Under a Painted Sky

Book review by
Lucinda Dyer, Common Sense Media
Under a Painted Sky Book Poster Image
Girls pose as boys in suspenseful, nontraditional Western.

Parents say

age 14+
Based on 2 reviews

Kids say

age 12+
Based on 8 reviews

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

A welcome look at life on the Oregon Trail that does not center on shoot-outs and Indians attacking wagon trains. Lots of everyday information about what settlers ate, what they carried in their wagons, and how many of them were immigrants looking for a new life in America. Readers will learn that slavery was not confined to the South but existed in states such as Missouri and bounty hunters could pursue runaway slaves such as Andy even after they fled West toward California. Readers also will learn a bit about Chinese philosophy and how the animal signs of the Chinese zodiac are believed to influence your personality and destiny. Kids interested in geography will be able to find many of the places mentioned in the book on contemporary maps.

Positive Messages

Judge people by what lies beneath, not by skin color, ethnicity, or society's standards.

Positive Role Models & Representations

In 1849, Sammy (Chinese-American), Andy (African-American), West and Cay (white brothers), and Peety (Mexican-American) make an unlikely alliance on the trip West because they don't judge one another by how society says people should see and relate to one another. As Samatha and Annamae as well as Sammy and Andy, the girls are resourceful, courageous, and unfailingly loyal. In their new identities as teen boys, they tackle the "cowboy training" required by West, Peety, and Cay with spirit and good humor and learn to ride, rope, and shoot.


An attempted rapist is killed, a man dying of cholera is shot to end his pain, several people are wounded by gunshots, and two bounty hunters meet violent ends by drowning and hanging.


As the story unfolds, there is a subtle undercurrent of confused sexual attraction -- more poignant than provocative -- between West and Peety and the two girls they still believe are teenage boys. A few kisses after Sammy's real identify is revealed.


The words "Chinkies" and "blackies" are used, and Sammy is called a "whore."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Sammy gets drunk on hard cider, and wine is served when they go to dinner with a French family traveling on the wagon train.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Under a Painted Sky is a racially diverse Western set along the Oregon Trail in 1849 that features strong nonsterotypical characters of Chinese, African, and Mexican descent. Two girls -- one accused of murder and the other a runaway slave -- disguise themselves as boys and join up with three young cowboys heading West to California. There's some violence, none of it gratuitous, and occasional racial slurs ("Chinkies" and "blackies"). As the friendship between the "boys" and two of the cowboys deepens, there's some deftly handled romantic tension. Serious lessons in the social history of the time are skillfully blended into a lively, suspenseful, and fast-moving story.  

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byLast Mango June 24, 2016

Fun adventure for slightly older crowd!

I enjoyed this book thoroughly, but as your younger reviewers have indicated, twelve seems young for your age group. This is one of those rare books where it... Continue reading
Adult Written byStacy S. April 25, 2017

Difficult Material

My 13 year-old daughter bought this book because it had a Chinese character (like her) and horses (her passion). She was shocked at the rape scene, and abandone... Continue reading
Kid, 11 years old March 24, 2019

Good, but inappropriate

I read this for a book group, and it is a good book! Despite that, it does have a lot of violence and language.
Teen, 13 years old Written byfloridariese February 28, 2019

"Under A Painted Sky" was one of the best books I've ever read!

I read this when I was 10, and I loved it! I feel that it is intense at some parts, it gives a really good message to girls and different races. I feel that it... Continue reading

What's the story?

Samantha and Annamae are girls on the run in UNDER A PAINTED SKY. Samantha has killed a man, and Annamae is willing to risk everything to escape life as a slave. Knowing they will be easily recognized -- Samantha is Chinese-American and Annamae African-American -- they decide to disguise themselves as teen boys named Sammy and Andy, flee Missouri, and travel West. Sammy hopes to catch up with a friend of her father who's already heading to California, and Andy is searching for her brother, who may belong to a notorious outlaw gang. A chance meeting with three young cowboys offers them both friendship and protection against the very real perils of the Oregon Trail. But both girls have a bounty on their heads and are in constant danger of their real identities being revealed.  

Is it any good?

Beautifully written and immensely readable, Stacey Lee's first novel puts an unexpected and richly detailed spin on Western fiction standards -- horses, cowboys, wagon trains, pioneers, outlaws. It deftly blends them with serious social issues like slavery, discrimination, and gender bias. Sammy and Andy, who could easily have become characters out of a cliché "switched identities" movie, are instead fresh and believable as wannabe cowboys. Lee's multicultural cast of characters lends authenticity (so often lacking) to a story about settling the West.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about friendship among teens who come from different ethnic backgrounds. How easy -- or likely -- is it for kids in your school or neighborhood to have friends of a different ethnicity? 

  • What's your favorite movie or TV show about the American West? Were you surprised there were no gunfights or wagon trains being attacked by Indians in Under a Painted Sky? Did the book give you a different perspective on what life was like along the Oregon Trail?

  • Do you agree with the author when she writes that "maybe what matters is not so much the path as who walks beside you"?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love history

Themes & Topics

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