Whenever calm is broken by stiff breezes or high wind gusts, looking skyward reveals our larger feathered friends enjoying what nature has offered. Wings spread wide; they soar on the currents of air, moving up and down, until they glide out of sight. It's as if we've been given the gift of bearing witness to this miracle of wings and wind. Do they feel as much joy in this act as we do watching them?
Almost two hundred, twelve years ago a first in the field of aviation was written into the history books. Lighter than Air: Sophie Blanchard, the First Woman Pilot (Candlewick Press, March 14 2017) written by Matthew Clark Smith with illustrations by Matt Tavares brings to readers the fascinating story of how this woman fulfilled a childhood dream. All she ever wanted to do was to fly.
It was November 1783. For months France had buzzed about the brothers Montgolfier and their mad dreams of floating bags in the sky.
The news of their success reached five-year-old Sophie Armant. She lived in a small town along the coast of France. She feared and avoided the noise of crowds and carriages but the thought of flying like the seabirds thrilled her.
France was totally caught up in the balloonists and ballooning after the success of the Montgolfiers. Two of the more famous balloonists were Jean-Pierre Blanchard and John Jeffries. They were the first to cross the English Channel by balloon without incident. (Well, they did have to remove some clothing.)
Sophie yearned to fly and she learned all she could about the balloonists. Now a young woman, she attended one of Monsieur Blanchard's exhibitions, introducing herself to him. He recognized a kindred spirit in Sophie. They were married. After several flights with her husband, Sophie piloted a balloon solo in 1805.
Ballooning was not without its dangers and Sophie lost her husband three years later. She continued shows as he had to make a living, loving every moment in the air. Her preference was to ride in a form shaped like a chair, small and compact. She flew into heights of bitter cold and thin air. She nearly drowned. She kept on flying, winning the approval of rulers of France.
What Matthew Clark Smith does for readers is to first give us an accurate historical perspective on the craze for balloonists and ballooning in France. Into this he inserts Sophie's fondness for flight over other methods of travel. We have a vivid awareness of not only this inclination but her longing to be alone, above the hustle and bustle of crowds. By including specific incidents where she placed herself in danger, he gives us an authentic picture of her life's passion for ballooning. Sophie Blanchard was her best self in a balloon. Here is a sample passage from the book.
Sophie read everything she could about Blanchard and his fellow adventurers. And there was one thing she couldn't help noticing. All of the balloonists were men. The sky was no place for a woman, some said. It was too cold up there, the air too thin, the winds too fierce. Women were made of weaker stuff. Their place was on earth.
Deep in Sophie's windswept heart, she knew that couldn't be true.
All the glory felt by Sophie Blanchard when she was aloft alone in the balloon on her first solo flight radiates across the opened dust jacket. Matt Tavares portrays her heart's desire to fly like the birds she loved to watch as a child. The color choices of golden sky and clouds contrast beautifully with the delicate shades of blue and green on the balloon and the clothing worn by Sophie.
On the book case along the lower half are clouds brushed in pale yellow and green. Above them are darker golden hues, some nearly orange. In the upper left-hand corner of the front we see a much smaller version of Sophie flying in the balloon. It gives us a very clear perspective of her courage and commitment. A deep burnished orange covers the opening and closing endpapers.
Before the title and dedication pages a sky with fluffy blue and white clouds is the background for a quote by Charles-Augustine De Coulomb about any attempts by man to fly. With a page turn a gorgeous balloon framed in tiny scrolls and tiny balloons provides space for the dedications. Rendered in ink and watercolor the images throughout this title vary in size and point of view to heighten the impact and pacing of the text.
In the beginning and ending portions of the book, several of the pictures are framed in intricate scrolls and lines with the tiny balloons in the corners or other very small items which reflect the current storyline; fireworks, snowflakes, thunder clouds or birds. (In almost all the visuals birds are shown.) Matt gives us a one page view of Sophie walking the beach as a little girl with the sandpipers running ahead of her and then taking flight from the one page picture to the opposite page holding the text. His skies often reflect the mood of the storyline. These illustrations usually span two pages; the loss of Sophie's husband or the joy in continuing the ballooning shows.
One of my many favorite images is when Sophie is a teen. The sky looks as if rain is coming; a mass of gray clouds. Sophie is seated on a hill overlooking the sea. The grass seems to hold the same color as the sky and water. Her knees are drawn to her chest and her arms are hugging her legs. Her expression is thoughtful but determined. Matt has placed a light on her face as if the sun broke through from the clouds and shined on her. Newspapers are strewn and blowing about her. Can you see the picture on one of them? What is it?
There is so much to be learned from reading nonfiction picture books like Lighter than Air: Sophie Blanchard, the First Woman Pilot written by Matthew Clark Smith with illustrations by Matt Tavares. This woman overcame incredible odds to realize her heart's desire. An Author's Note, Illustrator's Note and Selected Bibliography follow the narrative. This is a worthy purchase for your personal and professional bookshelves.
To discover more about Matthew Clark Smith and Matt Tavares and their other work, please visit their websites by following the links attached to their names. Matt Tavares maintains a blog here. You can view interior illustrations at Penguin Random House and Candlewick Press. There is a teacher's guide available at Candlewick Press. This title and Matt Tavares's illustrations are featured by author, reviewer and blogger Julie Danielson at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. There is an interview of both these creators during the cover reveal at educator Dylan Teut's blog, Mile High Reading.
Be sure to stop by Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher to read about the titles selected by bloggers participating in the 2017 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.