illustrator: Noah Z. Jones
Candlewick Press, 2016
“Every kid has a bike but me,” says our sorrowful young narrator, who longingly watches his friends having the fun he is denied. Ruben especially dreams of having a bike just like that of his oblivious friend, Sergio, who rides his new one while Ruben breathlessly runs alongside. But since he’s poor, he says, “I know that wishes won’t make money appear.” At the grocery store, while Sergio purchases a pack of football cards, Ruben buys only the loaf of bread his mom wants.
When he sees that the woman in a blue coat ahead of him in line has dropped what he thinks is “just” a $1 bill, he pockets it, and when he gets home, Ruben discovers that it’s really a $100 bill. He dreams of finally being able to purchase a bike, but there’s a decision he must make. This moral and ethical dilemma takes up most of the story. When Ruben thinks that he may have lost the $100 bill, he retraces his steps “from school to bike shop to home.” It’s raining, and “rain and tears feel the same.” This defining moment before he recovers the money lends him a measure of empathy, and finally, young Ruben decides to return the money to the woman who had dropped it. But still, he doubts his choice: “I am happy and mixed up, full and empty, with what’s right and what’s gone.” Ruben is poor, then rich, then poor again.
This narrative, for all young readers to digest, implies that Ruben and other children in his low-income community are instinctively drawn to thievery in order to gain material objects.
Jones’ digitally assembled watercolor-and-pencil illustrations, with ethnically ambiguous characters, complement the ethnically ambiguous story. All we know is that most of the characters are some kind of brown-tinted, and someone in Ruben’s family may be some kind of white, as hinted by the tiny framed picture on Ruben’s family’s wall of a group of white people.
What’s centered here, in text and illustration, is poverty. The “bike like Sergio’s” symbolizes all that Ruben doesn’t have. Rather, what he has is a scuffed-up apartment with lock and chain on the door, a sink full of unwashed dishes, items thrown around, drawers left open, and a mother who’s apparently too busy with four children to teach any of them how to put away their stuff. The neighborhood is scuffed-up as well, but Ruben’s beautiful (and ethnically mixed) classroom is well furnished and spotless. And the math class is working on—let’s hammer the point home in case nobody gets it—problems involving money. Even though Ruben’s dad has a job that requires him to wear a suit and tie, mom crosses items off her grocery list because this week, apparently, they can afford only a loaf of bread and a quart of orange juice until Saturday. And Ruben dreams of—having a bike just like those of his friends.
The story is a first-person narrative. So why does the title center the name of a material object (“a bike”) belonging to a minor character (“Sergio”), while disappearing the name of the narrator? Can this have something to do with the agency—or lack of it—of a child of color?
The major reviewers had only positive things to say about this story:
Here are two alternate scenarios. Rather than poverty, what’s centered here are Ruben, his family and his community. (Since Ruben and Sergio could be Latino names, I’ll insert a few appropriate Raza cultural markers.)
No grinding poverty and no pining for something that’s unobtainable. No pretending that stolen money is found money. No contrived moral and ethical dilemmas and no sociopolitical metaphors about being poor and then rich and then poor again.
A Bike Like Sergio’s is a white construction of an economically marginalized family of color and their neighborhood. And it’s a white construction of the “ethical dilemmas” of a child of color—not to mention the sadness after having made the right decision: “I am happy and mixed up, full and empty, with what’s right and what’s gone.”
A Bike Like Sergio’s is not recommended.