In a happy turn of serendipity, I recently found myself enjoying two new children's books about things that fly.
Balloons over Broadway, written and illustrated by Melissa Sweet, and The Fabulous Flying Machines of Alberto Santos-Dumont, written by Victoria Griffith and illustrated by Eva Montanari, both transport the reader back to the early years of the 20th century, before television and Pokemon. A hundred years ago, children played with sticks and rocks. At least, that is, when they weren't too busy working. In 1910, two million children under the age of fifteen were employed (some would say 'enslaved') in industrial jobs in the United States. This left little time for reading or anything else. Child labor reform would soon lead to improvements in public education--now children needed to be looked after during the day--and effectively ushered in a second Golden Age of children's literature, adding soon-to-be classics from giants like Dr. Seuss, Virginia Lee Burton, and Robert McCloskey to the canon populated by Alice and Pooh.
Now it's 2011. Today's kids have it better, at least in some ways. Life expectancies are up and industrial accidents are down. On the other hand, youngsters often very easily fall into the trap of 24/7 branded characters and hand-held devices. Parents must try harder than ever to pull children away from video games and instead nurture their own imagination. So you want something entertaining but also illuminating? Step right this way! Learning isn't just for kids, anyway. I'm no toddler myself, but I had no clue about the origin of the balloons in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. And I would have claimed that the Wright Brothers invented the airplane. Clearly, reading books with your children is an opportunity not only to spend time together, but also to share in the discovery of knowledge.
I found it inspiring to learn about these two pioneers, Tony Sarg ("rhymes with aargh!") and the melodically-named Alberto Santos-Dumont. The former was a child at heart who claimed that he had "never done a stroke of work in my life," while the latter naively believed that harnessing flight would lead to world peace: "Once people are able to fly to different countries, they will see how much we have in common. We will all be friends." Sarg and Santos-Dumont worked tirelessly for the benefit of others. Worthy role models, both.
Sweet's book has an official release date of November 1st, while Griffith's book came out two months ago. Both are large hardcovers with top quality printing and paper. Both also include biographical information presented as Author's Notes, so you can flesh out the stories after doing a little postscript cribbing, or simply let an older child explore further on their own. (Please note that Santos-Dumont took his own life, sadly. Although not mentioned in the other book, Sarg, too, died under less than fairytale circumstances: bankrupt and from a ruptured appendix.)
Both books, too, are written for the same age range (4-8) though I think the upper end is best for the Griffith book, the better to appreciate the more mature Impressionist-inspired artwork by Eva Montanari. This same book also contains a high ratio of words per page which may test the patience of a younger audience.
I would be shocked if anyone has an attention problem with Melissa Sweet's balloon book. But I wouldn't be surprised if it pulls in some kid lit awards at the end of this year. She is already a Caldecott Honoree for her illustrative work, and when you see the tactile world full of mixed media puppetry that she has created here, you will not be surprised, either. I can't remember how many children's books I have reviewed in 2011--Amazon discontinued their tagging feature some months ago--but this was for sure one of the Top Books of the Year for me. You and your child could spend hours looking at every single page. Even the endpapers are eye candy.
Balloons over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy's Parade and The Fabulous Flying Machines of Alberto Santos-Dumont should both be added to your bookshelf. I hope the authors get the attention and recognition they deserve. They certainly have mine.
[The reviewer was provided with complimentary copies of both books, which are, incidentally, from different publishers.]