Nonfiction In a New Gear

posted in: Good Reads: Nonfiction | 0

Nonfiction has become hot–or, at least, very warm. For now, publishers are eager for nonfiction, especially of the narrative variety. They understand that young readers (like more mature ones) are engaged by a story. Science, history, sports, art: they all have stories embedded in them, like fossils, waiting to be excavated, dusted off, and properly reassembled. Does that leave expository nonfiction hopelessly passé and unpublishable? Not so fast.

Sue Macy and National Geographic have teamed up to publish a pair of books that combine the best of both narrative and expository nonfiction. Wheels of Change (2011) and Motor Girls (2017) recount the rise of two different modes of transportation and the socio-cultural changes they provoked. The first book takes place mostly the 1890s; the second in the two decades between 1900 and 1920. Together, they tell an important story of women’s emancipation, with as much to be learned from the abundant graphics as from the text.

Wheels of Change begins with Colonel Albert Pope’s introduction to the high-wheeler bicycle at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876. It was, Macy explains, “the first step in a chain of events that ultimately led to the rise of the bicycle, the fall of the horse, the paving of America’s roadways, the dawn of modern advertising, and the development of the automobile.” If that weren’t enough, “it helped American women gain increased independence, better health, and freedom from restrictive clothing, and eventually, the right to vote.” From that auspicious beginning, Macy fills out chapters on the invention and development of the bicycle, social changes and the fears they engendered, women’s cycling fashions, racing, and the new freedoms the bicycle made possible.

Between chapters, Macy inserts two-page spreads on specialized topics: celebrity cyclists, cycling slang, cycling songs, cycling magazines, cycling advertising. Throughout the book are insets with excerpts from primary source documents (I counted ten), miscellaneous sidebars (just two), and featured cyclists (four). Macy and National Geographic have curated a book that allows young readers to “do history” (in a controlled way) while reading a compelling story.

“The smell of gasolene is to me as battle smoke to the soldier, and salt sea air to the sailor.” So wrote Minna Irving in 1909. Motor Girls is chock full of women motorists who find the automobile a source of liberation and, yes, adventure. The book is laid out in five chapters, roughly equivalent to those in Wheels of Change, with spreads on laws, etiquette, clothing, road signs, milestones, and an appendix of fascinating data. Macy has immersed herself in the extensive contemporary automobile literature. She cites throughout from Motor, Motor Way, and Automobile magazines. It takes a lot of work (and luck?) to find the first state to require a minimum driving age (Pennsylvania, 18, in 1908/09), and other such arcane data.

Macy encounters a limitation to the wealth of contemporary cycling and motoring magazines: They focus almost exclusively on middleclass white men and women. Macy does not apologize for this fact, but she does acknowledge it and makes an effort to include some images and stories that broaden the view, all to her credit. I was especially pleased to see Macy use contemporary fiction and film as both sources of evidence and content for discussion. After summarizing a short story titled “A Fin de Cycle Incident,” Macy ends, saying, “These and other uplifting stories reinforced the notion that the bicycle made women better partners and better citizens.” Convincing? Definitely. Enlightening? Absolutely.

Within her broader narrative, Macy tells many stories of individual cyclists and motorists. In Wheels of Change, we meet racing champions Louise Armaindo and Elsa von Blumen, and, later, endurance record-setters Jane Yatman and Jane Lindsay. In Motor Girls, we read Jennie Davis speaking out against women drivers, as well as Mrs. A. Sherman Hitchcock writing passionately in their favor. We follow Alice Ramsey, with friend, Hermine Jahns, and two chaperoning aunts, as they become the first women to cross the continent by motor car. We accompany Sara Bard, driver Maria Kindberg, and mechanic Ingeborg Kindstedt, as they carry a suffrage petition of half a million signatures from San Francisco to Washington DC. The racing exploits of Joan Newton Cuneo and France’s Camille du Gast thrill; the ambulance driving of Mary Dexter in World War I inspires. Macy regularly zooms in her camera to tell the individual stories within the wider sweep.

Just as often, she widens her lens to relate the broader developments and give young readers the context they need. Admittedly, this shifting out can sometimes feel distracting. Yes, it makes sense to explain the United States’ entry into World War I, but does one need to read about the Zimmermann Telegram to understand women ambulance and motor car volunteers? This feels like a quibble, but it does point to a constant challenge for all nonfiction writers, especially those in the juvenile market.

Overall, Macy handles the challenge adeptly and with grace. Wheels of Change and Motor Girls provide the best of both narrative and expository nonfiction. They contain an abundance of surprising particulars, showing (or reminding) young readers that truth is often stranger than fiction. More, they explain how two subjects children can relate to–bikes and cars–effected the advancement of women’s social and legal liberation more than a hundred years ago. What could be more satisfying than that?


Post Script Query: Have I been accurate in my terminology?








(Used without permission from School Library Journal.)

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