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A Fuse #8 Production
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Review of the Day: My Papi Has a Motorcycle by Isabel Quintero, ill. Zeke Peña

In American culture the motorcycle has long stood as a symbol of freedom and escape. Easy Rider, The Wild One, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (sorta), these are all books and films that equate motorcycles with independence. So what is the role of the motorcycle in children’s books? To answer that, I had to come to the realization that by and large, motorcycles aren’t very common in books for kids. Aside from Hagrid gunning through the sky and the occasional title like Granny the Pag (which is worth Googling, if you have a minute or two to spare) motorcycles are usually swapped out for bikes. And bikes kids have in abundance. They’re fairly common. Motorcycles, on the other hand, are magnificent and rare. Given all of this, you would think that in a book like My Papi Has a Motorcycle, the heroine, Daisy, would ride around with her Papi, fantasizing about all the other places in the world she might visit. What makes this book interesting is that it is exactly the opposite of that expectation. At no point that Daisy wish herself anywhere but where she is. When you are young and in your home, you notice things the adults might not. Blink, and you might just miss something. Something like this book.

Everyday, when Daisy’s father’s truck pulls into her driveway, she tears outside with both of their helmets. It doesn’t matter if he’s exhausted from his day of building other people’s houses. Without fail, he will pull her helmet tight and the two will tear off on his motorcycle for a ride around town. Set in Corona, California (former “Lemon Capital of the World”) Quintero’s pens an exquisite ode to her childhood home, even as Zeke Peña brings every detail, from a Labradoodle to a shaved ice, to rip-roaring life beneath his pen.

A book may have something to say, but how it says it makes all the difference. Read this book repeatedly and you can’t help but feel grateful when Quintero includes lines like, “The sun, the sun, the bright orange sun is on its way down, turning our sky blue and purple and gold.” Her words beg you to read them aloud and savor their cadences, like a dark chocolate from your pillow. But let’s back up even further. Writing pretty words can be hard, but how do you even begin to construct a picture book plot around a motorcycle ride? This book is devoid of an obvious villain, save for those forces that would cause Don Rudy’s Raspados de Frutas Naturales to close (and even that works out, in its way, at the book’s end). That means that Ms. Quintero must somehow simultaneously narrate Daisy’s ride, offer running commentary on her appreciation of the town itself, and give some context to the places father and daughter visit in their wake. This isn’t a quest story because the only goal here is to do a loop and return home. If the book is a love letter to Corona, California, then that’s in large part because the setting is, itself, the third main character. This is a book about loving where you are and appreciating what’s around you at all times. The characters aren’t changed by the experience in any great and grand way. This is that rarest of all beasts: a tale of a perfectly happy girl doing something fun with no ultimate end goal in mind. You can make a story out of that? As odd as it may sound, you betcha. But to do it well, defer to Isabel Quintero.

For fun, I try to pinpoint the exact moment I became aware of artist Zeke Peña’s work. But it’s not a difficult question. It happened in 2015, when the Cinco Puntos Press YA novel Gabi: A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero (name sound familiar, anyone?) became the winner of the William C. Morris Award for a YA Debut Novel. The cover of that book looked absolutely nothing like any of the other YA samey same same books cranked out by the big name publishers. I was intrigued and a little repelled by the book’s jacket. What’s truly remarkable, though, is how wide a range Peña has. Surrealism comes to him naturally, but he can be as factual and straight edge as the best of them (see: Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide by . . . . Isabel Quintero?!?). My Papi Has a Motorcycle marks his first fictional picture book, which is dangerous. Whenever a professional illustrator turns their sights on the children’s book publishing world, there is a distinct danger that they will dumb down whatever it is that makes them great. Not so here. In this book he’s gone a little more straight edge, but the flavor of his best work remains.

In this book, Peña uses eclectic visual elements to aid in the storytelling. The bike and its riders become “a spectacular celestial thing” on a page of white hot energy alongside the fires of a pure orange ground. Watch the typography of the words on the page. The way in which Peña changes the angle at which you watch the action, sometimes close or far or from above or down below, etc. Take stock of the details of the city itself and how perfectly the artist renders a cactus against a chain link fence. Then consider the color palette. How the book feels like a mix of comics and reality right down to the speech balloons. This is the man’s first picture book? I don’t know how much work it was to get this book into this shape, but after a debut of this sort, clearly he can never, ever stop making them again.

Two recent picture books come immediately to mind when I talk about this book. The first is the Boston Globe-Horn Book Picture Book Award winner The Patchwork Bike by Maxine Beneba Clarke and Van Thanh Rudd. The second is Vroom! by Barbara McClintock. Patchwork Bike involves friends in a small unnamed village in the continent of Africa who have patched together a bike and who ride it joyously in their spare time. Like this book, that one wasn’t about escape, but about the sheer thrill of the ride itself. And like this book, so much of the art is there to convey movement and excitement and sharp turns. Vroom! by McClintock may seem a strange pairing but it also involves a young girl going as fast as her mechanical monster will carry her. In that book a child traverses the world and yet always returns home. In this, a girl travels from, but also within, her home.

Children are forever being picked up and taken to new locations without their input or consent. In this book you can see a kid taking the initiative. Daisy’s papi may be doing the driving, but she’s the one he’s doing it for. And meanwhile, Quintero and Peña are doing this book for YOUR children. Let us, then, all be truly grateful. A father/daughter tale unlike any other out there today. Let’s drive!

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.

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