The Patchwork Bike: Author Maxine Beneba Clarke's 2019 BGHB Picture Book Award Speech

Van and I would like to thank you so much for awarding us the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for The Patchwork Bike, our first picture book. We are absolutely thrilled to be the recipients of this prize. 

This book came to fruition through my short-fiction collection Foreign Soil. The first story in that collection contains a subplot about a small child riding around on a bike made out of scrap parts. This child and his siblings absolutely adore this bike, and it becomes kind of a thread through the story. What I wanted to do was lift out this subplot and turn it into a picture book. So over the course of six months I worked on the manuscript that would become The Patchwork Bike. When it was completed, I had this question of, Who am I going to get to illustrate this story? I didn’t really have an illustration style in mind or even a palette. But quite serendipitously, while walking around my diverse, vibrant neighborhood in Melbourne, Australia, I started seeing these street installations that appeared to have been created by the same person. One of the installations, for example, was attached to a wire fence. It was an arm that seemed to be reaching desperately out of the fence, and above it was the word refugee scrawled on cardboard. 

At the time, I was writing for the weekly newspaper The Saturday Paper, for its “Portrait” section — I would track down interesting people and have conversations with them about their work and lives. For a “Portrait” piece, I found out who was making these pieces of art and leaving them in public places. That person turned out to be Van T. Rudd. 

[Read Horn Book reviews of the 2019 BGHB Picture Book winners.]

So we discussed his art, his politics, and his life, and during the course of our conversation he told me that because he’s a political artist, because he works on public art, he’s sometimes sidelined for more commercial projects. I took that as the opportunity to say, “Well, actually, I have this picture-book text lying around…” 

Three or four months later, Van sent me the first sketches for what would become his illustrations for The Patchwork Bike. They were painted with old acrylic paint on cardboard boxes. They were quite large pieces of art that he had scanned and emailed to me. The minute I opened his email, I thought, This is right. This is absolutely the right person to be illustrating this book. On top of my themes of poverty and economic injustice and childhood imagination and making the most out of what you have, he had superimposed his own narrative of social justice, capitalism (or anti-capitalism), and racial justice. When I saw those first couple of illustrations, I told him, “This feels really right. I don’t want to be prescriptive in any way, shape, or form. Just go for it. Do whatever you want.” And it turned out to be, I think, a picture-book match made in heaven. Everything Van would send, I’d absolutely love. It seemed to be a dance between my text and his images that just worked

Luckily, our publishers were on board. This was quite an adventurous and political foray into picture books, particularly in Australia. Our publishers from Hachette Australia, who initially published the book, took a leap of faith with this work. And we thank them for that. We are absolutely thrilled that the book has been so well received both in Australia and in the United States. We’re grateful to have a U.S. edition: in your particular political context, we think the narrative works really well. 

This award will inspire us to keep working (we are just about to roll out our next collaboration, called The Patchwork Sky), keep pushing the limits of picture-book making, and just keep doing what we’re doing. Thank you very much.

From the January/February 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. Read illustrator Van Thahn Rudd's BGHB award speech here and this five questions interview with the author and illustrator. For more on the 2019 Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards, click on the tag BGHB19.

Maxine Beneba Clarke

Author Maxine Beneba Clarke is the winner of the 2019 Boston Globe-Horn Book Picture Book Award for The Patchwork Bike (Candlewick).

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