The Boy Who Became Buffalo Bill: Growing Up Billy Cody in Bleeding Kansas

Book review by
Lucinda Dyer, Common Sense Media
The Boy Who Became Buffalo Bill: Growing Up Billy Cody in Bleeding Kansas Book Poster Image
Captivating biography of legendary showman Buffalo Bill.

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age 10+
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Educational Value

The struggle to determine whether Kansas would be a slave or a free state is a part of U.S. history that's often overlooked, and author Andrea Warren does an excellent job of putting the conflict into the context of the looming Civil War. The large number of photos (some of Cody as a young boy) and illustrations in the book really bring the text to life. Through their friendship with Cody, readers are introduced to such iconic frontier figures as Kit Carson, Wild Bill Hickok, Annie Oakley, and legendary mountain man Jim Bridger. The back of the book includes short pieces on several key people and places as well as recommended books and movies.

Positive Messages

Perseverance and resilience. Cody faced overwhelming challenges while he was growing up -- often living in the midst of terrible bloodshed and taking on jobs meant for grown men to help support his family. As an adult, he transformed himself from an obscure frontiersman to a world famous showman. Good people stand up for what’s right. Cody’s family and many of their friends put their lives and livelihoods in jeopardy by speaking out against slavery.

Positive Role Models

Cody took on the man's role in his family after the death of his father. Though he loved the adventure these jobs provided, he never forgot that his first obligation was to his family. His father was steadfast in his opposition to slavery, even as it separated him from his family and ultimately cost him his life. Cody's mother and sisters were resourceful and courageous and never backed down, even when armed and angry men would come to the farm looking for Cody's father.


Cody grew up in "Bloody Kansas" and fought in the Civil War, so though violence is pervasive throughout the book -- people are stabbed, shot, and hunted by vigilant bands and entire towns are burned and looted -- it's never described in graphic detail or sensationalized. 

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Drunken mobs were not uncommon during Cody's youth. Warren notes that Cody had a drinking problem later in life.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Andrea Warren's The Boy Who Became Buffalo Bill: Growing Up Billy Cody in Bleeding Kansas, is a biography of William Cody, the founder and star of the world famous Wild West Show. Warren's biography concentrates largely on Cody's years growing up in the Kansas Territory, which at the time was known as "Bloody Kansas" because of the violence between pro-slavers and abolitionists. Before he was 17, Cody had worked on wagon trains, ridden for the Pony Express, prospected for gold, been an Army scout on the Santa Fe Trail, and joined the Union Army. Despite a backdrop of some of the most violent times in American history, that violence is never described in graphic detail. Cody's extraordinary childhood adventures should captivate even the most reluctant readers. 

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Teen, 13 years old Written byls216743 February 28, 2016

Buffalo Bill by Luis s

The story was about a kid learning how to grow up in the plains.the main characters are bill, pa, Mr. Cody. They were keeping moving to other places. They had t... Continue reading

What's the story?

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, William "Buffalo Bill" Cody was as famous as a 21st-century movie superstar. His Wild West Show and Congress of Rough Riders of the World (at its peak, it required 500 train cars to transport 100 entertainers and hundreds of horses and featured Annie Oakley and the great Lakota Sioux Chief Sitting Bull) performed all over the world. As extraordinary as his adult life came to be, his childhood years were equally the stuff of legend. Raised in Kansas during the violent struggle between pro-slavers and abolitionists, Cody was herding cattle behind a wagon train at age 11 and working as a fur trapper at 13 before, at 14, he signed on to the dangerous life of a Pony Express rider. Before joining the Union Army, he became part of a guerrilla band that crossed the border to slave-holding Missouri to steal horses. After serving in the Union Army as a scout and spy, Cody became a legendary buffalo hunter (earning him the nickname Buffalo Bill) and a guide for General Custer’s troops. In 1883, he created the first of the Wild West shows that would make him an international celebrity for the rest of his life.

Is it any good?

Filled with cowboys, wagon trains, cattle drives, Indians, Civil War spies, and European royalty, this riveting biography of Buffalo Bill has enough adventure for a Hollywood movie. Author Andrea Warren's liberal use of archival photos and illustrations bring a sense of time and place to the text and helps make the often-dreaded "history lesson" come alive. THE BOY WHO BECAME BUFFALO BILL presents the complex issue of slave and free states in a way that's understandable even for readers who might not yet have studied the subject.

Warren addresses but never discusses in depth two striking dualities in Cody's life: He earned his nickname by killing thousands of buffalo to feed workers on the railways going west, but he also was a conservationist. He fought and killed Indians while he was an Army scout and felt that they should cede their land to white settlers, but he was an open critic of their treatment by the U.S. government and honored them as respected members of his Wild West Show. This book will show readers that biographies can be even more exciting than fiction.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about self-reliance. Can you imagine being 11 or 12 and taking on some of the jobs that Bill Cody did to help his family?

  • After reading this book, do you think movies and TV accurately portray what it was like to grow up on the American frontier in the years before the Civil War?

  • Did you know that the fight against slavery took place outside of the South? Did the state in which you live ever allow slavery?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love history

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