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From The Asian Reporter, V17, #35 (August 28, 2007), page 16.

Everybody wins

The Bicycle Man

By Allen Say

Parnassus Press, 1982

Paperback, 38 pages, $5.95

By Josephine Bridges

A story of cross-cultural friendship in the shadow of war, The Bicycle Man begins with an athletic competition at a school on the south island of Japan on a fine spring day. Allen Sayís illustrations show us lofty landscapes and busy first-graders, while his words describe the preparations for sportsday: "We swept the playground with all the brooms in school. We tied colored flags and streamers to bamboo poles. We drew white lines on the ground with powdered chalk."

The races themselves are over quickly, and prizes are awarded. Ever the realist, Allen Say depicts one boy holding a small wrapped box as downright grumpy, but maybe not for long, because lunchtime comes next. "My mother had cooked for two days preparing the good things to eat. The layers of lacquered boxes held pickled melon rinds and egg rolls, spiced rice and fish cakes."

The grown-ups are having a three-legged race when something extraordinary begins to happen. "Two strangers were leaning over the fence and watching us. They were American soldiers. One of them was a white man with bright hair like fire, and the other man had a face as black as the earth. They wore dark uniforms with neckties, soft caps on their heads, and red strips on their sleeves. They had no guns." Still, the narrator tells us that he felt afraid.

The soldiers, it turns out, are polite and friendly, bowing not only to the principal, but also to the children, who are giggling by now. Then the black soldier straddles the principalís bicycle and puts on a show that no one in attendance is likely to forget.

Readers never do learn whatís in the biggest prize box, which is awarded to the extreme cyclist, but he says, "Ari-ga-tow, ari-ga-tow," before he disappears "around the bend in the road." Whatever that prize may be, it is eclipsed by the sheer joy everyone present has taken not just in athletic prowess, but in a friendly interlude between people determined not to be enemies, even in occupied Japan.

Allen Say is a treasure. The Bicycle Man, a work of great subtlety that teaches without lecturing, was published in 1982, at the beginning of his illustrious career. It will never lose its relevance, at least not as long as there are wars.

To buy me, visit these retailers:

Powell's Books