A book to stop children repeating the biggest mistake of my youth

Today I’ll let you know a secret that I kept all through my childhood and into my twenties. I never learnt to ride a bike as a child. I didn’t have a deprived childhood by any stretch of the imagination, but a mixture of my local topography, my limited exposure to bikes and my attitude (a mix of fear and getting embarrassed by failure) ended up with me avoiding almost anything to do with cycling until my early twenties. And so, I found myself clutching the handlebars as tight as I could, riding down a hill as a 22-year-old waiting for this moment of uncanny balance to somehow end. I was on the southern tip of Africa with family friends who I had been staying with at the start of my “gap year” trip around the world. 

My stomach churned on the car ride to Cape of Good Hope as I contemplated the moment I would have to get on a bicycle or own up to never learning to ride. I landed somewhere in between, letting them know I wasn’t very confident on a bike (the biggest understatement of my life) and they chose a gentle slope for me to shakily make my way down, as they followed behind. I sometimes wonder what the conversation was like in the car as they watched this girl, supposedly in the prime of her life, struggling to find a pace that allowed her to stay balanced but didn’t feel out of control. It was a beautiful setting (see picture below) and I do remember catching myself enjoying the moment for brief milliseconds. And I landed on my two feet at the end of it all – for the thrill I got from it, I could have been jumping off a cliff, but I got a lot more than an increased pulse rate and a good dose of Adrenaline.

Street view image of the road I first rode down

While I have strong memories of the feeling of that bike ride and how much courage and concentration it involved, I have also never forgotten how grateful I was for that moment that tipped me over into the world of riding bicycles. Something beautiful began that day and it would take many months, and some other stressful moments (many on the Boulevards and famous roundabouts of Paris) before I felt confident on two wheels. And as my confidence grew, so did my appreciation of the very many benefits that cycling gives me. As I reflect on these benefits, I start to wish I had learnt earlier. I sometimes wonder the difference it would have made through the years I struggled as an extremely shy teenager. I wonder how the joy, adventure, independence, and confidence I now experience as part of my everyday life would have opened my mind and my world to new possibilities and challenges when I was feeling bored, confused, or trapped in my teen years.

So, years later after getting all excited about transport (and cycling) – studying, filming, researching, working, and dreaming about transport projects, I wrote a book that reminds me of this moment. I brought together personal experiences with imaginations around my missed opportunities to write a children’s book about the benefits of cycling. It is a bright colourful book with beautiful illustrations by Lori Dean called Jill’s Joyful ride and you can buy it here

I wrote this book after finishing my documentary “A way we go” and having two children. While struggling to find work after becoming a mum, I had dreamt up and worked on a number of projects, and writing books is one such pursuit. This book is meant to be part of a series of children’s books that explores different transport experiences (I’m good at setting myself impossibly big projects). Perhaps, this one came out first because it came from the heart and because I met Lori. 

During the first lockdown in Australia, I became increasingly worried about how students would get to school once they were back in the classroom (if they kept using buses, they could create a COVID risk or scare away other patrons, but if they moved into cars that also led to problems). For me, switching from public transport to active transport was the best way out of this bad situation and so when I joined “Space for Health” I connected with Lori, who was also interested in active school travel and had been involved in some great initiatives at her son’s school in Brisbane.

Lori riding her cargo bike

We instantly had a lot to talk about, and after a few conversations and email exchanges, I noticed below her name it said “Illustrator”, so I asked her if she was interested in illustrating a book. She works as a graphic designer and urban planner and in her spare time she found moments to work on the illustrations. It takes a bit of courage to give your project over to someone else’s interpretation, but as with the music composition for my film, the results can be quite special. As Lori illustrated, we participated in several conferences exploring the role that a children’s book might have within cycling advocacy and transport policy. 

Then finally, earlier this year, I started working out how to make this book happen, looking at local printing options and other logistics. And as Delta started to sweep through Sydney, I rode over to the printer to check the proof of the book. And then a week later, I was borrowing my brother’s car and filling it with boxes of books.

Between lockdown with home schooling and trying to work myself, the books have mainly been sitting in boxes for the last four months. However, we have finally started selling them. And like all good creative projects, we are doing this for the love of it, and the hope that it might inspire some young (or older) people to start riding or discover a new way that cycling can bring joy to their life. We are also interested in using the book as fundraisers for schools – particularly for them to use the funds to help facilitate and encourage active travel to their school (so please get in touch if you are interested in your school using it as a fundraiser next year).

And so far, the reviews are looking good and to Lori’s credit everyone loves the bright design and pictures. Some of my favourite feedback has been hearing about children who have claimed it as their favourite book. One parent told me how he could relate to Jill in how she gained confidence through movement but for him it was through surfing. Others have told me about it coming at an opportune moment when their child was needing that extra reassurance and inspiration to learn to ride. As a parent, one of the best compliments is finding out that they don’t mind reading it over and over again (I know it can be a struggle to enjoy a book the 88th time you’ve read it). 

My 3-year-old son’s favourite word in the book is transformation and perhaps that’s my favourite word too – as learning to ride a bike has most definitely been a transformative experience for me. Transformations that affect not only the way we do things, but also how we understand ourself and our world, are not easy or simple, but they are a crucial part of enabling a brighter future. All the best of your future reading and cycling adventures.

Buy Jill’s joyful ride here