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November 2006 issue -- Ilana Dover, An Airplane Is Born: The Story of the Wright Brothers' Experiments and Invention. (Indiana: Authorhouse, 2005), 32 pp., $19.99.
Young children are captivated by stories of imaginary heroes and heroines whose struggles and successes are set in mythical lands or ancient times. But where does the very young child learn about real-life heroes, significant human achievements, and dramatic life events?
Too often the answer is nowhere—or at least nowhere reliable.
Long-time California Montessori teacher Ilana Dover aims to remedy that with the Real Heroes book series. Subtitled “stories of men and women who have changed the course of human history,” this series is designed to introduce children under age eight to the wonders and struggles of great inventors, business people, and innovators of all stripes—and to motivate youngsters to achieve great things themselves.
Meant to be read aloud to children, the first book in the series, An Airplane Is Born, is about Wilbur and Orville Wright. The Wright brothers’ story is itself framed within the tale of another good role model: a bright daughter asking her mother questions about how things work.
This is a lovely book. Carefully researched and crafted to convey basic facts, it highlights, through dramatic storytelling, the Wright brothers’ curiosity, ambition, and perseverance:
“They decided to build their own flying machine. They decided to read everything ever written about flying.” “Many people thought they were wasting their time and that people would never fly. But the Wright brothers did not give up; they kept giving it another try.” “The wind lifted the glider, and it stayed in the air for a few seconds. Then it crashed in the soft sand. After making repairs to the glider, they carried it to the top of the sand dune and tried again…and again…and again.” “Newspaper reporters ignored their experiments or reported them as failures. But the Wright brothers did not think of them as failures. They were discovering things about flying that no one knew before! That was important and they would not give up.”
The text, characterized by simple, developmentally appropriate sentence structures, sometimes challenges the child with more difficult words, like “absurd,” and even mathematical concepts: “It had double-layered wings spanning 17 feet!” Such passages are intended to prompt curious questions from child to parent.
Ms. Dover has the background to know what young children need. She has been a Montessori-trained teacher since 1980, and has studied marriage, family, and child counseling. For the past seven years she has worked at the San Jose Montessori School as Assistant Director, and in the Children’s House where she teaches children ages 3 to 6.
A delightful book, of immense value
In developing the book, she experimented by reading early drafts to her classes and the final draft to her kindergarten-aged students. She reports that “the children were always surprised to hear that there was a time when there were no airplanes, and they invariably told me about struggles in their lives when they did not give up.” The readings also inspired the children to write their own books and plan inventions.
Self-published through Authorhouse, the book has high production values. Ms. Dover engaged illustrator and portrait artist Danny Grant to provide the bright, subtly shaded watercolor paintings in the book. Charming scenes fill the pages, showing Wilbur and Orville’s as children playing with a toy bamboo airplane, and depicting their tireless experiments. The book includes a bibliography and, in the endnotes, actual pictures of the Wright brothers and their work.
An Airplane Is Born could have benefited from an editor’s eye, which would have caught occasional problems of verb tense, such as the one in this passage: “They made many experiments with it, sometimes loading the glider with 75 pounds of chains to see how it will perform with a person on board.” [Emphasis added.] Similarly, the font and layout lack a polished look. However, these minor issues are easily corrected in future editions, and they pale beside the immense value of this delightful book.
One of its greatest values is the Romantic yet realistic worldview it conveys. Far too many current children’s stories for all age levels are about mundane events: what happened when the Berenstain Bears went to a baseball game, or how Little Monster hated his violin lesson. While these books can be entertaining, they are small in scope, aimed at dramatizing ordinary events in a child’s life, usually with a humorous or didactic outcome. On the other hand, children’s books that do feature heroes are often fantasies filled with nonexistent princes and princesses doing improbable things. Ms. Dover’s book stands in stark contrast to these, presenting real people who were heroes and innovators.
An Airplane Is Born has another benefit, too. Children tend to take for granted the surroundings in which they grow up, and ours are blessed with the amazing fruits of our free, technological civilization. This book and series, I hope, will introduce many of them to the historical and material context of their lives, and fuel their own ambitions to achieve, regardless of the odds.
An Airplane Is Born is available online through Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and at major book retailers such as Borders. You can also purchase it directly through its publisher, Authorhouse.com; schools can receive a discount.
Though my own days as a child are long past, I confess that I look forward to reading the next installment in Ilana Dover’s inspirational series.