What's the best fun in the whole village? Riding the patchwork bike we made! A joyous picture book for children by award-winning author Maxine Beneba Clarke.
When you live in a village at the edge of the No-Go Desert, you need to make your own fun. That's when you and your brothers get inventive and build a bike from scratch, using everyday items like an old milk pot (maybe mum is still using it, maybe not) and a used flour sack. You can even make a numberplate from bark, if you want. The end result is a spectacular bike, perfect for going bumpity-bump over sandhills, past your fed-up mum and right through your mud-for-walls home.
A delightful story from multi-award-winning author Maxine Beneba Clarke, beautifully illustrated by street artist Van T Rudd.
Maxine Beneba Clarke is an Australian writer and slam poetry champion of Afro-Caribbean descent. She is the author of the poetry collections Gil Scott Heron is on Parole (Picaro Press, 2009) and Nothing Here Needs Fixing (Picaro Press, 2013), the title poem of which won the 2013 Ada Cambridge Poetry Prize.
Her debut short story collection, Foreign Soil, won the 2013 Victorian Premier's Award for an Unpublished Manuscript and will be published by Hachette Australia in early 2014.
As a spoken word performer, Maxine's work has been delivered on stages and airways, and in festivals across the country, including at the Melbourne Writers Festival (2008, 2010, 2013), Melbourne International Arts Festival (2012), the Arts Centre (2009) and the Melbourne Jazz Fringe Festival (2013).
Maxine’s short fiction, essays and poetry have been published in numerous publications, including Overland, the Age, Big Issue, Cordite Poetry Review, Harvest, Voiceworks, Going Down Swinging, Mascara, Meanjin, Unusual Work and Peril.
She has been poetry editor of the academic journal Social Alternatives (2012), and spoken word editor for Overland literary journal (2011-12).
Maxine has conducted poetry classes and workshops for many organisations, including RMIT, The Victorian Association for the Teaching of English (VATE), Writers Victoria, Kensington Neighbourhood House and the Society of Women Writers (Vic).
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.
While the setting may not be familiar to many kids, I think the experience would be. I love the opening couple of lines of this book: -
This is the village where we live inside our mud-for-walls home. These are my crazy brothers and this is our fed-up mum.
We all know the fed-up mum right? We've all experienced her and some of us are even lucky enough to be her! And this is what I mean by the shared experience, regardless of the setting. Our main character and his crazy brothers get up to lots of mischief, but the best bit is on the bike they have built out of bits and pieces found lying around.
The illustrations like the bike are drawn on found, recycle cardboard and add beautifully to the wonderous creativity this book celebrates.
The Patchwork Bike has hidden depths if you want to look for them, or you can just enjoy a story of joyous creativity and fun.
The first thing I liked about this book was that no one 'saved' these children from their poverty; they weren't looking for someone to make their life 'better' and they just enjoyed being children - at least at first glance. And although I agree with most other comments about the great language, phrases, and simple illustrations done on cardboard, I have one major disagreement. This is the 4th book in recent weeks I've received that, to me, are based on political correctness and therefore, in my opinion, not appropriate for the Prek-5 children with whom I work. These are children who need to be allowed to be children. I will not indoctrinate them - rather I am teaching them to see more than one side of any situation or person. Although this book might be useful in the right hands as a teaching tool for older students, I will not be putting this one on my library shelves.
An award-winning poet and spoken-word artist, Clarke has created a picture book that shimmers and sings. It tells the story of a little girl whose brothers have created a bicycle out of scraps. Their family lives on the outskirts of the no-go desert and there is little all around them. The best thing though, is their bike. Built out of tin cans, buckets, bark and wood. It is enough to carry all of them back and forth, ignoring their fed-up mother as they whisk past.
The words in this picture book are meant to be shared aloud, coming alive as they are spoken. The rhythms emerge and the various invented and evocative words shine, such as “winketty wonk” and “shicketty shake.” Even the words she uses to describe the setting around them become tangible with the “stretching-out sky” above it all.
The illustrations are somehow equal to the glorious poetry. Done in acrylic on recycled cardboard, they have ghosts of tape and printed words still on them. The smooth texture of the cardboard is used next to ripped areas that show the corrugation and offer new textures to the images. This use of recycled material to tell the story of a scrap bike, sets just the right tone. And on that cardboard is a story of celebration and childhood.
One of the best picture books of the year! Appropriate for ages 3-6.
I was looking for kids books on bicycles/fixing bicycles, and got this based on the cover. I love the story, just about a girl and her brothers who make a bike from things they find around village. The book is 4-star, but I 2-star this because of some of the illustrations. They are well done, but two images seemed really out of place (kids dancing on a police car and the bike's license plate). The cover confirms the illustrator is a long-time activist. I really like the story and the art style, but won't be showing this to my kids due to the socialist propaganda in the images.
This was my favorite new picture book read of the week. The artwork and message are absolutely fantastic! It's about three children living in a village with mud-for-walls houses. They laugh and shriek and climb trees and use all sorts of odds and ends to create a bike. The creativity and joy are so very apparent. And the artwork was created on recycled cardboard!
Some of my very best memories from childhood are of times when I created something out of nothing. I remember building a go-cart from odds and ends we found in our friends trash pile. And I recall building forts out of wood and nails found in a construction scrap pile. So today when my middle child constantly asks if we can go by the lumber yard and dig through their excess pile (always with their permission), I try to go whenever possible. Because that's where some of the best memories begin!
Back matter includes both an author's note about the inspiration for this story and an illustrator's note about the artwork. You don't want to miss either one -- they will both provide an opportunity for discussion with children about poverty, play, and even about Black Lives Matter (which is connected to one of the illustrations with a police car).
For more children's literature, middle grade literature, and YA literature reviews, feel free to visit my personal blog at The Miller Memo!!
A girl and her two brothers don't have much, but find ways to have fun even in rough circumstances ("this is the village where we live inside out mud-for-walls home"), sliding down sand hills, climbing the Fiori tree, but most of all enjoying their bike, patchworked together with found items and handlebars made of branches. A testimony to ingenuity and the ability of kids to have fun and hope even when circumstances are less than ideal. This book is so textural, I kept feeling the pages, almost expecting to feel the corrugated cardboard that the illustrations are painted on. The use of cardboard boxes from washing machines, cribs, and computers as a canvas, complete with packing tape still stuck, helps the feeling of creating something from unconventional and reused materials, just as the kids do in the story. The cardboard also is the brown sand color of the "no-go desert." The author and illustrator's end notes give more insight into the imagery used and the meaning behind it.
Age: Toddler-Preschool Activism: Black Lives Matter, black pride Location: Unidentified rural desert Things that go: Bike Tough Issues: Poverty Identity/Our Voices: Author (Caribbean Australian) Illustrator (Australian)
"When you live in a village at the edge of the No-Go Desert, you need to make your own fun. That's when you and your brothers get inventive and build a bike from scratch, using everyday items like an old milk pot (maybe mum is still using it, maybe not) and a used flour sack."
This book is absolutely fascinating. It celebrates creativity, imagination, childhood joy, sibling bonding, fun sound effects, a relatable "fed-up" mum, Rudd's entrancing artwork laid atop cardboard boxes, unique perspectives and angles, and a normalized message of black pride and symbols of Black Lives Matter protests. The author and illustrator notes are essential reads. Truly a breathtaking contribution to children's lit.
I loved the illustrations in this book and the message that kids don’t need the fancy toys but can make something from nothing and have just as much fun. Make sure to read the authors and illustrations notes at the end because they add a lot to the story. What I didn’t love was the opening frame when her crazy brothers were jumping on a police car?? Not sure what message that is supposed to send to kids or how it connected to the story. Also, why was mum so fed up? Not sure what message that is supposed to send either. That even if mum says it’s time to clean up and come to dinner, that is okay to ignore and keep playing? I won’t be sharing this one either kids or colleagues.
Although I loved the style of the artwork and the concept of sharing an experience of children that is universal (the desire for a super cool bike!), the political messaging took away from that. The children jumping on a police car and other references, as well as their blatant disrespect for their mother, took away from what could have been a beautiful book. I wish books for kids could just be for kids.
I did not like certain aspects of this book - namely, the BLM (Black Lives Matter) reference, the crazy brothers jumping on the cop car and the underlying disregard for authority (the law and the mum). While the concept was creative and the illustrations interesting, it was not redeeming enough for me to ever read this again to my children.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
I hope this is not an ignorant thing to say, but it never occurred to me quite like this how much more creative and imaginative you have to be to play well as a poor child. Beautifully written and illustrated!
Can see pairing it with both books about poverty and books about creating items for both imaginary and real play. Can see why this originally 2016 Australian published book is getting so much buzz. Love the notes from both the author and illustrator.
In the current push for books representing diverse cultures and stories, this one is truly rare, especially when it comes to underdeveloped countries/communities. There is a serious need for books involving refugees, war-torn settings, and other dire circumstances. Bring 'em on! But this book is nothing like that. At all. And it is equally necessary. This is a jubilant celebration of childhood energy, creativity, and happiness. Street artist Van Than Rudd uses sheets of unfolded cardboard boxes as his canvas, including corrugation, rips, folds, and preprinted logos, icons, and labels. Media involves dense paint smears, realistically rendered complex objects, expressionistic close-ups and shadowy silhouettes. Important moments, features, objects, and actions are effectively emphasized with heavy black outlines. The illustrations are ideally suited to the full-bore, action-packed, simply-rhymed text in which the sister-narrator drives this story forward with as much aplomb as she rides her makeshift bike. Simple language is patched together to minimize text while maximizing impact ( "fed-up mom", "no-go desert", "patchwork bike", among many others). The bravado and brilliance of this girl are undeniable. It feels nearly miraculous that a story that could easily fell bleak turns irresistible and made even this "old lady" reader want to dive into the pages and take a turn riding that patchwork bike down the sand dunes. Something tells me that "fed-up mom" spends some moments gazing out the window at her children's adventures and longs to join in the romp. Please take a few extra minutes after reading this one to learn from the author's and illustrator's notes at the back of the book.
Oh, wow, do I love these illustrations like corrugated cardboard reminds of mud. There's the 'No-Go desert under the stretching-out sky" where a sister and her two brothers create a bike, from whatever they can find, "the best thing of all in our village" she tells. The bike and the kids' excitement steal the show on most pages, except when mentioning the 'fed-up mum' (perhaps they used a couple of things of hers for the bike?). Don't miss the author's and illustrator's notes at the end that illuminate their intent. Ms. Clarke writes: "The girl and boys in the story love their patchwork bike just as much as a kid with a brand-new, expensive BMX bike might love theirs--or maybe even more." This an award-winning book out of Australia.
Fun in an African (?) village on a bike made out of rubbish. Illustrations by Van T Rudd really make this book special. He uses found objects and old paper in the illustrations, mimicking the make up of the beloved bike. Superb.
This stunning book celebrates the intuitiveness, creativity, and engineering of kids and their ability to take the best out of their situation. And man, do I love the illustrations. Please make sure to read the author and illustrator notes because they truly tie the book together.