Like Riding a Bike: A Middle Grade Novel Asks, What if We Do Forget How?

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By Pam Muñoz Ryan

By Alejandra Algorta
Illustrated by Iván Rickenmann
Translated by Aida Salazar

In this dual-language novella, the Colombian author Alejandra Algorta tells the story of Fabio, whose mother, a baker, trades eight bags of homemade bread for a girl’s salmon-colored bike. She removes the handlebar ribbons and gives the bike to Fabio. His bus driver father teaches him to ride, assuring Fabio as he runs behind the bike, “Even if I let you go, I won’t let you go.”

Fabio overcomes the stigma of the girl-bike provenance, and discovers his worth and identity. On the bike, he delivers his mother’s bread, empowered. He has been released from Bogotá’s outskirts and from his pedestrian neighborhood to the dust and danger of the monster city, his world new and exciting. “Strangely for Fabio,” Algorta writes, “the neighborhood through which he journeyed on his bicycle was much more illuminated than the one he walked, was warmer, more fleeting, softer, more bird than cage.”

Now, on wheels, he is flying and free, and often trailed by a pack of children on their own bikes. Within a few years, as he grows stronger and his intuitions on the bicycle flourish, he becomes a mythical leader. It is whispered that he is “half boy and half bicycle.”

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    Unexpectedly and without explanation, he wakes one morning and has forgotten how to pedal. In front of an audience of bicycle-children, he falls repeatedly. Puzzled and humiliated, he hides beneath his bed, trying to determine the cause. Has he forgotten the mechanics of pedaling because his father taught him to ride on an inauspicious day — Wednesday? Or because the bicycle is a pinkish orange, a color meant for girls only? Could this new inability be the result of never having learned to ride with training wheels first, like other children, a step that might have been integral to memory? No matter the reason, he is now inept and defeated, his power replaced with fear. His father and mother reassure him that “what the body knows, it knows forever.” But Fabio declares that this is a lie. He is proof. When he forgets the thing that everyone says is unforgettable, he begins to question everything known in his world, including how to carry on.

    Despondent and relegated to delivering his mother’s bread on foot, he becomes friends with a frail neighbor, Alicia, a woman who lives alone and takes care of the rest of the town as if they were her own children. During his visits to her peculiar house, the old and young discuss life, lies and memories. It is in this unlikely relationship that Fabio finds truth and purpose, and the affirmation that “falling must never be the last thing one has done.”

    “Neverforgotten” illuminates how a child defines identity, loss and what is inevitable in life. At times mystifying — younger readers might struggle with some obscure scenes and dialogue — the story is always thought-provoking, with inspiring prose. The novel is recommended for ages 8 to 12 but leans toward the older. It is a philosophical read, begging discussion and interpretation.

    Rather than employing parallel texts on one page, this bilingual edition unfolds each version sequentially, providing a fluid and unencumbered reading in both languages. After the English translation by the noted author Aida Salazar, the story begins again in the original Spanish, the physical book flipped and rotated.

    Double-page drawings in soft and nostalgic charcoal by Iván Rickenmann frame the story. This art transports the reader from Fabio’s outlying neighborhood to the sleek bustling city of Bogotá. The end sequence, elegant and poignant, reveals the book’s bittersweet resolution, which reinforces the notion that “even if I let you go, I won’t let you go.” A transformative, noteworthy debut.

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