Synopses & Reviews
Dispatches from the new front lines of parenthood
When the two-time National Book Award finalist Melissa Fay Greene confided to friends that she and her husband planned to adopt a four-year-old boy from Bulgaria to add to their four children at home, the news threatened to place her, she writes, “among the greats: the Kennedys, the McCaughey septuplets, the von Trapp family singers, and perhaps even Mrs. Feodor Vassilyev, who, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, gave birth to sixty-nine children in eighteenth-century Russia.” Greene is best known for her books on the civil rights movement and the African HIV/AIDS pandemic. Shes been praised for her “historians urge for accuracy,” her “sociologists sense of social nuance,” and her “writerly passion for the beauty of language.”
But Melissa and her husband have also pursued a more private vocation: parenthood. “We so loved raising our four children by birth, we didnt want to stop. When the clock started to run down on the home team, we brought in ringers.”
When the number of children hit nine, Greene took a break from reporting. She trained her journalists eye upon events at home. Fisseha was riding a bike down the basement stairs; out on the porch, a squirrel was sitting on Jesses head; vulgar posters had erupted on bedroom walls; the insult niftam (the Amharic word for “snot”) had led to fistfights; and four non-native-English-speaking teenage boys were researching, on Moms computer, the subject of “saxing.” “At first I thought one of our trombone players was considering a change of instrument,” writes Greene. “Then I remembered: they cant spell.” Using the tools of her trade, she uncovered the true subject of the “saxing” investigation, inspiring the chapter “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, but Couldnt Spell.” A celebration of parenthood; an ingathering of children, through birth and out of loss and bereavement; a relishing of moments hilarious and enlightening—No Biking in the House Without a Helmet is a loving portrait of a unique twenty first-century family as it wobbles between disaster and joy.
“Love knows no bounds—and no borders—in journalist Greenes ebullient valentine to her family of nine children . . . ‘Who made you the Old Woman Who Lives in a Shoe? a friend quips, but Greene doesnt apologize. Instead, she shows what it means to knit together a family that ‘steers by the light . . . of what feels right and true.” —Caroline Leavitt, People (four stars)
“Readers . . . will find plenty of hilarity in this romping account of [Greenes] boisterous brood . . . [she] brings her well-honed research and reporting skills to this very personal story . . . this joy—experiencing it and conveying it to readers—is her greatest success.” —Suki Casanave, The Washington Post
“No Biking in the House Without a Helmet is [Melissa Fay Greenes] sprawling, imperfect, courageous and joyful account of the adoption process, warts and all—the heart-wrenching trips to orphanages, frustrating delays, visits with living relatives, and the way her family welcomed and made room for each child, as well as the inevitable homesickness and culture clashes and sometimes rocky emotional terrain . . . The moral of her story? Just the opposite of the titles warning. Dont be afraid to break the rules, to 'steer by the light of what makes us laugh, what makes us feel good'—especially if it means biking in the house, with or without a helmet. With deep compassion, sparkling humor and an unshakable faith in the power of the whoopee cushion, she leads the way.” —Gina Webb, Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“Moving, enlightening, and surprisingly funny ... No Biking in the House Without a Helmet ... folds an adoption primer into a meditation on family.” —Sara Nelson, O, The Oprah Magazine
“Joyful and big-hearted . . . This funny and frankly personal book is a departure for Greene, whose previous work has been sober and measured. The title sounds like a madcap domestic comedy in the tradition of Jean Kerr and Erma Bombeck, which it sometimes is. But Greenes humor is less acerbic, her persona less addled . . . Greene is such an open and self-deprecating narrator she makes every addition to her family seem like the most natural and beautiful move in the world, ‘each child—whether homemade or foreign born—a revelation, a treasure. The ability to write brilliant books with a houseful of children is clearly the least of Greene's gifts.” —Jennifer Reese, NPR.org
“There are funny parenting books and wise parenting books. Rarely a funny and wise parenting book. Melissa Fay Greene really does have nine children, five of whom were adopted from foreign orphanages—but this book isnt a treacly, multicultural ‘Brady Bunch. Neither moralistic nor preachy, this memoir is about what its like to have heart, and grow children with heart. In another writers less deft hands, children who herded goats in Ethiopia and then relocated to a big old house in Atlanta could have become a Southern Jewish version of Brad and Angelina. Greene captures the wild vicissitudes of her familys life and how individual difference enriches them all.” —Elizabeth Taylor, Chicago Tribune
“For the past 21 years Melissa Fay Greene has been raising nine children, both biological and adopted. In her memoir No Biking in the House Without a Helmet, she writes of the many parenting obstacles she has encountered, overcome, and met again as the rules change completely for her second wave of children. Talk about a story for the ages.” —Town & Country
“A truly heartfelt memoir . . . [Greene] resists the urge to be cloying, however, infusing each chapter with a strong dose of humor and not shying away from the difficulties presented by adopting older children . . . Its all one big, happy family but also a very real one. Call them the twenty-first-century Waltons, and revel in the joy they have found and brought home for keeps.” —Colleen Mondor, Booklist (starred review)
“Greene is a writer of emotional impact . . . Her words are flush with humanity and all the messiness and comedy that humanity trails in its wake. She goes the distance, which is a beautiful thing to behold . . . Eventually, an enveloping sweetness and involvement swept away all but what is elementally grand about being a parent and nursing a child. An upbeat chronicle of a life that has been lived on the bright side of the road, its ruts beveled by naked love.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Joy to the world. Line by glorious line, with raw honesty and unforced hilarity, Melissa Fay Greene tells the story of the true mega-family of the millennium, which is not some reality-show curiosity shop, but her very own nine children: those who came home from the hospital and those who came home from the airport. People often assure me that Ill laugh and cry reading a book. I may smile; I may feel a lump in my throat. But I wept a dozen times reading No Biking and woke my own kids up with my laughter, as I stayed up all night with this, the Cheaper by the Dozen for a new planet. Melissa Fay Greene never set out to raise the world, only to raise her children. With this book, she raises the bar, wherever the word ‘family is spoken, for every single one of us.” —Jacquelyn Mitchard, author of The Deep End of the Ocean and Second Nature: A Love Story
“The funniest part of this book is not the fact that several of Melissa Fay Greenes nine children were once Ethiopian goat herders. The funniest part is that she has nine children. She not only loves and appreciates every one, she brings them all to vivid life with affection, exasperation, candor, and (indispensable, under the circumstances) humor. I went from Are you kidding? to I love these people! in four pages flat.” —Marilyn Johnson, author of This Book Is Overdue!
“Brimming with humor and love, the story of Greenes ever-expanding family is both unique and universal. Not everyone watches a son spear a Frisbee in mid-flight or weave a bullwhip out of the suburban shrubbery. But everyone at some point asks what it means to be a parent, a sibling, a family. Greene answers these questions with wit and wisdom. I finished her book with a renewed conviction that it is possible to shrink this wide world and to begin to bridge the chasms that have opened between us.” —Geraldine Brooks, author of People of the Book and March
“About every five years, we get a book from Melissa Fay Greene. Ive learned to wait for them eagerly, always excited to know what this thoughtful, sensitive writer is going to do next. Now—No Biking in the House Without a Helmet. That title tells you in no uncertain terms that you will laugh, but theres a lot more in these pages than humor, including Melissas trademark generosity, optimism, winning self-deprecation, and high spirits. As a writer, a reader, and—like Melissa—the parent of an adopted child, Im glad to know that this book will soon be out, and I hope it finds a very large audience.” —David Guterson, author of The Other and Snow Falling on Cedars
When the two-time National Book Award finalist Melissa Fay Greene confided to friends that she and her husband planned to adopt a four-year-old boy from Bulgaria to add to their four children at home, the news threatened to place her, she writes, “among the greats: the Kennedys, the McCaughey septuplets, the von Trapp family singers, and perhaps even Mrs. Feodor Vassilyev, who, according to the Guinness Book of World Records
, gave birth to sixty-nine children in eighteenth-century Russia.”
Greene is best known for her books on the civil rights movement and the African HIV/AIDS pandemic. But she and her husband have also pursued a more private vocation: parenthood. “We so loved raising our four children by birth, we didnt want to stop. When the clock started to run down on the home team, we brought in ringers.”
A celebration of parenthood; an ingathering of children, through birth and out of loss and bereavement; a relishing of moments hilarious and enlightening—No Biking in the House Without a Helmet is a loving portrait of a unique twenty-first-century family as it wobbles between disaster and joy.
About the Author
Melissa Fay Greene is the author of Praying for Sheetrock, The Temple Bombing, Last Man Out, and There Is No Me Without You. Two of her books have been finalists for the National Book Award, and New York Universitys journalism department named Praying for Sheetrock one of the top one hundred works of journalism in the twentieth century. She has written for The New Yorker, The Washington Post, The New York Times Magazine, Atlantic Monthly, Good Housekeeping, Newsweek, Life, Readers Digest, Redbook, and Salon, among others. She and her husband, Don Samuel, have nine children and live in Atlanta.
Reading Group Guide
Cast of characters: parents Melissa Greene and Don Samuel; and Samuel children (in order of age): Molly, Seth, Lee, Lily, Fisseha (“Sol”), Daniel, Jesse, Helen, and Yosef
1. How does the Greene/Samuel household compare to your family? Did you—or did your parents—grow up with a houseful of brothers and sisters? What was that like? Did you ever entertain thoughts of raising many children? What does a child gain by having half a dozen or more siblings? What does a child lose?
2. What surprised you the most as Melissa described her initiation into the international adoption process? Were you surprised to learn about sometimes misleading adoption agency promotions and about the dire conditions of some institutionalized children? What happens when a childs physical, cognitive, or emotional needs overwhelm his or her new parents?
3. How did Melissa balance her research into the medical aspects of international adoption with her heartfelt desire to adopt a child? Have you had parenting or other life experiences in which your heart pulled you in one direction while your head led you in another? Have you ever felt frozen between turning a blind eye to the truth and losing your courage as a result of fact-finding? How did you strike a balance and move forward?
4. The title represents a type of ridiculous warning parents sometimes find themselves obliged to say to children. Melissa mentions others, including “I want you to hit each other outside!” and “Please dont wrestle with the scissors near the baby.” Can you share any absurdities you were forced to say to your children? What does the books title say about Melissas approach to parenting?
5. How did the chapter “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, but Couldnt Spell” compare to your adolescent sex education and/or the education of your adolescents?
6. The ability of children to play is pivotal at several key moments, including Jesses assimilation into family life, Melissas introduction of whoopee cushions and Twister to Helens orphanage, and Sol and Daniels peace pact. In 2010, the United Nations codified a new Millennium Development Goal for the world, entitled “Sport for Development and Peace.” Talk about ways in which play and sports can overcome social, economic, cultural, racial, national, and cognitive barriers between people.
7. Sols story contains many unique elements, including a warm connection between his biological grandmother and his adoptive parents, and the revelation that his mother is still living. What values has this somewhat unusual “international open adoption” imparted to his life and the familys?
8. Yosef and Daniel became part of the family at the urging of Lee. What inspired Melissa and Don to trust an eighteen-year-olds intuition that the Gizaw brothers, then ages nine and twelve, should be part of the Greene/Samuel family? What would have been the scariest consideration for you in facing such a decision? What factors might have given you the courage to proceed or convinced you to say no?
9. It takes financial resources to house and feed children, but Melissa and Don seem to have chosen the route of “rich in love” rather than “rich” in more practical ways. What family values can be relayed to children regardless of a familys socioeconomic standing? How can well-off families impart to their children the importance of battling poverty and injustice?
10. The books descriptions of Ethiopian cuisine reveal the power of food as a link to our roots. What recipes capture your childhood? What special meals will your own children remember (either fondly or with horror) as touchstones of their childhood?
11. Like most adoptive parents, Melissa and Don immerse their new children in their own heritage, including religious traditions. Yet they also attempt to help their children preserve ties to their birth countries and to their first families. What is your experience of trying to respect and sustain more than one language or more than one cultural, national, or religious tradition in your home?
12. How did sibling relationships evolve during the arrival of more and more children? How do brotherly bonds seem to differ from sisterly bonds? What steps did Melissa and Don take to try to build unity among all nine children?
13. Upon Helens return visit to Ethiopia in 2007, she is overwhelmed by the widespread suffering. She tearfully asks, “What makes a country rich or poor?” What would you have told her that day?
14. Do you have personal experience of adoption or foster care? How would you compare your experiences with those described in No Biking in the House Without a Helmet? Is adopting or fostering a baby or older child something you would consider in life? Is it helpful to read that there could be difficult hurdles along the way, or would you prefer not to know in advance? Would you find the angels and storks and kitties of adoption agency websites alluring, or would you prefer to hear harder truths up front?
15. Are you acquainted with Melissas earlier books, Praying for Sheetrock, The Temple Bombing, Last Man Out, or There Is No Me Without You? Though she has written about the civil rights movement, a historic coal mine disaster, and the current HIV/AIDS pandemic and orphan crisis in Africa, her books all focus on unsung heroes and on struggles for racial or economic justice. No Biking in the House Without a Helmet is her first memoir and her first truly light hearted book. Are themes of justice and heroism also discernible here?
Visit Melissa online at www.MelissaFayGreene.com
Reading group guide written by Amy Root Clements / Amy Roots Wordshop, Inc., and Melissa Fay Greene