Book Review: The Wright Brothers

The Wright Brothers: Pioneers of American Aviation, by Quentin Reynolds, 1950, Random House

I’ve loved almost all the Random House Landmark books I’ve read but this is one of my favorites. What sets this book apart from the dozens of books about these brothers and their amazing invention? This one begins with their mother, and how she influenced their appetite for learning, their work and their lives.

Susan Wright was the daughter of a carriage maker. Growing up in her father’s workshop she had learned to design and build things. It was she who taught the boys to notice how things worked, how to draw out plans for things before building them, and how to use tools. She taught them about wind resistance when they were designing and building a sled together.

As Orville tells it: “We were lucky enough to grow up in an environment where there was always much encouragement to children to pursue intellectual interests; to investigate whatever aroused curiosity. In a different kind of environment, our curiosity might have been nipped long before it could have borne fruit.” – Orville Wright

That’s the kind of mother she was, and though she died when they were teenagers, the foundation of their lives was laid.

“In a different kind of environment, our curiosity might have been nipped long before it could have borne fruit.” – Orville Wright

Another thing that makes this book interesting is the way it illustrates how one project or invention led to another. First it was building a sled. Then they built a rudder to steer it. When the snow melted they built a wagon using wheels from discarded tricycles. Next they built and flew kites. Next, a chair for their mother.

When it became Will’s job to fold copies of the newspaper their father edited and their church published, they invented a machine to fold the newspapers. Next was a toy helicopter, then a printing press. Since a printing press is useless without something to print they began a newspaper, The West Side Tatler.  They sold advertising and saved all their profits. Then they needed bicycles to deliver the papers, so they built them out of discarded bicycle parts. They became more interested in building bicycles than writing and selling newspapers so they opened a bicycle shop.

You can see where this is going. It’s a good lesson for us mothers on how children’s interests, when nurtured in the right kind of environment and with the guidance and encouragement of an understanding parent, can lead those children into successful careers.

I love the way this book shows that this invention of theirs, which changed the world and the future of everyone in it, was something that grew out of the skills and interests and habits learned within the context of their family.


Book Review: Charlie Needs a Cloak

Charlie Needs a Cloak – Tomie dePaola, Simon and Schuster, 1973

You don’t really expect a book explaining how we get clothing from the wool of sheep to be utterly charming. And the text of this book itself is very spare.

So what is it that performs the miracle of turning this basically non-fiction book into a rollickingly fun read for little people?

It’s Tomie dePaola’s illustrations–through humorously expressive characters and clever storyboarding. Adding to the fun are a sub-plot involving a jealous sheep and a sub- sub-plot of an acquisitive mouse.

The playfully masterful artwork tells a story (sometimes several stories) on every page. This book manages to be informative as well as entertaining – no mean feat for a picture book for very young readers.



Book Review: Each Peach Pear Plum

Each Peach Pear Plum, by Janet and Allen Ahlberg, Viking Kestrel

As parents who try to get their offspring to sit and listen to a story learn early on, rhymes catch and hold the attention of small children. And some of them are even fun to read; like this one, one of my favorite rhyming storybooks. A lyrical, rhyming tag-you’re-it plot device introduces characters drawn from traditional children’s rhymes: Jack and Jill, Old Mother Hubbard, Tom Thumb, Robin Hood, and so on.

But as delightful as the text is, the illustrations are even better: cute, but not cloying, charmingly-rendered characters and picturesque landscapes of the English Countryside at its storybook best.

One caveat: there is a wicked witch in one bit. But Robin Hood brings her to justice, and, as on the last page she is shown smiling and eating plumb pie with the rest of the cast as an obviously accepted member of society, my 3-year-old grandson points out that “she repented.” (My 4-year-old grandson replied, “I think the plum pie made her repent.”)

This book has no moral, no message. It’s just a delightful, beautifully-done book for the youngest readers. But here’s what makes it valuable – it’s a book which just might keep a toddler’s attention long enough for him to be infected with the love of books. And very importantly – since when children of this age fall in love with a book, they want to hear it over and over – it’s a book neither of you will get tired of quickly.


Book Review: Anatole

Anatole – by Eve Titus, pictures by Paul Galdone, McGraw-Hill, 1956

Nominated for the 1957 Caldecott Medal, and subsequently named a Caldecott Honor book, Anatole is a good example of the sort of children’s fiction that tends to be overlooked today, perhaps because the illustrations are simpler and printed in only three colors. Perhaps more off-putting for today’s children, Anatole is someone they have never heard of – not a character in a movie, or TV show, not tied in with Disney or any other mega-giant purveyer of children’s media, though Anatole and the Cat was made into a successful musical in 2014.

Anatole is simply an original and satisfying story, with well-executed illustrations, which, without any outward manifestation of Christianity, reflects an important part of a Biblical worldview.

The main character is a mouse. But the thing that makes this book important is that he’s a mouse of honor, a mouse deeply offended by the idea of stealing for a living, choosing rather to work for his food. A responsible husband and father of six charming children, Anatole comes up with an ingenious plan for anonymously earning a living as a cheese taster at the Duvall cheese factory.

In the sequel, Anatole and the Cat, another a Caldecott Honor Book, Anatole and his partner Gaston encounter a deadly enemy. Anatole, with his usual ingenuity and courage, meets the threat to their livelihood – and lives – with a very satisfying solution.