Major Taylor: World Cycling Champion
“delivers an exciting biography of triumph in spite of the odds and will be an uplifting and inspiring message for a young mind looking for encouragement to follow their dreams and see what they’re made of.”
Major Taylor is a dynamic book. It lives large. There’s a lot going on in a fast-paced whirlwind of visual imagery and poetic drama. The story is told with all the intensity of a heated competition between rivals. Hold on tight for an edgy ride.
Marshall W. Taylor was born into a large family in Indianapolis, Indiana, in November of 1878. His father worked for a wealthy family taking care of their horses and carriages. Eight-year-old Marshall became fast friends with the family’s only child, an eight year old named Dan. Dan received an education through private tutoring, and Marshall accompanied Dan to all of his lessons. Together Dan and Marshall learned to play sports and be competitive with each other, which allowed Marshall to build confidence interacting with people regardless of race differences.
When Dan and his family moved away, they gave Marshall a bicycle that he used to deliver newspapers. As a young teen, Marshall loved to learn new tricks on his bike, and one day the bike shop owner saw what he was doing and offered him a job at the bike shop. Marshall attracted customers by “performing” tricks in front of the shop. He earned the name “Major” because of the type of military jacket he wore.
A former cycling champion, “Birdie” Munger, heard about Marshall’s abilities and hired him to help open a new shop. Birdie began training Major for racing. He showed him how to sprint and handle the endurance challenge of a long race. Indiana did not allow Black and white racers to compete together, so Birdie and Marshall moved to Massachusetts. Just after Marshall turned 18 he entered the Six-Day Race at Madison Square Garden in New York City. He was the only Black racer in the 28-racer lineup. He was also the youngest and the smallest.
And that is where the story begins. At the racetrack in Madison Square Garden, on day one of the six-day competition, December 7, 1896. The track is spread out across the full two pages, and it’s a packed stand. It’s full of people and lights and energy and anticipation as all the riders are lined up waiting for the starting gun to release them. Turn the page and wow, the energy of the excited crowd shifts dramatically to the fury and contempt of the white racers giving Major the evilest of looks full of hatred and disgust. It’s bone chilling. Yet Major is set, focused and ready for the test of physical and mental strength.
The gun goes off with a “BANG!” as a properly dressed, portly white man with a walrus mustache, watch chain hanging across his suit vest, black bow tie and bowler hat shoots the blank pistol into the air. Major is the underdog hero. Entering the race took courage enough, now he has to fight through it. Smith’s writing lends encouragement throughout the book: “GO, Major, GO!” is a common interjection.
Day by day the race continues. The story, conveyed along each day of the race, alternates between flashbacks of Major’s life story, cheer-leading for Major to keep pushing forward, and play-by-plays of what’s happening as the race goes along. Major wins the hearts of the crowd and continues to have a career as a cycling champion like his mentor, Birdie. The pacing and word choice Smith uses also fluctuates between the pounding rhythm of rap music and the sweet tenderness of a lullaby. The only downside is the insistence of Smith to incorporate rhyme into everything. This is unnecessary, and it wrecks the flow of the story by creating cringe worthy distractions.
Espinosa, however, is consistent in his excellence. His illustrations are the heart and soul of this book. He earns the page-turning thrill award for creativity and ingenuity of his designs and depiction of emotion page after page. One almost wishes that Smith could have taken a step down and not competed so much with Espinosa. They do come across as two powerhouse rivals competing for attention in telling a common story, one talking over the other to help make a point; siblings competing to be the first to tell their parents what happened at the race that day. In any case, Major Taylor delivers an exciting biography of triumph in spite of the odds and will be an uplifting and inspiring message for a young mind looking for encouragement to follow their dreams and see what they’re made of.