Fast Enough: Bessie Stringfield’s First Ride
Fast Enough: Bessie Stringfield’s First Ride
Written and illustrated by Joel Christian Gill
Published by The Lion Forge, 2019
ISBN # 978-1-5493-0314-2
Grades K and up
“Have you ever been told you are not enough?” With this opening line, author-cartoonist Joel Christian Gill grabs the attention of readers of all ages and introduces us to the legendary Bessie Stringfield, the first African American woman to ride solo across the United States on a motorcycle. In this fictional picture book biography, Gill offers a story of Bessie as a young girl who is told repeatedly that she is “not pretty enough” or “tough enough,” or that her “hair was not straight enough” or her “belly was not flat enough.” But what most stings and spurs her forward are the boys racing their bikes past her every day after school, telling her that “Girls can’t ride bikes!” and that “Girls aren’t fast enough!” Unwilling to believe them, Bessie holds fast to her dreams of speeding by on her bike and finds a way to prove the naysayers wrong. Gill’s text is cleverly structured, weaving first an imagined narrative that utilizes patterns of repetition to effectively emphasize Bessie’s determination, and then transitioning the last third of text to a nonfiction biographical synopsis full of rich details, quotes, and anecdotes. Accompanying the text are Gill’s bold illustrations, steeped in bold hues of red, gold, green, and blue. Young Bessie is depicted as strikingly as the woman she became, with gorgeously giant pigtails and large, resolute eyes. Known primarily as a graphic novelist, Gill’s picturebook debut smoothly continues his literary and artistic commemoration of little known African American pioneers. Readers of all ages will enjoy the celebration as well.
Teaching Ideas and Invitations
Grades K and up
- Girls and Women Who Were More Than Enough. Gather a collection of picture book biographies that are about girls who dreamed of doing what boys were allowed to do and who then ultimately proved to the world that they could not just keep up with the boys, but that they were “more than enough” as they became women. Have students work in small groups to read the books and conduct further research about each of the women. With the support of graphic organizers, encourage them to keep track of the dreams, challenges, approaches, and accomplishments that marked each woman’s journey. As a class, discuss and compare each group’s notes to identify attributes that helped each girl and woman defeat the odds and succeed. Some books you might want to include are Mae Among the Stars, Drum Dream Girl, Nothing Stopped Sophie, Counting on Katherine, The Girl Who Ran, Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors?, and Night Flight.
- Bessie the Storyteller. Author Joel Christian Gill explains that Bessie loved to tell tales about her life adventures. Ask students to imagine how Bessie might have told the story of Fast Enough from her own perspective. Have them storytell or rewrite the story of young Bessie’s bike race in the first person point-of-view, making sure to include details the Gill provided in their stories.
- You Are Enough. Ask students whether they have ever experienced a time when, like young Bessie in the book, they were told they were “not enough.” As a class, discuss how one might respond to such words, perhaps engaging growth mindset and dynamic learning frameworks to overcome challenges and negative comments from others. Read aloud the picture book I am Enough, by Grace Byers, and create a class list of responses that encourage self-confidence, self-love, goal-setting, multiple perspectives, flexible thinking, and perseverance to counter any messages that your students are “not enough.” Encourage your class to use this list to write inspirational and affirming poems that declare they are certainly more than enough.
Grades 2 and up
- Understanding Context. Bessie Stringfield’s accomplishments are even more impressive, given the historical context in which she lived. As Gill explains, not only was she the first woman to cross America on a motorcycle, she did so before the Civil Rights Movement challenged segregation and discrimination of people of diverse backgrounds. Starting with some of the contextual details in the book, such as The Negro Motorist Green Book and the use of civilian motorcycle couriers for the U. S. military. As a class, identify these contextual details throughout the book, and then have students work in small groups to research these details. When groups present what they learned to the whole class, make sure they connect it back to Bessie Stringfield and elaborate on how her accomplishments are significant in light of their deeper understanding of historical context.
- Two Stories in One. With the first half of the book written as a fictional picture book biography and the second half written as a nonfiction biographical narrative, the structure of Fast Enough is one that supports reading and learning for different age and ability levels. Have students try this craft move to write a biography about someone they’ve studied and researched. Share some examples of other biographies that are fictionalized in some ways, such as Rescue & Jessica, Becoming Bach, Ira Shakespeare’s Dream, Malala: A Brave Girl from Pakistan/Iqbal: A Brave Boy from Pakistan, and Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence. Make sure to discuss the specifics of each genre (i.e., the purpose, structure, and language use of fiction versus the purpose, structure, and language use of nonfiction) and support their attempts to move fluidly between both types of genre as they build their range of writing skills.
- Making Myths and Legends. Gill also explains that although Bessie told stories about her life adventures, over time and retellings, some may have been embellished elaborated over time to create “made-up myths and larger-than-life legends.” As a class, imagine and brainstorm some myths that could arise from her achievements. Explore the role of exaggeration and embellishment in various storytelling traditions. Share some of the videos and articles listed below in Further Explorations to help students determine what is fact about Bessie’s life and what can be exaggerated and elaborated to become the stuff of myths and legends.
- Bessie’s Legacy. Several awards and honors have been established to pay tribute to Bessie Stringfield’s historic achievements and contributions to the world of motorcycling. Research some of these tributes, such as the Bessie Stringfield Memorial Award and the Bessie Stringfield All-Female Ride. How do such awards and honors pay homage to Bessie? How do they carry on and raise awareness of her example and attributes for others? Have you students design memorials, awards, or other forms of tribute to recognize community members and other figures whose accomplishments have been personally significant to them.
- Responsible Riding. Although Bessie Stringfield’s achievements are astounding and paved the way for many female motorcyclists to show their skills, motorcycling is a controversial and highly debated activity. Engage your students in an inquiry about the dangers, risks, and advantages of motorcycling. With the help of a school or local librarian, research the ways in which the activity, the safety equipment, and the motorcycle itself have evolved over time. Have small groups create multimodal presentations about what it means to ride responsibly, considering the roles of the rider, the motorcycle manufacturer, and the government.
Articles about Bessie Stringfield
Videos about Bessie Stringfield
Information about the Bessie Stringfield All-female Ride:
Ahmend, R. (2018). Mae among the stars. Ill. by S. Burrington. New York: HarperCollins.
Byers, G. (2018). I am enough. Ill. by K. A. Bobo. New York: Balzer & Bray.
Harrison, V. (2017). Little leaders: Bold women in Black history. New York: Little, Brown.
Harrison, V. (2018). Little dreamers: Visionary women around the world. New York: Little, Brown.
Hood, S. (2018). Shaking things up: 14 young women who changed the world. Ill. by various artists. New York: HarperCollins.
About Grace Enriquez
Grace is an associate professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former English Language Arts teacher, reading specialist, and literacy consultant, she teaches and writes about children’s literature, critical literacies, and literacies and embodiment. Grace is co-author of The Reading Turn-Around and co-editor of Literacies, Learning, and the Body.
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