Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Women's History Month Book Review: Tillie the Terrible Swede: How One Woman, a Sewing Needle, and a Bicycle Changed History (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011)

MARCH 16 Today's post is provided by The Fourth Musketeer
Recommended for ages 5-10.  

In the 1890's, bicycles were intimately associated with women's rights and the suffragist movements.   Two new books for young people on this subject are out this year:  Sue Stauffacher's picture book biography of bicycle racer Tillie Anderson (aka "The Terrible Swede") and Sue Macy's Wheels of Change:  How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (with a Few Flat Tires Along the Way). [Sue Macy will be contributing a guest post later this month on Kidlit Celebrates Women's History Month.]

Tillie Anderson appeared to be a typical hard-working immigrant girl, laboring in a tailor shop.  But when a man on a bicycle rides by the shop, she begins saving up her money to buy one of the new-fangled contraptions, despite warnings from her mother that bicycles aren't for ladies. 

Tillie wasn't interested in riding gracefully around a maypole, like other girls; she started training to get strong enough to ride fast, really fast.  But there was a problem--her 19th century dresses.  Soon Tillie designed herself a more aerodynamic bicycle outfit, one that scandalized the whole neighborhood.  But Tillie didn't care if her friends and family thought she was "wicked"; she soon was entering her first cycling races, breaking women's records left and right and becoming the women's bicycle-racing champion of the world.  She became famous, with poets writing her odes, bicycle companies looking for endorsements, and reporters wanting to interview her.  Some male cyclists thought Tillie was "unwomanly," and doctors even examined her to see what the effects of all that hard exercise would be on a woman's body.  They found her, not surprisingly, to be a "mass of muscle," and put a picture of her leg in the newspaper!  Imagine how shocking in those days, when a mere glimpse of a woman's ankle was viewed as something sexy and forbidden. 

The reader can't help but be inspired by the story of this remarkable woman, a celebrity in the era before female athletes were accepted.   Sarah McMenemy's bright and colorful gouache and collage illustrations are simply charming, and add immeasurably to the appeal of this tale. The opening end papers show the accessories of a proper Victorian lady, depicted in a soft, feminine lavender, while the end papers at the conclusion of the book feature a year-by-year breakdown of Tillie's records and her cycling victories, seen on a background of a vibrant lime green, decorated with trophies, Tillie on her bicycle, and swirls of speed.  This is a great story to share with girls of all ages.

For more on the real-life Tillie, visit  For more on the history of bicycling, the book's author recommends

Author Sue Stauffacher is currently training for an exciting project related to this book:  her Tillie Ride (see for the full story). In short, for a week in May 2011, Sue and her husband, along with groups of schoolchildren joining them along the way, will ride from Grand Rapids, Michigan to Chicago, Illinois, to deliver copies of her book about Tillie to the Chicago Public Library, visiting schools along the way that have not had a children's book author visit within the last five years.  Her goal is not only to celebrate Tillie's legacy but to get kids excited about biking, demonstrate what can be achieved through relationships and networking, and celebrate her 50th birthday and 25th anniversary!

The real Tillie on her bicycle


  1. Sue, very best happy trails to you on your bicycle journey upcoming in May.
    What an exciting season for you & your family.
    I bet the Chicago Public Library's young readers will be thrilled to welcome you all as you roll in.

    So many of us know nothing about Ms. Tillie Anderson. Thank you to the two Sues
    Sue Stauffacher and Sue Macy.

  2. This one is on order for my library. I'll definitely take a look at it when it arrives. Thanks for the heads up, Margo.

  3. thank you for writing this book! Tillie is my great aunt. Her home is at my parents' resort in minnesota and it is like a little museum-still much like how she left it when she passed away. Her sister Emma (my grandmother) had an interesting life too. She was an RN and was a nurse in WW1 in france. We have her trunk full of war memorabilia, war nurses uniforms and not tp mention letters from the soldiers that she cared for and also her future husband, who was from her same company. I always think that the contents of her trunk would contribute to an extremely interesting story. blessed be their memories. -sara