Amy Novesky has no interest in writing a standard biography. I’m thinking specifically of her books, Cloth Lullaby: the Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois; Mi, Frida; and Imogen: The Mother of Modernism and Three Boys. I imagine her focusing a wide angle lens on her subject, then combing through every wavelength of light until it becomes one coherent beam that illuminates the narrative she finally puts down on paper. In other words, she doesn’t so much give you a recounting as reveal the core idea or essence of their lives, as she sees it.
In Girl on a Motorcycle, Novesky takes on the true story of a young woman who hops on a motorcycle in Paris and rides around the world. What on the surface looks like an epic physical journey, turns out to be an epic internal journey as well, one of self-discovery.
It’s 1973. A young woman is restless. She yearns to see the world beyond her window in Paris. She wants to go “elsewhere.” That is the operative word. And so she does.
But for those kids who may want a few more details, we get her packing list, one that contains the things she will need for her journey. We get a sense of her pragmatic nature by seeing her tool kit, a fork and spoon, a pan, a tarp, and a sleeping bag…as well as her sense of style by the addition of lipstick, a pretty white dress, and sandals.
Text ©️Amy Novesky, Illustration ©️Julie Morstad
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.
Another voice says, Be quiet. Listen to the road.
And so she does. She listens to the road.
And the road says, Vas. Go.
Thus begins her journey, taking her and her motorcycle by jet from Paris to Montreal, where she starts her ride across Canada.
She stays at campgrounds. Along the way, Novesky offers up descriptions that give us a rich sense of place—
Morning smells of damp earth, grass, and wildflowers.
The air thick with mystery, moss, and strawberries.
— coupled with instructions on how to make a campfire.
The girl drives through places in Canada where she is completely alone, but she doesn’t feel afraid. “She feels free.“
Other nights, it is clear.
And above her, stars sparkle and spin,
planets form, galaxies swirl….
We float in that lake with her, looking up at the stars, sensing how we are but a tiny particle in this universe. Novesky’s lyrical language is always as luminous as the illustrations paired with her text. The jewel tones of amethyst and emerald in this spread create a sense of magic and wonder, akin to the colors of the Northern Lights, and make me want to head out into the middle of nowhere right NOW.
Once she reaches Alaska, the girl and her motorcycle fly to Tokyo. She rides through Japan and then flies to Bombay. From there, she cycles through India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Austria, Germany, and back home. Just writing this gives me the itch to hit the road! It’s been too long!
And along the way, the girl meets people who are kind, who help her fix flat tires and breakdowns, underscoring her belief that’s printed on the back cover:
The world is beautiful.
The world is good.
Feeling curious and respectful of those she meets, her experience cements this belief. Not to diminish the courage it took for her to make this trip, or take away from the truth of her experiences, I would add that these are, however, the experiences and views of a white woman with a fair amount of privilege.
Perhaps this aspect is what inspired a portion of the author’s note:
What I wish for all young citizens of the world, for every human being on this incredible planet, is the ability and freedom to travel, to wander, and to lust for elsewhere, to meet people, to experience through their own eyes and hearts that the world is beautiful and good. Because I believe, dear reader, that it is.
The pencil, ink, and digitally rendered illustrations by Julie Morstad evoke a sense of the vastness of this world, the varied landscape and its inhabitants, and how alone the girl must have felt so many times during her journey. But they also depict some tender moments between the girl and those she meets, a lovely juxtaposition. I’d use this book to inspire curiosity about the world and those around us as well as encourage readers to develop a sense of openness and respect for those who are different in culture, language, or race.
Use a globe or a map of the world and trace the girl’s journey. What continents did she miss on her trip?
Make a collage of the places you’d like to visit by using images that show the people or the landscapes of those places.
Describe what you would pack if you were heading off around the world on a motorcycle. What would you take that the girl didn’t? What would you leave behind that she took, and why?
Title: Girl on a Motorcycle
Author: Amy Novesky
Illustrator: Julie Morstad
Publisher: Penguin Random House 2020
Themes: adventure, strong women, global community
For more perfect picture book recommendations, please visit Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Book Friday blog.