Balloons! Fancy hats! Napoleon! All this plus female empowerment. Lighter than Air: Sophie Blanchard, the First Woman Pilot is a biography of an eighteenth century woman balloonist. As Matthew Clark Smith warns in the back matter, “I was forced to use my imagination in describing Sophie’s childhood.” But he grounds it in real events of the same time–“Fashionable ladies wore balloon-shaped hats. Families dined on balloon-painted plates.” The book, especially in the early pages, probably crosses the boundary out of nonfiction, but it is a sacrifice that I think is required in order to tell a story that would otherwise be silenced.
Most of the illustrations show Sophie’s hair blowing in the wind. The book seems, appropriately, breezy, as if we were up in the air with Sophie.
I loved the brief mention of Jean-Pierre Blanchard and John Jeffries’ balloon flight over the English Channel when “they had to toss everything overboard to keep from crashing into the sea–even their trousers!” Makes me want to pull out A Voyage to the Clouds to read as a companion book. The tone of the two books couldn’t be more different, but some of the content is the same. I can imagine fascinating conversations and an interesting Venn diagram or two from a comparison of the two books with kids.
Lighter than Air: Sophie Blanchard, the First Woman Pilot by Matthew Clark Smith, illustrated by Matt Tavares. Candlewick: 2017.