"We are family without a car. We bicycle when we can, or use public transport. Looking at picture books for my baby I'm struck by how many cars feature in picture books: cars are often the characters in stories and going on journeys always seems to involve getting in the car rather than bicycling somewhere or getting on a train or bus. To show other ways of travelling – especially with children - would give a very positive message to other families about how easy – and nice – it is to travel without a car."
Lorraine, mother of Aarni, 10 months
As you rightly point out, what's left out of books takes away options that we ought to be thinking about - and that can be as important as what is left in!
Most of us take travelling by car for granted and so do not much notice that alternative forms of transport are missing. Ever since the post-war boom in car ownership, matched by the availability of toy cars so beloved by many boys, cars have featured strongly in picture books. Car characters such as Val Biro's Gumdrop or, most famously, Ian Fleming's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, have become focal points of the ways in which families have celebrated cars as dependable, glamorous and liberating additions to the human family.
Bicycles of any kind, on the other hand, have a much less honourable fictional heritage. All too often in pictures they are shown as "boneshakers", the riding of which signifies un-worldliness and lack of success on the part of the owner. They do better in stories where the getting of a new bike for a birthday present is a rite-of-passage heralding independence and being "trusted". But illustrations of families, especially parents on bicycles with a small baby as a passenger, are hard to find in the UK. As a reflection of reality, the "health and safety" aspects might raise eyebrows. In countries where there is a more deeply embedded cycling culture, I'm sure there are good examples of family cycling.
Showing families travelling on public transport seems easier to change. Ever since Harry Potter caught the Hogwarts Express from Platform 9 and three quarters at King's Cross station, trains have had a thrilling place in fiction.
While in reality managing babies and toddlers in a confined public space will never be easy, I agree with you that picture books could show that travelling by train, bus or coach can be fun!
Can you suggest a children's book with a positive depiction of cycling or train travel? Send your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll publish them below.
I'm currently an 3rd year illustration student spending a lot of time working with childrens illustration and found your article to be very interesting. I sadly don't have any titles to suggest but whilst sitting here picking my brain for any that would be suitable, I drafted out this little image on the subject. Being an avid cyclist my mind definitely began to wander (hence the painting) but at least I do now feel inspired to take on somewhat of a pro-cycling narrative for a picture book in the near future.
In fact the only other one I could find on my kids' shelf was Rosa by Nikki Giovanni (Rosa Parks on the bus - but of course not in a good way!)
When I read your article, The Trolley Car Family by Elinor Clymer (1947) immediately jumped to mind. I was born 30 years after its publication, but grew up loving the story - of a family who decides to inhabit the trolley car that is given to the father, who loses his job upon refusing to drive a new-fangled bus. They drive it out to the end of the line, convert it into a home (I particularly remember loving the little drawing of their conversion) and spend an idyllic summer exploring the countryside and making new friends. Highly recommended, rarely a car in sight.
I had no idea how underrepresented car-alternatives were in picture books! Thank you for alerting me to this issue! I think Topsy and Tim go on a Train is great to prepare for longer train rides, but that is it, nothing about tubes or family bike rides.
Slow Train to Oxmox by Kurt Cyrus is wonderful.
Mrs Armitage On Wheels by Quentin Blake is hilarious. Mrs Armitage adds more and more things to her bike: 'What this bike needs', she says, 'is [horns, bucket and soap to wash her hands, tool kit, hamper, dog seat, umbrella]'. Finally she decides to add a sail to add 'a bit of extra oomph'; the (predictable) outcome is an almighty crash, but undaunted, Mrs Armitage picks herself up from the wreckage and straps on roller skates instead. They're great, but 'what these roller skates need', says Mrs Armitage....
Try Harry and the dinosaurs. However, it's a bit right on in many ways, for example excluding men from the stories as well as cars.
Mrs Armitage On Wheels by Quentin Blake: Mrs Armitage customises her bike to the max, although it does end in disaster and Mrs A on roller skates.
Some of the Harry and the Dinosaurs books by Ian Whybrow and Adrian Reynolds show Harry and his mum getting around by bicycle. I cannot recall exactly which titles show this, but there are certainly images of Harry on the back of the bicycle with the bucket of dinosaurs strapped to the bike behind Harry's seat as they go off to the library, school etc. I do, however, remember one scene where it's clear the family also has a car.
The two most obvious ones that come to my mind are both from the wonderful mind of Dick Bruna: Miffy's Bicycle and Miffy Rides a Bike.
Alice, Auckland, New Zealand:
I agree with the article but there are a few good train books out there. How about Topsy and Tim go on a Train?
The Witch's Children and the Queen by Ursula Jones is a lovely magical picture book about children on the no 16 bus. Obviously Thomas, and the Little Red Train series both feature trains. And what about John Burningham's Oi get off our train!
I suspect lots of 'London' books feature buses, certainly Katie in London by James Mayhew does.
Bicycle wise... I'm not so good though I'm sure there's lots of flying bicycles out there.
I'm actually struggling to think of non Pixar picture books featuring cars, mainly children in picture books travel by more exciting or esoteric means....
I suspect the reason that so few picture book characters cycle is the difficulty of drawing bicycles. However, there are plenty of examples of bike riding and of all forms of public transport:
Harry cycles (as well as taking the car) in the Harry and the Dinosaurs books.
The Mr Men regularly use buses (as well a taking long walks) and Mr Bump even becomes a bus conductor. Only Mr Uppity and Mr Rude drive.
Richard Scarry's books show just about every form of transport.
Quentin Blake's Mrs Armitage is a keen bike user.
Paddington is a regular tube and bus passenger. Initially he finds the escalators rather challenging to navigate but has recently purchased his first Oyster card.
Thomas has enthused a huge number of children about train travel.
The Greendale Rocket features heavily in the Postman Pat books, and in one of the earlier stories the village comes together to renovate a bus and start a service to Pencaster.
For older children, in addition to Harry Potter, famous train travellers include Emil (Emil and the Detectives) and the boy in John Masefield's Box of Delights.
CS Lewis's Prince Caspian begins with the Pevensies on a railway station with no parents - independent travellers going back to school, albeit boarding schools, but that's another matter. The Silver Chair has Jill and Eustace arriving in Narnia on Aslan's breath, while The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is set on a ship.
Have you forgotten all the Rev W Awdrey's Thomas the Tank Engine books?
There are no cars in Beatrix Potter's Tales, but the BBC series put Miss Potter on a bike.
Professor Branestawm (Norman Hunter) gets on a sort of penny-farthing as I remember. He certainly doesn't have a car. He would never have remembered where he'd parked it. Some of the funniest children's books ever written.
Nigel Molesworth, very funny too, has the maters and paters making absolute idiots of themselves on station platforms. Another boarding school.
Jennings is delighted to get a three-speed bike from his aunt while he's at Linbury Court Preparatory School. OK, another boarding school, but stories about boarding schools tend not to have many cars in them.
William Brown doesn't have a bike, but he does go on trains and people arrive all the time by train. Cars come in for a good deal of mockery as William's brother Robert can't fix them. They are also used by counterfeiters, smugglers and other baddies or fools.
I expect The Famous Five had bikes and travelled by train and they probably went in boats, but I didn't read them.
Swallows and Amazons do boats. I expect they had bikes too and arrived by train, but I was a William fan.
There are some bikes in Mary Norton's The Borrowers series and there's a model railway in the The Borrowers Aloft. Bedknobs and Broomsticks by the same writer has a flying bed which goes to the south seas.
In Marianne Dreams, the author, Catherine Storr, uses the dreaming mind to transport her characters. She does install a bike to help one character escape from the sinister situation she has created.
Sea voyages are mentioned in The Secret Garden, but the main way of getting about is long walks.
Where's Wally doesn't bother much with cars, but does have flying carpets.
The incomparable Uncle, who is an elephant, drove a traction engine round his collection of skyscrapers in preference to a car. Author: J.P. Martin.
Noel Streatfeild's books have varieties of transport but the families are often not well off enough to have a car. However, doing car maintenance is a symbol of rebellion in Ballet Shoes. Trains take families on holiday.
No cars in King Arthur, legends of all kinds, fairy stories or fantasy and historical books for children. Dr Seuss has all kinds of imaginative machines. Richard Scarry has every kind of transport. Alex Ryder seems to fly. Physical and imaginary flying takes place in Mary Poppins. Jasper Fforde, who draws on children's books, fairy stories, detective stories and classics and much more for his inspired books for children and adults alike has every kind of real and imaginary transport, except aeroplanes, including a madeover Miss Havisham in a sports car.
The Mr Men and Little Miss books feature walking on the whole.
Topsy and Tim go in cars. They are rather dull.
Maybe my list is old-fashioned. I haven't read Anne Fine or that very popular lady with the specs and earrings. The Ahlbergs don't put their characters in cars. Their Funnybones skeletons go by train. Angela Banner's Ant and Bee didn't have a car. They lived in a Cup. Sometimes they had a lift on their friend kind Dog who slipped on an Egg in a Fog and so it went on. In More Ant and Bee they got a tram.
Paddington Bear is named after the railway station. T.H. White doesn't have cars in Mistress Masham's Repose or that weird one set on Rockall, The Master. Hester Burton and the other OUP writers didn't have cars in their books. Tom's Midnight Garden, and come to that, Goodnight Mr Tom don't feature cars. Joan Aiken and Nina Bawden don't have cars in their books.
In The Hobbit they walk every step of the journey except when going in barrels.
I think it's easy enough to avoid cars in children's books. Cars don't lend themselves to independence and adventure and children can't drive them. Even the film Bugsy Malone has pedal cars! Good children's books aren't full of adults giving children lifts.
I was really struck by your article about the lack of bicycles in children's literature. I am about to launch (in the next fortnight if all goes well!) a website called Cycle Sprog, aimed at encouraging families with young children to start cycling.
My favourite book to promote cycling with a toddler is "Harry and the Dinosaurs say Raahh!" by Ian Whybrow and illustrated by Adrian Reynolds , where Harry and his dinosaurs travel to and from the dentist in a rear bike seat. I particularly like the way there is no reference made anywhere in the story to the bike ride, so it seems a totally natural way for him to be travelling.
I'm looking forward to seeing what your other readers come up with.
We publish the Dog Detectives book series where the heroes Detective Jack & Poco Loco solve mysteries around the world and travel by bicycle!
The books are based on the real life experiences of the authors who have cycled over 20,000k through Europe, USA & here in England
along with their two recued dogs.
Titles so far are….
The Dog Detectives, In An Outback Odyssey (Australia)
The Dog Detectives, The Great Grizzly North ( Canada)
and The Dog Detectives, Lost in London
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