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Cafe Bookshelf: One for the Little Racers

Crib Sheet

Title: Gracie Goat's Big Bike Race
Author: Erin Mirabella; Illustrator: Lisa Horstman
Publisher: VeloPress
Pages: 24
Order: HERE
What is it? A kids book! A story of overcoming fear, and about bike racing. Officially ages 5-8, though my 4y.o. son loves it.
Strengths: The fact that it exists.
Weaknesses: A tad too much info at times.
Rating: ★★★★ (4 of 5)

Ever wondered how to explain bike racing to your toddlers? Ever felt like making your kids watch the Tour de France with you for 21 consecutive mornings was maybe a little disorienting for them? Ever thought, if only there was a way to break it all down into something my kids can use?

Gracie_mediumFormer US Olympic track cyclist and roadie Erin Mirabella apparently did, and decided to do something about it. Meet Gracie Goat and her friends Howard Horse, Shawn Sheep, Dougie Dog, Peter Pig and the rest of the squadra of novice bike racers. Howard, the local patron, wants to enter a team of his friends in a kids race, spurred on by his cousin, an established roadie who's coming to town for the event. While most of Howard's friends are thrilled, Gracie is oddly reluctant, for an unspoken, private reason: she hasn't yet learned how to ride a bike.

As you can tell from the cover, she figures it out, but not before working with her grandmother to face her fears and accept the difficulty of learning how to ride. The book's greatest value comes in the transitional section, where Gracie and Grandma Goat debate her fears, stated at first as her fear of one hazard or another, until Gracie admits she just doesn't know if she can do it. The lesson isn't that she learned how to ride; it's that she learned how to overcome lack of confidence.

This is a subtle distinction at first, but a profound one. We've owned the book for a few months, during which it has held a place in (my 4-y.o. son) DS Little Bear's regular rotation, and lately we have been mentioning it to him as he prepares to face his fear: swimming. Whether it makes a difference is to be seen, but it can't hurt to give him some perspective.

Of course, there's nothing new about kids' books containing valuable lessons, so what makes this one stand out is the connection to bike racing. Gracie goes from unable and afraid, to praciticing and falling off, to riding her bike for fun. This is a pretty universal progression, but according to the book it's only a short walk from there to participating in a race -- another great message! The familiarity of bike racing is one of the sport's greatest assets, and the book connects the dots simply enough.

There are other significant details: the race scene is an all-day series of races in the town square, with all the pageantry implied. The friends ride as a team, including a moment where Gracie literally plays watercarrier to their ace Howard... though the book wisely stops there with the complexity of team tactics. Gracie experiences the thrill of finishing and learning from her first race. There's even a brief discussion of pockets, and a postscript on proper hydration. [Worth noting: the key characters are female, and while it's a book for all kids, it might be even more valuable to young girls. Don't ask me though; my poor wife has a houseful of boys.]

You'd have to look pretty hard to find anything worth criticizing. I suppose there are a few too many characters, including two or three who are mentioned but don't figure into the story. DS Little Bear never seems to remember Dougie Dog, for example. Also, are we really supposed to believe that Grandma Goat would jump out of a plane, but is nonetheless afraid to get her ears pierced? Like I said, it's hard to come up with a worthwhile complaint.

Mirabella has just put out another book, Shawn Sheep the Soccer Star, which you can check out at her website. So whether there are future cycling adventures for Gracie and co. remains to be seen. But she's a legit cyclist though, so we bike-obsessed parents can hope. There are other lessons to glean from the sport, such as the element of teamwork and sacrifice, something of value to older kids. For now, my son seems content with a good bike race story, his Gracie Goat water bottle, and the possibility of facing down challenges.