Major Taylor: Champion Cyclist by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by James E. Ransome.
Antheneum Books for Young Readers imprint, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2004.
Picture book biography, 32 pages.
Lexile: AD1020L (What does AD mean in Lexile?)
AR Level: 5.7 (worth 0.5 points)
Major Taylor became the World Champion of cycling in the early 1900s. He combined perseverance, an incredible athleticism, and a little luck to set world records and popularize the sport of bicycling in America. Yet his story is largely unknown today.
The cover did not draw me in. Luckily that was the worst part of the book and the interior illustrations were much more to my liking. The text to picture balance indicates that this is meant for older picture book readers, maybe even middle school students. While there isn’t any content to prevent young readers from enjoying this book, the vocabulary is challenging (velodrome, glimpse, explosive) enough to require adult assistance for most elementary school students.
This wouldn’t be a good fit for group read-aloud to young children. At times there is a full page of text opposite an illustration, and the illustrations are dark and loose a lot of detail from a distance. I think it would be a great fit for a one-on-one read or family storytime though.
The children didn’t entirely agree. The older ones listened to the entire story, but said it was too long and they didn’t like the illustrations. I think the reason is that there isn’t a sense of motion in the pictures. The oil painting format can be very vibrant but doesn’t lend itself well to a lot of motion, so even the bicycle racing scenes seem less dynamic than, for example, the scratchboard style of Brian Pinkney.
While we didn’t agree about all aspects of this book, it started a lively discussion. We talked about the time period Marshall Taylor grew up in, the privilege of even owning a bicycle at that time, and the dynamics behind his being hired at the first shop. (He was hired to do bicycle tricks and entice white people to buy bicycles, with the racial subtext being that people felt if a black boy could ride a bicycle, any white person could.) Much of this also occurred in the Midwest or New England, areas not traditionally thought of as prejudiced.
This book could also open a discussion about how age changes our view of black men. As a child doing bike tricks, he was a marvel, but after becoming an adult, people saw and treated him much differently in America. He had to go to France for his most famous races, and his life after retiring from racing was difficult.
While Jackie Robinson continues to be a household name, “Major” Marshall Taylor “spent his final years trying unsuccessfully to sell copies of his book to former bicycle riders and fans while living in the YMCA” (page 32) and was buried in a pauper’s grave. A sad ending to the life of the second black world champion in any sport. The book explains most of this in the end note, so kids end on the high of Marshall winning an important race.
The word Negro is used, but it was fairly easy to substitute black man in most cases. Marshall was referred to as “the Flying Negro”, which was trickier but still possible if a child has a strong reaction to the word Negro.
While there were some technical difficulties with this 2004 book, I’d still recommend it. We learned a lot about Major Taylor and the early days of bicycling, and it’s good to explore the lives of lesser known heroes. I especially commend the team for creating this book before studying black history was trendy, and will be looking for Taylor’s autobiography to read for myself.