Since 12-year-old Mick Harte has an after-school meeting at a friend’s house, he asks his older sister, Phoebe, to ride his bike home for him. But she has soccer practice and can’t help him out. So Mick rides it himself. He never makes it to his meeting. When his bicycle is struck by a passing truck, Mick dies from a head injury. He was not wearing a bicycle helmet.
This is the tragic starting point of Barbara Park’s Mick Harte Was Here which Knopf published on April 15. Unlike the author’s previous novels–notably the perennial favorites Skinnybones and The Kid in the Red Jacket–humor is not the point here. The poignant, penetrating narrative (told in Phoebe’s voice) and unequivocal mandate to readers to wear bicycle safety helmets mark this as Park’s most resonating and important book to date.
Park notes that two separate experiences inspired Mick Harte Was Here, which concludes with an urgent, personal note from the author: “I urge all of you who do not wear bike helmets to please reconsider your decision. Today. Please. It’s your life.” The first incident occurred several years ago, when she and her husband were taking a walk in their neighborhood outside of Phoenix. “We came across a reenactment of an accident that had happened earlier that day,” she recalls. “There was a vehicle pulled over to the side, and police were measuring skid marks to determine how fast it had been going. And then I saw the bicycle. A child had been killed by that car. I never got over this. I have never again passed that spot without thinking of that child and what the family must have gone through.”
Though much affected by this episode, Park didn’t realize that there was a novel in it. Then months later, she read a newspaper article about bicycle helmet safety. “It contained a quote from a father who had lost his son in a bicycle accident,” she recalls. “The boy was not wearing a helmet. What his father said, in essence, was that there was not a scratch on his son’s body and that an inch of styrofoam would have saved his life. Over the next year these two events meshed in my mind somewhere, and I decided to tackle this subject.”
It was not an easy task. Writing Mick Harte Was Here took Park far longer than any of her previous books. “The hardest part was taking on such a depressing subject,” she says. “I kept asking myself, ‘Who is going to want to read this?’ I was afraid that kids would put it down if it was too sad, so I tried to add light touches in with all the heavy moments. I decided to include happy, funny remembrances of Mick. But I still needed to address all that his sister and parents were going through. I knew I couldn’t soft-pedal the painful, real parts.”
Spreading the Word
Park spent the last week in April and the first week of this month–National Bicycle Safety Month—on an eight-city tour promoting her novel and its message. Kelly Grunther, manager of public relations for Random House’s juvenile and merchandise group, has prepared an extensive press kit–which includes an endorsement of the book by the Long Island Head Injury Association—that encourages booksellers as well as media to underscore the connection between the novel and bicycle helmet safety. In hopes of further bonding the book and the issue, the publisher has joined forces with Cycle Products Company, which has donated a hefty number of bicycle helmets to be used in the book’s promotion. These will be given away by booksellers whose stores Park visits as well as by the 20 to 25 radio stations across the country that will be airing a satellite interview with the author.
Retailers have been quick to embrace Park’s critical cause. One stop on the author’s itinerary is Hicklebee’s in San Jose, where a window display featuring a bicycle has for several weeks been setting the stage for the novelist’s visit. Customers purchasing any Barbara Park novel can put their names in for a drawing to win one of the bicycle helmets that have been donated by local bicycle shops. On the day of Park’s signing, anyone who comes to the store wearing a helmet is eligible for another drawing–this One for an autographed copy of Mick Harte Was Here.
At The Library Limited in St. Louis, marketing director Nancy Higgins organized what she describes as a “family event” on May 5, when Park visited this bookstore. Staffers from a local bike shop gave a demonstration on bicycle safety and a helmet was raffled. Higgins remarks, “We are tying a number of events during May into Mother’s Day, and this fits perfectly. We chose to focus on how mothers can teach their children safe biking habits.”
Park is thrilled to be able to take her mission on the road. “This is, truly, the most exciting thing that has happened to me through one of my books,” she says. “I’ve always made it a point not to be a moralizing, finger-waving, ‘I’ve-got-something-to-teach you’ kind of author. But this is an exception. I intended from the very beginning to get kids to do one specific thing: to wear a bicycle helmet, even if they don’t think it’s cool. I know this sounds very corny, but it is the truth: my biggest hope is that someday I’ll get a letter from a youngster who will tell me, ‘I read Mick Harte Was Here and went out and got a bicycle helmet. I was in an accident, but I was wearing my helmet. I’m okay–because of your hook.'”