A woman in old-fashioned dress flying in a basket under a balloon.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.

Children with book around a globe

I participate every Wednesday in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge at Kid Lit Frenzy.

Cover of book, showing Ruth Law flying in a biplane.What did it take to be a woman aviator in the early 1900s? Pluck. Intelligence. Courage.

Ruth Law had them all. This story of her record-breaking flight from Chicago to New York City had me worrying for her, pulling for her, and ultimately applauding her success.

I especially loved the way quotes from Law are used throughout this book. There are thirteen quotes in all, and each of them is strategically placed for maximum impact. None of them are introduced with “she said” or any dialogue tag at all. They give the reader a sense of immediacy, as if I were really hearing Ruth Law tell her own story. For example, as she enters New York City, I read:

Gliding, Ruth circled around the State of Liberty toward Governor’s Island.

“She smiled at me when I went past. She did!…I think we both feel alike about things.”

As soon as I turned to the back matter, I knew this book had to have been published by Calkins Creek. They love back matter and lavish care and attention on it. We get two full pages of “More About Ruth Law,” giving more details about this trip as well as telling what happened to her after the trip. There’s a full page of bibliographic material and more than a full page of source attribution for the quotes–all in type just as big as that used in the rest of the book!

I especially loved the photos in the back matter. That, combined with Raul Colon’s pencil illustrations, made the book feel alive. You can get a glimpse of the photos and the illustrations together in this one minute long trailer. 

Fearless Flyer: Ruth Law and Her Flying Machine by Heather Lang, pictures by Raul Colon. Calkins Creek: 2016