Review of Born to Fly: The First Women’s Air Race Across America

Born to Fly:

The First Women’s Air Race Across America

by Steve Sheinkin; illus. by Bijou Karman

Middle School    Roaring Brook    264 pp.    g

9/19    978-1-62672-130-2    $19.99

“There were about nine thousand licensed pilots in the United States in 1929. Fewer than one hundred of them were women. Of those, twenty of the best entered the Women’s Air Derby.” Ace historian Sheinkin (four-time Boston Globe–Horn Book nonfiction awardee, for The Notorious Benedict Arnold, rev. 1/11; The Port Chicago 50, rev. 3/14; Most Dangerous, rev. 9/15; and Undefeated, rev. 3/17) turns to the subject of American women pilots in the early days of aviation, using as his organizing principle the first women’s cross-country air race. Early chapters introduce the individual contenders—Louise Thaden, Marvel Crosson, Amelia Earhart, Ruth Nichols, “Pancho” Barnes, Bobbi Trout, and more (as Sheinkin notes, all were white). The book then chronicles, in detail and in dramatic fashion, each of the eight days of the derby, beginning in Santa Monica and ending in Cleveland. The text describes the obstacles faced by the women, from primitive navigation aids, poor field conditions, excessive heat, and lack of sleep to probable sabotage and, of course, constant sexism. Said one reporter to his colleagues: “I don’t care what you guys write about their bravery, their skill, their sportsmanship…What I’m going to say is, them women don’t look good in pants.” The racers were dubbed “Derbyettes” and “Sweethearts of the Air”; Earhart said, “We are still trying to get ourselves called just ‘pilots.’” The tone throughout is lively and engaging, incorporating lots of dialogue as well as Sheinkin’s own conversational voice (about a 1920s biplane: “The whole thing was made of lightweight wood. Seriously, wood”). Although the dizzying number of individuals and personalities is challenging to keep straight, the narrative gist comes through clearly: these pilots’ passion for flying and dedication to women’s aviation. “They started by jumping off roofs. They wound up kicking down doors—for themselves, and everyone else.” Appended with impeccable back matter, including meticulous source notes, a lengthy bibliography, and an index (unseen).

From the September/October 2019 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Martha V. Parravano
Martha V. Parravano
Martha V. Parravano is book review editor of The Horn Book, Inc., and co-author of the Calling Caldecott blog.

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