The American publishing industry is good at a lot of things. They produce some pretty delightful fare for children on a variety of different topics. If you want vampires or stories of cute puppies or twists on fairy tales then you are in luck. If, however, you’re looking for something about people who are famous in countries other than America, I have bad news. We’re not that great at highlighting other nations’ heroes. Oh, you’ll see such a biography once in a rare while but unless they’re a world figure (Gandhi, Leonardo da Vinci, etc.) we’re not usually going to hear much about them. Maybe that’s part of the reason I get so excited when I see books that buck the trend. Books like Victoria Griffith’s The Fabulous Flying Machines of Alberto Santos-Dumont. The other reason is that in a greedy way I get to learn about new historical figures along with the child readers. Alberto Santos-Dumont, for all his charms, is not exactly a household name here in the States. Credit where credit is due, then since author Victoria Griffith is doing what she can to remedy that problem.
If you were a resident of Paris, France in the early 20th century you might have glanced up into the sky to see one Alberto Santos-Dumont in his handy dandy dirigible. A transplanted Brazilian and fan of the power of flight, Alberto was friends with Louis Cartier who bestowed upon him a wrist-based alternative to the pocket watch. Now he could time himself in the sky! Determined to create an official flying machine, Alberto announces the date and location that he intends to use one to take to the sky. But when sneaky Louis Bleriot arrives with the intention of stealing Alberto’s thunder, the question of who will go down in the history books is (ha ha) up in the air.
I’m having a bit of difficulty believing that this is Victoria Griffith’s first book for children. To my mind, writing nonfiction picture books for young readers is enormously difficult. You sit in front of a plate of facts with the goal of working them into something simultaneously honest and compelling for kids. Taken one way, the book’s a dud. Taken another, it does its subject justice. Griffith, for her part, takes to the form like a duck to water. The first sentence is “Alberto Santos-Dumont loved floating over Paris in his own personal flying machine.” After the first few pages don’t be too surprised if the kids you’re reading this book with start wondering why exactly it is that we don’t have our own personal dirigibles (this question is promptly answered when we learn that Alberto’s preferred mode of transportation had a tendency to .. um… catch on fire). Deftly weaving together the invention of the Cartier watch with Alberto’s moment in history, Griffith manages to create compelling characters and a situation that lets kids understand what was at stake in this story.
She also places Alberto squarely within his context in history. In the book we learn that while the Wright Brothers did fly at Kitty Hawn before Santos-Dumont, because their flight needed assistance then it wasn’t really flying. Griffith prefers to explain this not in the text but in the Author’s Note, but I think that’s fair. As long as you make clear to kids that there can be two different opinions on a moment in history, I don’t think you need to bog down the story with this detail. And if you’re committed to driving the idea home that history is subjective, maybe the best use of this book would be to read it to a class alongside the 1984 Caldecott Award winning picture book The Glorious Flight: Across the Channel with Louis Bleriot. Rarely will you find two nonfiction picture books that show such different sides of a character. If you’ve ever felt inclined to show kids how nonfiction works pick and choose their facts, this is a gift.
Adults who read Griffith’s Author’s Note and discover that she got the idea for the book when her Brazilian husband discovered to his horror that Americans believe that the Wright Brothers invented the airplane will be intrigued. Learning through him of Santos-Dumont’s life she went out and did what so many grown-ups merely think to themselves from time to time. She wrote a children’s book biography. Well played, madam. I might have cut down the books Author’s Note a bit (knowing where his father got his fortune isn’t strictly necessary) but the images and additional info about his life are grand.
Now the art is a bit of a pickle. Italian resident Eva Montanari is perhaps best known for her work on the picture book Chasing Degas though she has created other works like A Very Full Morning and Tiff Taff and Lulu. I’ll confess that Montanari’s pastels didn’t really grab me at first. To be fair, I’m not a pastel fan. They’re so light and ephemeral that for a work of historical truth I’m reluctant to enjoy them. The first two-page spread of Alberto in his dirigible doesn’t grab you right away. Nor, for that matter, does the cover. But as I read through the book and enjoyed the language the pictures began to grow on me. The pretty girl lingering behind Alberto as he tries on a new hat. The nosy onlookers taking a gander at his new watch. The nasty look Bleriot shoots Alberto when his own plane crashes. I came around to Montanari as I read but I think the trick is getting through the first few pages. The fact of the matter is that the cover does not grab readers. It’s going to be up to parents, teachers, and librarians to discover it on their own and push it into the hands of the child audience.
When I started this review by saying that America doesn’t tend to highlight famous folks from other nations, I didn’t mean to suggest that it doesn’t happen. Once in a while you’ll find a The Strongest Man in the World: Louis Cyr or Dark Fiddler: The Life and Legend of Nicolo Paganini. But the bulk of what’s out there is pretty repetitive at times. That’s why it’s so great to discover books like Griffith’s on this Brazilian in France. They say history is written by the winners. It’s also written, a lot of the time, by the Americans. Now you get a different point of view in a slim little picture book and that, suffice to say, is delightful.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Misc: Be sure to check out the author’s website for a whole mess o’ additional information.