A history book for kids can do any number of things. It can concentrate on a topic that has been well-documented in adult books, synthesizing and simplifying the text so that a 10-year-old could understand what is written there. Or it can do original research, never seen before on the adult page, culling from a variety of sources and coming up with something wholly new. The former nonfiction history book is pretty common. Even bestsellers like An Inconvenient Truth and Fast Food Nation end up with younger dinkier versions like the young reader’s An Inconvenient Truth and Chew On This. The latter is rare, but it happens. Yet every once in a while you’ll come across something like Chris Barton’s Day-Glo Brothers which was the first published book EVER to tell the story of the men who invented that particular color scheme. More recently, Sue Macy has gone a similar route with her newest National Geographic title. Wheels of Change pairs the history of the bicycle with the history of women’s rights, showing quite convincingly how one influenced the other (and vice versa).
Macy begins her book with a short essay by Leah Missbach Day, co-founder of World Bicycle Relief, which vows to provide bikes to those in need. Through her eyes we see women around the globe coming into their own all thanks to the power of the bike. With this idea fresh in our minds, we watch the rise of the bicycle itself. Its history, its influence, the changes it went through, etc. Slowly, we also see how its very appearance affected women. Suddenly girls had a mobility they’d never encountered before. The new invention caught on like wildfire amongst women as diverse as Annie Oakley and Marie Curie. There was some resistance to the idea of girls on bikes, sure, but Ms. Macy takes care to show how bicycles inspired everything from new fashions to daredevil races. Her story stops in the early twentieth century (in tandem with the slow rise of the automobile) and she includes in the back of the book a hugely helpful timeline of “Highlights in cycling and women’s history”, a list of Resources (including books, web sites, and places to visit like the Bicycle Museum of America and the Metz Bicycle Museum), Sources, and an Index.
The important thing to establish here is how cooped up and restrained (in every possible sense) women were prior to their bicycle-based escapades. There needs to be a palpable sense of release when you see these women zooming about on their two wheeled contraptions, and I would have liked to have seen a little more of the restriction of women prior to seeing them biked up. The book begins by simply delving into the history of the bike itself, from boneshakers to penny farthings. Then the author slowly works in the women. You might not even notice at first, but near the start there will be a page of bicycle-related patents from the late 1880s and 1890s, as created by women. Or there will be a picture showing a woman in 1893 on a “Lady’s Pedestrian Hobby-Horse.” By the time the book points out that bikes were marketed to women not as a rights issue, but rather with a mere profit-motive in mind, the book has seamlessly integrated the history of women with the history of the bike. Chapter Three backpeddles (ha ha) a little in showing women’s fashions and limitations (has anyone ever considered producing an adequately horrifying Gibson Girl Barbie, by the way?), then nicely turns into a discussion of bloomers and other accoutrements women would wear on their new modes of transportation. Personally, I would have liked the third chapter to have been the second, but it’s a small quibble.
Not that any of this went unnoticed by the self-designated guardians of public decency, of course. In fact, it’s difficult not to compare the bicycle backlash to the teens-with-automobiles backlash of the 50s and 60s. Where there is available travel (and the chance to escape prying eyes) there will also be accusations of licentiousness and lewd behavior. Of course, the critics of women on bikes were not limiting themselves to merely criticizing the bike’s ability to escape chaperones, but rather the very idea of a women balancing on such equipment. Was it or was it not ladylike behavior? In light of their talks it’s amazing not that women took to the bikes, but that they had access to them in the first place.
A book of this sort could have come across as dry and dull as old toast, were it not for Macy’s sparkling writing, the eclectic design of each and every page (a National Geographic staple in books for kids), and the sheer number of photographs to be found here. In fact, I would like to state for the record that Ms. Macy has gone the extra, yet necessary, mile of locating not just images of young white women on bikes but images of young black women too. There are at least two photographs and one drawn image of African-American women standing beside or riding their bicycles. Too often when we read accounts of women’s rights and the rise of feminism, the authors will forget that it wasn’t just a movement of white girls. Macy takes care to find what she can on the subject, scant though it might be, to give the book a more rounded historical outlook.
Part of the reason that nonfiction books for kids that produce original research are so rare is that they don’t slot neatly into the five historical categories that elementary school tests will be looking for. No standardized test will ever ask for an essay about the relationship between the rise of the bicycle and the rise of women’s consciousness and freedom. For that reason, it will take dedicated librarians, teachers, and booksellers to get it into the hands of its intended audience. Kids are helped by the fact that it’s so visually stimulating. Constant photographs, drawings, newspaper articles, advertising cards, and other ephemera crop up to aid in the reading. Some children will be the dedicated sorts who start at the beginning and work their way through to the end, while others will prefer to dip in, skim, and keep to the images and their informative captions. Both are legitimate uses of the book. Both serve a purpose.
Out of curiosity, I checked to see how the Library of Congress categorized this particular book. I found that they prefer to place the book under the subject “1. Cycling for women–United States–History.” Well, luck to you if you hope to find a companion novel in your children’s section under that subject heading. Macy herself provides many a fine title in her Resources section at the back of the book, but you will find all the titles there are for adults. To find such a book for kids is rare and wonderful. To find that the book itself is ALSO rare and wonderful is just a nice plus. A great idea, a fine follow through, and a subject that has been too little considered until now. It’s enough to make you want to grab a helmet and a bike and to try it out for yourself.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
- Where the Best Books Are
- The Boogle
- Of Books and Bicycles
- Commute by Bike
- Women’s Memoirs
Other Reviews: Twenty by Jenny
- Designer Marty Ittner has a fascinating piece about the design of this book and how it came about, including many insightful details over at I.N.K.
- Listen to Ms. Macy herself talk about how she came to write the book here.
- Go to Sue’s website to find a great List to 1890s Cycling Writing.
And of course there is a book trailer.