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Thursday, November 11, 2010

My Brothers' Flying Machine

My BrothersFlying Machine: Wilbur, Orville and me by Jane Yolen paintings by Jim Burke Saffron Tree Book review
My Brothers' Flying Machine: Wilbur, Orville and me
by Jane Yolen
paintings by Jim Burke

Little, Brown and Company, 2003

Ages 4-8

The Flying Machine, an airborne chariot capable of transporting man through the domain of Zeus himself, had a profound and historic significance in mankind's progress in the recent centuries.

In the era of airplanes, stealth fighter jets, space shuttles and deep space probes, it is not easy to impress upon the young minds about the time before, when all this was nothing short of magic. Much like all scientific revelations, until the framework and references are in place, it *is* magic. And magic begets more magic. Each tool, each technological advance builds on the previous until a critical point is reached when it is hard to stop its exponential growth.

My Brothers' Flying Machine tells the story of the Wright brothers' indefatigable quest for man to fly - through the eyes of their little sister Katherine. However, it is not a fictional account of Katherine detailing "How I helped my brothers build their first airplane". It is a creative retelling of historical facts, presented as a flowing text reminiscent of long and descriptive poems of yore.

"When the world speaks of the Wrights, it must include our sister. Much of our effort has been inspired by her." -- Orville Wright.

Katherine says she was four years old when Papa brought home a flying machine which Orv and Will immediately toss around with not-so-gentle hands. It breaks. And they fix it. They fix it so it works better than when Papa first brought it home.

With a first person account like this which said more than the mere words, the book immediately appealed to me.

Ana is a stage where she is quite interested in "real" people's stories - stories from my childhood, stories from when she was a baby, stories about other people who did interesting things in their life (Bottle Houses was a surprising favorite in this genre, while Wangari's Trees of Peace left quite an impression).

Katherine's strong personality and her staunch support for her brothers' endeavors makes her a veritable force, albeit a back-stage one, in the development of the Wright Brothers' Flying Machine.

Katherine's reference to fleeting nature of fashion regarding the hobble skirt, as well as her matter-of-fact statement about not being the first woman to fly were delivered beautifully. When finally it was her turn to fly, Katherine shares, "Wind scoured my face till my cheeks turned bright red. Then, I opened my arms wide, welcoming all the sky before me.", leaving us with the same exhilaration as we close the book.

Jane Yolen, an award-winning, much-respected and much-loved children's book author, has taken some rather complex ideas and made them wonderfully appealing and accessible to the young ones. After reading Mama's Kiss, Owl Moon, and How Do Dinosaurs... books by Ms. Yolen, My Brothers' Flying Machine came as quite a surprise for me in terms of the subject matter.

In A Note from the Author, Ms. Yolen states that both brothers have credited Katherine with having a hand in their success. In honor of Katherine's steadfast faith and support, in 1981 the Gates Learjet Corporation established a Katherine Wright Memorial Award to be given annually to a woman who provides encouragement and inspiration, behind the scenes, in aeronautics industry advancement, or to a woman who has made personal contribution to the art, sport, and science of aviation.

The paintings by Jim Burke capture the period, the mood, and the action beautifully. The soft lighting, the muted warm colors, and the full-page format that sometimes depict a view from the sky, sometimes zoom in on the intense expression of the brothers standing shoulder-to-shoulder, project a combination of grace and remoteness that is characteristic of historical portraits.

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