Review of the Day: The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle by Christina Uss
The term “quirky” has gotten a bad rap recently. I blamed forced quirk. Have you ever read or watched something where the book or movie is just trying too darn hard to make you fall in love with the story? Happens all the time, my friend. You see, lots of folks mistake “goofy” or “incongruous” with true quirkiness. Then there’s the fact that poorly done quirk wears out its welcome pretty quickly. Sustained quirk is an artform. It makes an agreement with the consumer to suspend just the right amount of disbelief. Suspend too much and you’ve tipped into magical realism. Suspend too little and the entertainment you’re attempting to consume just feels kind of sad. And if you had told me that a professional bicyclist / bike writer would straddle that line with great aplomb, I would have been skeptical. Happily, the world does not check in with me first when books of this sort get published. The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle isn’t all that normal. That’s the good news. The better news is that the book is also a hoot and a half. Filled to brimming with a good smattering of healthy quirk, it’s a quixotic quest book, a paean to the American landscape, and there are pigs. What else could you want?
When you’re raised with Mostly Silent Monks you’re going to be different from other kids. That’s Bicycle for you. Abandoned at the monastery when she was just a small child, wearing an oversized bicycle t-shirt, the girl has been mostly brought up by the kind, but no-nonsense, ex-Nearly Silent Nun, Sister Wanda. Now Wanda has decided that after all her years of homeschooling, Bicycle needs some real friends. She aims to send the child off to a camp to help her do just that, not knowing the girl has other plans in mind. She’s just discovered that her idol, the famous cyclist Zbig Sienkiewicz, will be in San Francisco for a Blessing of the Bikes. Convinced that he should be her friend, she sets off to bike from the east coast to the west. What she doesn’t count on is that she’ll need to contend with adoring horses, pigs, ghosts, sentient machines, men in chicken suits, and more along the way. Fortunately, it may turn out that there’s more than one way to make a friend. Sometimes you just need to listen.
I’m married to a guy who spends a lot of time dissecting stories to figure out why they work. He wrote a book on the subject and seems to know what he’s talking about. One bit of his advice came to mind as I read Bicycle. He says that when you have a hero, it’s a very good thing if they solve their own problems by utilizing some kind of a “special skill” acquired when they were younger. Like when Luke Skywalker says shooting into the Death Star is possible because he used to shoot tiny womp rats when he was young. In the case of this book, Bicycle has a special skill of her own. More than once she discovers that careful listening, something she picked up from the monks, is actually a very smart way of dealing with other people. Time and again, Uss weaves together the plotlines and threads of her story in a smart, succinct way. It’s tricky with quixotic quests to keep the main character learning and growing, while also keeping everything moving along the way. Uss tackles that trickiness with the skill of a seasoned professional.
Bicycle’s quest is an interesting one, since it harkens back to a lot of classic works of literature. The hero sets out to do something and encounters a wide range of characters along the way, some good, some bad. But like Ramona Quimby, I was always one of those kids that got hung up on the unspoken details. Like, if a 12-year-old is biking across the country then (A) where is she going to get food and (B) where is she going to go to the bathroom? The second question isn’t all that dire (let’s just say there are a lot of wooded groves in this great big country of ours), but the first is unavoidable. Uss finds a wide variety of clever solutions to solve that query and while I did occasionally find them a teensy bit too convenient, who cares? At least there are a couple working theories out there.
So here’s the kicker. The book clocks in at a healthy 307 pages or so, but flies as you read it. It’s fun with a lot of humor to it. And yes, it’s about a girl obsessed with bicycles, but you don’t have to love them to enjoy the book. There are high points, and low points. Grand adventures and strange occurrences. It would be a fantastic readaloud for a class or at bedtime, but I can also see kids picking it up and enjoying it on their own. Long story short, it’s a pip. The kind of book I read a review copy of and then really wanted to own. I don’t say that about a lot of books, and I can’t wait to read this one to my daughter when she’s just a little bit older. Sometimes you need a book for kids that as funny as it is fun. This title fits the bill. Darned enjoyable.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Cover Credit: By the way, the cover of this book (to say nothing of the map inside) was created by the inestimable Jonathan Bean. I just wanted to give the man a shout-out. He clearly read the book all the way through, as he references a lot of very specific plot points.
Misc: A truly great writer is one that pays homage to the other writers in their field. I was very pleased and impressed to discover that Ms. Uss takes great care to highlight all kinds of bike books for kids on her website. The kicker is that she has books as old as Ramona Quimby, Age 8 and as new as this year’s fabulous picture book Get On Your Bike by Jouke Akveld & Philip Hopman. Well done!
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.
SLJ Blog Network