Review of the Day: The Patchwork Bike by Maxine Beneba Clarke, ill. Van Thanh Rudd
The Patchwork Bike
By Maxine Beneba Clarke
Illustrated by Van Thanh Rudd
On shelves now.
It took a little while, but at some point creators of children’s books realized that cardboard holds an almost supernatural power over the imaginations of small children. It is the ultimate building material. Strong and sturdy, yet malleable. Bonus: You can draw on it. Interestingly, in terms of plotting I’ve seen it mentioned in graphic novels far more often than picture books. Books like Cardboard by Doug TenNapel and Cardboard Kingdom by Chad Sell may even take it to an extreme level. There are a couple exceptions, of course. Not a Box by Antoinette Portis and What to do With a Box by Jane Yolen exist, but both emphasize the boxiness rather than the cardboardyness of the materials at hand. It got me to thinking. Can we get a book out there that appreciates less what cardboard does, and more how it acts and looks and feels? The Patchwork Bike by Maxine Beneba Clarke and illustrated by Van Thanh Rudd isn’t actually about cardboard at all, really. What it is about is having fun with the things that you make with your own hands. It’s only when you look closely that you see that the art itself is done on cardboard, reinforcing the theme, and giving this book the much needed heft it needs to carry the tale. Picture books are supposed to be a perfect amalgamation of text and image, and thanks to the use of cardboard, you get that in this stellar combination.
The setting is simple. This is a village, where home are constructed from mud, sitting on the edge of a vast desert. Our narrator is a sunglasses-clad black girl, who introduces the reader to her crazy brothers and her “fed-up” Muslim mom. The kids have fun climbing the Fiori tree or sliding down the sand mountain they constructed, sure, but the true fun for them comes when they get to ride their bike. It’s a mishmash amalgamation of wooden wheels, tin-can handles, and other parts scavenged around and about. Still, it has everything you’d want. A license plate, painted on lights, “and a bell that used to be Mum’s milk pot”. When these three kids skid around on their bike, they are unstoppable. This thing is theirs.
We talk a lot about the need for diversity in children’s literature and I’ve been very happy to see how books for kids in the last few years have shifted a little bit, just a little bit, away from the rote “here is my family” types of tales to stories in which they take their own lives for granted. If that makes any sense. The Patchwork Bike is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. One of my favorite two-page spreads shows a woman in a white hijab and dress walking down the street to the description, “and this is our fed-up mum.” In another two-page spread she’s seen again, but from behind, while she watches her three kids zoom by on their bike. They’re nothing more than a blaze and blur of color while she looks interestingly fuzzy to us, like our focus isn’t on her at all but just over her shoulder. The phrase “fed-up mum” is invoked for a second time here. I love that. I love that fed-up moms are universal. I feel like we need to see more of that in our books. Less patient, tireless, saintly parents from other cultures. More irritated, exhausted, fed-up, deeply human parents, please. Something we can relate to a little.
As for the quality of the writing itself, I liked very much Ms. Clarke’s use of repetition and the way she describes the kids’ everyday lives and village. “This is the big Fiori tree where we go jumping and climbing, out in the no-go desert, under the stretching-out sky.” When she describes the bike, new words that you instantly understand pop up. “It has a bent bucket seat and handlebar branches that shicketty shake when we ride over sand hills.” Later the wheels “winketty wonk” when they speed. These Seussian terms could strike you as overly precious if you were unready for them, but I liked their spunk. What they really do is give you a feel for the personality of the narrator (who, according to the Author’s Note at the end, is definitely female). You just look at her expression when she’s driving that bike. This is someone who is in control and loving every second of it.
Now I’m a mom. I have kids. I’ve drawn on cardboard before because that’s what parents do. And if you’ve ever drawn on it yourself then you’ll know that it’s a strange, unforgiving material. There are unexpected divots and dips to be found. Press too hard and the tip of your marker goes right through a weak spot. Then there’s that odd striation that prevents anyone from making a straight line. It would never in a million years have occurred to me that you could use that buckling and jittery quality as a way of heightening some aspect of a picture book’s plot. Rudd has cracked a code I didn’t even know existed, and he did it with acrylics. When he wants to show speed, like on the endpapers, he paints lengthwise, across the creases. The natural breaks in the paint emphasize speed. Later he paints below the image of a broken down police car and the paint looks like the reflection of water, disjointed and pooling into incongruous puddles.
I’ve seen a lot of children’s books try to replicate the look of cardboard, rather than use it as a template right from the start. The fact that Rudd is painting on cardboard is cool, but do not let it distract from the fact that the paintings themselves are marvelous, even when they’re being more straightforward than lines of motion. When the main character indicates her “crazy brothers”, you notice that reflected in the lenses of her sunglasses are what look to be mountains and valleys of deep purples and blues. Look too how Mr. Rudd is constantly changing the perspective of the reader. You’re above the kids looking down. No, you’re looking at them straight on. Now they’re just tiny silhouettes on a hill. Now they’re so big the page can only encompass half a face. You could probably write whole essays on the choices the artist makes with this title.
At the end of the book is a somewhat unique page containing both an Author’s Note and an Illustrator’s Note, with photos of both of the creators. Because this book was originally released in Australia, the two have a sense of distance and perspective that they’re able to bring to this new American edition. Ms. Clarke discusses the Muslim mother character, how kids have connected to the book since its release, and the landscape of poverty. Mr. Rudd takes a slightly different tactic. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, he took care to make sure that the two brothers in the book invoke both “don’t shoot” hand movements and the ballerina on top of the Wall Street bull sculpture during Occupy Wall Street. When the kids create a bark license place, it reads “BLM”, making this perhaps one of the few picture books out there to invoke the movement multiple times this directly.
My kids are always game for a new picture book, so I toted this one out a recent morning to see what their reaction would be. They looked at it with interest. The setting and characters were new to them, but they didn’t find anything difficult to understand. It was only when it ended that my daughter expressed some disappointment. “There’s not much of a story”, she said. She then explained that once we saw the bike we’d get to see the kids engage in some kind of an adventure. Instead, to her mind all we did was see what the bike was and that was it. I can see what she’s saying. There are no heroes or villains in this piece. I’d hoped that she might be inspired a bit by the art, but to be fair she’s always thought of cardboard as great stuff. So, there you go. I’ll level with you. Plot forward, it is not. That’s not its purpose or intent but if you have a kid that thinks of books only in terms of advancing a story, best to give them a heads up beforehand that this isn’t that.
What this book reminds me of, almost more than anything else, is Radiant Child by Javaka Steptoe. In both cases you have an artist taking found materials (discarded wood in one case and cardboard in another), painting on that material, and turning it into something truly beautiful. Of course one of those two books was set in America and this book is set in an unnamed village in an unnamed country. Recently I heard someone note that when you make a booklist and you include the stories of black children, you should make an effort to include some tales that contain, what they called, black joy. Kids having fun. Being silly. Being adventurous. Having the times of their lives. This book exudes that very joy. It alludes to police brutality, economic disparities, and the Black Lives Matter movement while at the same time showing children having a great time thanks to their own devices. Cardboard is a flexible material. This book has flexible uses. Use both wisely and well.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Interviews: Stop by Let’s Talk Picture Books to get a behind-the-scenes look at how Van Thanh Rudd created this art, showcasing some beautiful sketches and lots and lots of the man’s work. This is a must-read.
Misc: Learn more about the art at the Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast feature with Van Thanh Rudd.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy 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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