2020 Gift Guide: My Favorite Picture Book for the Elementary Crowd

October 22, 2020 § 3 Comments

As a nervous flyer, I never thought I’d write this, but I really miss getting on airplanes. Traveling is something I’ve never taken for granted, but I’m not sure I realized just how much I crave it until it wasn’t an option. I miss stepping off a plane, filled with the adrenaline of adventures ahead. I miss unfamiliar restaurants and museums. I miss natural wonders so far from my everyday environs it’s hard to believe they’re on the same planet. I miss squishing into a single hotel room, each of us climbing into shared beds after a day of sensory overload and, one by one, closing our eyes. I can’t wait until we can travel again.

In the meantime, we look to books to fuel our longing to see the world, to keep alive this thirst for the unfamiliar and the undiscovered. No picture book this year delivers on this promise quite like Girl on a Motorcycle (Ages 5-9), by Amy Novesky, illustrated by Julie Morstad, based on the actual adventures of Anne-France Dautheville, the first woman to ride a motorcycle around the world alone. From her hometown of Paris to Canada, India, Afghanistan, Turkey, and other exotic destinations, we travel alongside this inquisitive, fiercely independent girl as she heeds the call of the open road.

Morstad is no stranger to illustrating picture book biographies—It Began With a Page: How Gyo Fujikawa Drew the Way made last year’s Gift Guide—and part of her remarkable talent stems from adapting her illustrative style to the subject at hand, while still creating a look and feel entirely her own. In Girl on a Motorcycle, Morstad infuses a ’70s palette of glowy browns and moody mauves onto the dusty backdrops of the Middle East, the dense evergreens of the Canadian countryside, and the ethereal sunrises. Additionally, Morstad gives the protagonist herself a kind of badass glamour every bit as alluring as the scenery itself. How can we not fall for someone who packs lipstick next to a “sharp knife”? It’s as if Vogue jumped on the back of a motorcycle, slept in a tent at night, and made friends with locals along the way.

When we first meet our heroine, she’s perched in an open window, a journal at her feet and the Eiffel Tower in the distance. It is Paris, 1973, and the girl yearns “to write” and “to wander,” ideally at the same time. She dreams of going Elsewhere…“so one day the girl gets on a motorcycle and she rides away.”

Of course, it’s not as simple as it sounds. A double page spread lays out all the things the girl packs for her trip. The selection speaks to the girl’s personality—her unwillingness to compromise her femininity while stepping into a traditionally male pursuit—and to how dangerous and unconventional the journey will be. How many people need wrenches and tire irons alongside “a pretty white dress” and a pair of wedge sandals? What about a coffee mug and a blank notebook alongside antibiotics and bandages?

Throughout the book, Novesky and Morstad take care to humanize our intrepid explorer, allowing young readers to connect with her. Before she sets out, the girl has doubts: “A little voice says, It’s dangerous to go around the world all by yourself. It says, you will miss your cat, your clothes, Mozart.” But our girl chooses to listen to another voice, one urging her to “listen to the road.” After riding past her favorite Parisian landmarks one last time, she “takes off into the world,” as glam as ever in her tinted goggles and silk scarf.

Her first destination is Canada, and for that she has to board a plane across the ocean before the freedom of traveling by motorcycle. Once on her bike, she experiences swaths of wide roads, rural towns, and campsites, where more than a few people stare, unaccustomed to a girl traveling both alone and on a motorcycle. Much the way her travels straddle pragmatism and poetry, the book’s text juxtaposes “how to” bits about making fires or changing tires against lyrical descriptions like, “the air thick with mystery, moss, and strawberries.”

The girl might travel for days without seeing anyone—the stillness “broken only by the hum of her motorcycle engine”—or she might trade in her motorcycle helmet for a white dress and pancakes at a roadside diner. We have the sense that wherever she is, on her back under the aurora borealis or sharing coffee with a stranger, she feels at peace with this life on the road.

Eventually, she boards a plane to Bombay, where the bustling ricksaws—and are those elephants?!—couldn’t feel more different than the Canadian countryside she left behind. Outside Bombay, the road opens up, and she observes mud houses and women in fields wearing saris.

The hiccups the girl encounters are as fascinating as the shifting landscape. Her bike runs out of gas. Her bike breaks down. A lot. But when she can’t fix something herself, she has a chance to meet new people, to immerse herself a little deeper in the culture. She pays mechanics with “hand-drawn hearts” and receives henna drawings on her own hands by local children who wait with her. That she encounters kindness wherever she goes is a reassuring message for our future travelers.

In Afghanistan, she explores Kabul and Kandahar, “faraway places the girl once dreamed of,” curving around mountain passes, unleashing clouds of desert dust behind her, and stopping to dip her feet in sapphire-blue rivers. She has to push her broken-down bike up a steep mountain, where she is rewarded by two enormous carved Buddhas, each sixteen centuries old (and since destroyed). When she climbs to the top of one, she can see the entire horizon.

The girl may embrace exploration, but she also models what it means to sit in stillness, to reflect and feel gratitude in foreign places. Atop the Buddha, where the only sounds are her clothes rustling and her heart beating, “it just might be the most beautiful moment in the girl’s life.”

The next few pages are devoted to deeper interactions with the people of Afghanistan, and they are some of my daughter’s favorites: the girl bargains for silver jewelry at a market; takes tea on a rug; and draws a picture of the Eiffel Tower in the dirt road to illustrate where she comes from to a group of curious children. One child takes her by the hand and gives her a tour of her school and her home.

The girl continues across Turkey, where children chase after her motorcycle to see if she’s really a girl. We’re given the French and English translation of something the girl will later publish among her writings: “I want the world to be beautiful, and it is beautiful. I want people to be good, and they are good.” Accompanying these words is one of my favorite drawings, with the girl’s pupils reflecting the open road.

Travel leaves a lasting mark, as much on our hearts as on the way we perceive the world and our place in it. Back home in Paris, the girl reunites with her cat and her window perch, but she also recognizes she’s no longer quite the same as she once was. “Sunburned, bruised, and beaming,” “she wears the world like a beautifully embroidered scarf, all the places she’s been, the things she’s seen.”

Elsewhere is out there. It waits for our children as much as for us. Perhaps this book will inspire some of the curiosity and courage that will someday launch them into distant corners of the world.

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Review copy by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House. All opinions are my own. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases through the links above, although I prefer we also shop local and support our communities when we can.

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