Joy ride: Children’s book discusses biking while female

Bike curious: “Born to Ride: A Story About Bicycle Face,” illustrated by Bay Ridgite Kelsey Garrity-Riley, tells the tale of a 19th-century girl who learns to ride a bike, despite warnings that it will warp her face.
Abrams Books

She’s facing history.

A Bay Ridge artist will read from her picture book about a girl in the late 19th century who learns to ride a bicycle, at Stories Bookshop in Park Slope on March 24. “Born to Ride: A Story About Bicycle Face” highlights a pernicious rumor of the 1890s: that a woman’s delicate constitution could not handle the strain of cycling, and that any attempt to do so would lead to a permanent disfiguration dubbed “bicycle face” — an idea that shocked the book’s illustrator.

“I had never heard of ‘bicycle face’ — obviously it’s the most ridiculous thing imaginable,” said Kelsey Garrity-Riley. “It’s something we don’t think twice about — every little girl and boy learns to ride a bike, and it would never occur to me to not have that freedom and independence.”

Author Larissa Theule wrote the story of youngster Louisa Belinda Bellflower, who feels frustrated by the limits she faces as a girl. After Louisa ditches her skirt for pants and demands that her brother teach her how to ride, he warns her of the bulging eyes and closed-up jaw that doctors claim will plague female cyclists. Louisa remains undaunted, and after falling off the two-wheeler again and again, she finds her balance and her own “bicycle face” — which is intentionally one of the few times the character smiles in the book, said Garrity-Riley.

“When she finally does ride, her ‘bicycle face’ is a gigantic, gorgeous smile,” the illustrator said. “Before that, there’s this intensity and determination. I appreciate girls being given the space not to have to constantly be smiling.”

The artist says that the book teaches a lesson of resistance that she hopes will prompt readers to consider the barriers they still face today.

“At the time it wasn’t an overt form of oppression, but there’s still all these small ways that women and minorities are held down in a way that may not seem obvious, and I would encourage people to look for those ways,” Garrity-Riley said.

“Born to Ride” story time with illustrator Kelsey Garrity-Riley at Stories Bookshop and Storytelling Lab (458 Bergen St. between Fifth and Flatbush avenues in Park Slope, www.storiesbk.com). March 24 at 10:30 am. Free.

Reach reporter Julianne McShane at (718) 260–2523 or by e-mail at jmcshane@schnepsmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliannemcshane.
Picture this: Ridgite Kelsey Garrity-Riley will read from the book she illustrated, “Born to Ride: A Story About Bicycle Face,” at a free March 24 event at Stories Bookshop and Storytelling Lab in Park Slope.
Kelsey Garrity-Riley

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