Written and Illustrated by Matt Davies
A Neal Porter Book, Roaring Brook Press
Grades 2 and Up
A crow, a bicycle, and a green-striped hoodie populate Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist Matt Davies’s first picture book, but no grown-ups. By maintaining a child’s worldview, Davies allows protagonist Ben to be at the center of the decision-making in this humorous and surprising new book about bullying. While the illustrations allow the reader to imagine lots of twists and turns on the way to and from school, the actions of Ben and bully Adrian Underbite will resonate with kids living in the real world. In a culture in which helicopter parents often hover, Davies reminds children and adults alike that kids have agency all their own. With wonderful vocabulary and brisk pacing, Ben Rides On can play many roles in the classroom, from examining temporal sequencing in story, to exploring the realities of bullying, to comparing and contrasting illustrating fiction and composing political cartoons.
Teaching Ideas and Invitations
- The Backstory. Ben Rides On begins by saying: “Now that he had the bicycle of his dreams, Ben Lukin loved going to school.” Why does the bicycle make such a difference? How did he used to go to school? What was so terrible about Ben’s previous method of transportation? Have students write short “prequels” to Ben Rides On that provide the backstory. Was Adrian Underbite involved?
- Real vs. Imaginary. If you read the straight text of Ben Rides On, it is a completely realistic story. But if you explore the pictures, you see a range of imaginary and fantastical experiences alongside the realistic ones. Have your students list what is real and what is fantasy in the illustrations. How do these illustrations contribute to the overall mood of the story?
- Getting to School. How do students in your class get to school? Do they walk? Ride a bike? Take a bus, train, or boat? Do adults accompany them or do they travel on their own like Ben? Why or why not? Have students discuss the ways they get to school to compare and contrast the range of transport. Next, have students write about how they wish they could travel to school and what they would see along the way. Use Ben Rides On as a mentor text, combining realistic and fantastical before-school journeys.
- Why the Crow? In almost every illustration, a crow accompanies Ben on his journey to and from school. Why? Have your students explore the crow’s contribution to the story. Does it make the story funnier? Did Ben need some sort of friend or companion?
- Story Sequencing. The book begins by stating, “Now that he had the bicycle of his dreams, Ben Lukin loved going to school.” Later in the story, we learn that he only loves going to school. “It was arriving at school that Ben hated.” The story then goes on to use other time-based words: after, when, just, suddenly, while, and still. Have students craft a short fictional piece that uses these time-based words to great a twist in some way.
- Duet Exploration: Exploring Bullying. Read Ben Rides On and Each Kindness in the Duet Model. Have students compare and contrast the bullying that occurs in each book. The two books have decidedly different moods and different outcomes. What do students make of that? Which is more “realistic” to them?
- Duet Exploration: Gestures of Kindness. Have students read A Homefor Bird and then Ben Rides On in the Duet Model. In each book, the protagonist does something good for someone else. In the case of Vernon the toad in A Home for Bird, he searches far and wide to bring Bird, a stranger, home. In the case of Ben, in Ben Rides On, he rescues Adrian from a terrible fall even though he has suffered from Adrian’s bullying. What motivates Vernon and Ben?
- Decision-Making. Begin to read Ben Rides On aloud with your class. But stop on the page immediately after Adrian steals Ben’s bike, with the close-up of Ben’s face. Have half the class write what Ben is thinking, and have half the class write what Adrian is thinking. Partner up to compare and contrast each character’s perspective. Finish the book and compare their responses to the ending Matt Davies selected.
- No Grown-Ups? Why are there no grown-ups in the story? Why didn’t Ben tell a grown-up that Adrian stole his bike? Why didn’t Ben get help from a grown-up once he discovered Adrian dangling off of a cliff?
- Similes. At the climactic moment of the story there appears a wonderful simile, as Adrian Underbite “lunged like an airborne walrus toward his rescuer.” Have your students come up with other similes to describe actions that include other animals and interesting verbs. The funnier, the better! Illustrations might be a helpful as a starting point for concrete thinkers. Students can draw an action they see in their mind’s eye, and then come up with an appropriate simile.
- Simple Story, Sophisticated Vocabulary. Ben Rides On is an easy story for intermediate grade students to read on a technical level, though it has sophisticated themes. It also has sophisticated vocabulary. Use the book as a way to teach the meaning of some great words, including: gleaming, devastated, revolve, whereupon, significant, perilously, eternity, hauling, galoot, momentarily, and lunged.
- Exploring Strong Victims: Read Ben Rides On as a scaffold to a longer and deeper exploration of how some children respond to bullying. After your students discuss Ben’s actions, have some students read Wonder by R.J. Palacio and others read Loser by Jerry Spinelli. How do Ben, August Pullman of Wonder, and Daniel from Loser respond to bullying in similar ways? How do they differ from one another? How do their actions and attitudes influence their peers? Are these books realistic? How so? How not?
- Author-Genre Study. This is Matt Davies’s first picture book. But he is an accomplished political cartoonist with a tremendous volume of work. Use his website as a means of introduction to the content of his cartoons. Assign or allow students to select a “tag” on his blog to explore in a small group setting. Some students may need to read additional articles or listen to news stories to fully understand the sophistication of his political cartoons. Have each small group compare and contrast what he does with words and pictures in his political cartoons with what he does in Ben Rides On. How are the similar? How do they differ? This is a wonderful way for middle school language arts and social studies teachers to team up and explore political discourse.
Matt Davies’s Official Website
Kids on Bikes (Colorado Springs)
Kids Who Walk or Bike to School Concentrate Better Study Shows
“What’s Lost When Kids Don’t Ride Bikes to School” NPR Story
New York Times Topic: Bicycles and Bicycling
Bullying – American Psychological Association
PBS It’s My Life: Friends and Bullies
What You Need to Know About Bullying
Cooperative Children’s Book Center Bibliography on Bullying, Teasing, Relational Aggression, and School Violence
Palacio, R. J. (2012). Wonder. New York: Knopf.
Spinelli, J. (2002). Loser. New York: Harper.
Stead, P. (2012). A home for Bird. New York: Roaring Press.
Woodson, J. (2012). Each kindness. Ill. by E.B. Lewis. New York: Nancy Paulsen Books.