpretations. There's a Cajun gingerbread man, a Hawaiian gingerbread man, but there hadn't been a Western one. I knew how to fix that," Squires said.

Squires finished the 32-page book in 2001. Illustrated by Holly Berry, the book was published and released by Harper Collins in August, 2006. Targeted towards readers ages 4 to 8, "The Gingerbread Cowboy" was featured in 2006 and 2007 at the Autry National Center and also selected as the Arizona governor's "2007 First Grade Book," which placed a copy in the hands of every Arizona first grader.

As a result of the latter, Squires toured the state with then governor Janet Napolitano, now the United States secretary of Homeland Security, and watched as she read "The Gingerbread Cowboy" aloud.

"It was pretty cool. She (Napolitano) did a terrific job," Squires said. "I was thrilled."

Four years after its release, the market for "The Gingerbread Cowboy" continues to grow. According to Squires, there are plans to release an English-Spanish version for special educational programs, as well as an audio version and a line of story cards based on the book. There's even interest from Japan and India.

"What castles and knights are to Europe, Westerns are to America. It's really at the core of who we were," Squires said. "I think that's why the book has been so successful."

Today, Squires is working on an adult-level novel called "The Boomtown Singers," set in 1887 Arizona, and a children's mystery series to feature a canine Sherlock Holmes-style detective team of Otis Stoutfellow, a pug, and La Bella Stella, an Italian greyhound.

The four-legged protagonists are based on Squires' own rescued pug, Otis, and the many homeless dogs she has taken care as part of Animal Rescue Volunteers. The nonprofit organization has a network of foster families, including Squires and her daughter Caroline, that take in shelter animals, often hours before they are scheduled to be euthanized, and provide them with a temporary home until an adopter can be found.

Cecelia, Squires' current foster, is a tiny black and tan mixed-breed puppy that weighed less than 2 pounds when she was rescued the day before Christmas. Now six pounds, thanks largely to Squires' bottle feeding the pup, the rambunctious Cecelia was a hit with the audience at OutWest.

"I support Animal Rescue volunteers because these dogs are all in homes, living life the way a dog should live, with other dogs, cats, and kids, until they get their permanent home," Squires said.

Squires' benevolence extends to children and their parents. She promotes literacy by coordinating a yearly book drive for low-income families, chairing young authors conferences, and teaching writing workshops for children, as well as speaking to parents groups.

"I'm all about helping parents perfect their read aloud skills. That's what's going to help their kids become lifelong readers," Squires said. "By the fourth grade, children decide if they're going become readers by choice rather than only reading when they have to. It's not about selling books. If I can get one child's nose in a book, I'm good."

Then there are the writers of the world. Squires feels a particular affinity for them and launched a blog, janetsquires.blogspot.com, to help would-be authors through the various processes to publication, as well as providing a virtual shoulder to lean or cry on.

"Writing is a very solitary profession, just you and the computer screen or pen and paper. You create in a vacuum and write in a vacuum. Writers need a place to bounce ideas off other people and talk the story out," Squires said. "No one succeeds as a writer on their own."

For more information on Janet Squires, visit www.janetsquires.com or http://janetsquires.blogspot.com. For more information on the Cowboy Poetry Festival, visit cowboyfestival.org.

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