Society of School Librarians International Honor Book Award; Amelia Bloomer Project Recommended Feminist Book
How does a book begin? Often through chance and curiosity. One summer day we were driving down a back road in New Hampshire when my husband spotted an army tank that looked like it had crashed through a brick wall. He had to pull over. If we looked with him, he promised the next stop would be a lake (bathing suits were packed).
I took my daughter’s hand as we wound our way around exhibits, then I yanked her to a stop in front of a mannequin dressed in the uniform worn by women pilots during World War II. I’m always intrigued by women I never read about in history books while growing up. I bought a few books and soon was captivated by the daring WASPs who ferried and tested airplanes during the war ... then were sent home with a swift farewell.
The stories of these military pilots made me wonder about earlier aviation history. I read biographies of the Wright brothers and was touched by the quiet heroism of their sister. Like their mother, Katharine Wright was bright and mechanically talented. She gave her brothers emotional and financial support, which made their invention of an airplane possible. I went on to read about the risk-taking first fliers and the dozens of women aviators who were friends with Amelia Earhart. One of these was Jackie Cochran who grew up in poverty, then went on to found her own successful business. She took up flying and broke many speed and altitude records before founding the Women Air Service Pilots.
I was a young woman when Sally Ride became the first American woman to go into space, but I didn’t know that she wasn’t the first woman with that dream. Years before, when NASA was first founded, women pilots were recruited and tested as astronauts. I was especially inspired by the story of Jerrie Cobb. She lost her 1963 fight to keep working for NASA, but she never lost her dream of going into space during the more than thirty-five years she spent flying in food and medical supplies to remote regions of Amazonia. In 1999, Eileen Collins became the first woman to command a spacecraft. She took the space shuttle Columbia into orbit, and deployed the Chandra X-ray telescope, which has already answered many questions about the universe.
The story of one pilot often led to another, since many of these women talked together, flew together, and taught each other. After my manuscript was finished, it was illustrated with wit and intelligence by Dusan Petricic.
I didn’t grow up making model airplanes or even wondering much about things that happened in the sky. I came to note the wonders of science and aviation late in life, and it was the lives of scientists and pilots that paved a path for my interest in air and space. I hope students will read Wing and Rockets and other books about aviators, then write their own short biographies of aviators. Advanced students can use the books listed in the bibliography of Wings and Rockets and plunge into research. Those who prefer not to face a blank page (just about all of us?) may begin with the questions I list on this website under How High Can We Climb: The Story of Women Explorers.
Books on the back shelf are available in libraries, through dealers of used books, or may be found at Amazon.com.