As school closes for the summer and the focus shifts outdoors, what better way to encourage an interest in bicycling, as well as to inspire young riders, than through books?

Recently, I’ve been charmed by a new picture book for ages 4 – 8,  Tillie the Terrible Swede: How One Woman, a Sewing Needle, and a Bicycle Changed History by Sue Stauffacher (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2011).

Tillie Anderson wears her medals. photo:

Stauffacher relates the true story of Tillie Anderson, who was born in Sweden in 1875, immigrated to the U.S. as a young woman, fell in love with bicycle racing and eventually claimed the women’s world championship

Accompanied by Sarah McMenemy’s pretty period illustrations, Stauffacher’s narrative unfolds against the backdrop of cycling’s role in empowering women during the late 19th century and chronicles a talented woman’s pursuit of her dreams.

Anderson first spied a bicycle through the window of the shop where she worked as a seamstress and was immediately captivated, not by riding around maypoles, as women of that era did, but by “speedy, scorchy” racing. But there was a problem: “Tillie had found that riding in dresses and skirts meant spilling, not speeding, falling not flying.”

Anderson used her sewing skills to create a close-fitting cycling costume that scandalized her friends and neighbors. But the young woman’s gifts as a racer proved themselves, first in century riding and then in the velodrome. Anderson became a sensation in bicycle racing, the most popular spectator sport in the 1890s. (Reader’s will find a listing of the Anderson’s record-breaking victories in the book’s overleaf.)

Of course, I couldn’t help thinking, as I was enjoying this book, about the recent “bicycle skirt scandal” here in New York City. Anderson, in her cycling pants, was considered “unwomanly.” In an ironic twist a century later, a woman on a bicycle in a short skirt was reportedly considered by a police officer to be, well, too womanly.

Stauffacher, author of the Animal Rescue Team series and titles such as Donut Head, not only wrote about Anderson, but also was inspired by her. The author recently wrapped up the Tillie Ride, a week-long, 264-mile ride from her home in Grand Rapids, Michigan to Chicago, Illinois. She stopped at schools along the way to teach children about America’s first women’s world cycling champion, and to deliver donated copies of her book to the Chicago Public Library.

Among the author’s goals was to “get kids excited about biking as a form of recreation and reading as a form of mental recreation.” In championing Tillie Anderson, Stauffacher has accomplished just that.

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