About the Holiday
It seems that people have always been fascinated with flight. The first kite was invented in 1000 BCE in China; around 400 BCE Archytas of Tarentum developed a steam-powered pigeon; and most people are familiar with the designs of flying machines that Leonardo de Vinci created in the late 1400s. It wasn’t until 1680 that actual human flight was abandoned when an Italian mathematician determined that human muscles were incompatible with flight.
Zip ahead about 100 years and the first hot-air balloon took flight, which led to more complex technology, resulting in Wilbur and Orville Wright’s flight in 1903. From there, it seemed, the sky was the limit. Amelia Earhart became the first woman to complete a trans-Atlantic Ocean solo flight in 1932, and in 1947 Charles Yeager broke the sound barrier. Given this long history, it’s astounding to think that only 58 years span the time from that modest 12-second flight by the Wright Brothers to the first manned space mission by Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin! To celebrate the month, visit a local museum or read up on some of the pioneers of early flight—like the courageous women in today’s book.
Aim for the Skies: Jerrie Mock and Joan Merriam Smith’s Race to Complete Amelia Earhart’s Quest
Written by Aimée Bissonette | Illustrated by Doris Ettlinger
Jerrie Mock was only seven when her first airplane ride convinced her she wanted to be a pilot when she grew up. At first she only dreamed of flying across Ohio, but later, when she followed reports of Amelia Earhart’s daring flights, she decided she too wanted to see the whole world.
In 1952, Joan Merriam was fifteen years old when she took her first airplane ride and was invited by the pilots to see the cockpit. That’s all it took for Joan to know she wanted to be a pilot too. She began flying lessons and was in the air before she even got her drivers license. By 1963, Joan was working as a professional pilot and bought a plane of her own. One of Joan’s goals was to “circle the globe following the exact route” her idol Amelia Earhart had charted.
By the time Jerrie was thirty-seven, she had three children and ran a flight business with her husband, Russ. One night when she told Russ that she was bored, he joked, “‘Maybe you should get in your plane and fly around the world.’” Jerrie took him up on that. Both women spent months planning and charting their flights. Neither one knew that the other was getting ready for the same flight until their plans hit the media. Suddenly, what they had both thought was a solitary pursuit became a race to the finish.
Joan took off on March 17, 1964 from an airstrip in Oakland, California accompanied only by two stuffed bears. Two days later, surrounded by reporters asking if she thought she could beat Joan, Jerrie climbed into her tiny plane and took off too.
Jerrie’s troubles began right away. First, her radio didn’t work then bad weather kept her grounded for six days. “Where was Joan?” she wondered. While Joan’s flight began smoothly, a gas leak brought her down to earth for a week while the tank was repaired. Back in the air, Jerrie seemed to suffer problems every day. “She battled dangerous ice buildup, burning radio wires, and bad weather. She flew into a sandstorm over the Arabian Desert and couldn’t see.” But she encouraged herself to stay calm and use her instruments. Joan was having it no easier. “Heavy rains pounded her pane. Her windshield leaked. Water puddled at her feet. When she finally made it to Brazil, she was delayed again. This time by a government revolution!”
Day by day both women battled the elements and equipment failures but kept flying. Everyone around the world seemed to be watching the race. Russ told Jerrie she had to fly faster—that Joan was winning. In Pakistan, people told Joan that Jerrie had landed there five days earlier. Finally, on April 17, twenty-nine days after she had left, Jerrie returned to Ohio to a hero’s welcome. Reporters and crowds pushed to see her. “Jerry’s heart pounded. She had done it. She had flown around the world. She had won the race.”
Where was Joan? She “was in Lae, New Guinea—the last place Amelia Earhart was seen alive—when she heard the race was over.” Even though she knew she was behind Jerrie, “the news was still hard to take.” She sent Jerrie a congratulations telegram, and then left for Guam. There, she walked and “thought about her childhood dream. She thought about the race and she thought about losing.” Then she thought about why she had undertaken the flight. She had done it to honor Amelia Earhart. Even though Jerrie had won the race, Joan thought that didn’t make her a loser. She “could still do what she set out to do.”
Joan landed back in Oakland, California on May 12, 1964. Her plane was in such bad shape that the Coast Guard had to dispatch a plane to guide her in. Joan was also welcomed by cheering crowds and reporters. Both Jerrie and Joan had accomplished incredible feats. Jerrie “became the first woman to fly around the world,” and Joan—”following Amelia’s exact route along the equator”—was the first “pilot—man or woman”—to fly that distance solo. And both women received thanks from Amelia’s sister, Muriel, for honoring Amelia—”a pilot who, like them, chose to follow her dreams.”
An Author’s Note describing the differences in Joan and Jerrie’s routes and aircraft as well as a bit more about their lives after the historic flight and a map outlining each woman’s flight pattern follow the text. Resources for further reading are also included.
Aimée Bissonette’s thrilling biography of two woman, two flights, and one race will keep young readers on the edge of their seats. Riveting details reveal the staggering dangers the women faced as well as their astonishing courage, dedication, and persistence. Bissonette’s fast-paced, electric storytelling puts kids in the cockpit as Joan and Jerrie cross the globe. As Jerrie wins the race and Joan reevaluates her goal, Bissonette makes important and welcome points about the nature of competition, keeping one’s eyes and heart on an original goal without getting caught up in distracting hype, and having the self-confidence to believe in oneself and recognize one’s accomplishments.
In her realistic, richly colored watercolors, Doris Ettlinger follows Jerrie and Joan as they experience their first airplane rides that determine their futures, plot their flights around the world, and take off. The obstacles each woman dealt with are dramatically portrayed as winds whip trees, blinding rain and sand storms thwart progress, and mechanical failures keep the women grounded. Children get a look at landscapes from Bermuda, the Philippines, Africa, and Pakistan as Joan and Jerrie complete their flights. Expressive depictions of Jerrie’s and Joan’s emotions show readers the determination, pressures, and ultimate joy each woman felt during these historic months of 1964.
An exhilarating biography and adventure story rolled into one, Aim for the Skies is a book that will inspire young readers to keep their eyes on their goals despite obstacles and setbacks while reassuring them that winning is accomplished by being true to yourself. Children who love history, flight, biographies, and adventure will find this a compelling book to add to their home bookshelf. Classroom, school, and public libraries will want to include Aim for the Skies in their collections for story times and lessons.
Ages 6 – 9
Sleeping Bear Press, 2018 | ISBN 978-1585363810
Discover more about Aimée Bissonette and her books on her website.
National Aviation History Month Activity
Flying is Fabulous! Maze
Can you pilot the airplane along its route to the airport in this printable Flying is Fabulous! Maze?
You can find Aim for the Skies at these booksellers
Picture Book Review