Dirigibles, cartier watches and zappy zoomers

posted in: Eva Montanari, Victoria Griffith | 3

If I were to ask you who was the inventor of human flight, how would you answer? Would you rack your brain for school memories and then come up with the Wright brothers? Would you be surprised and interested if you then found out that perhaps it wasn’t the Wright brothers after all, but someone else entirely?

The Fabulous Flying Machines of Alberto Santos-Dumont by Victoria Griffith, illustrated by Eva Montanari is one of the most enjoyable nonfiction picture books I’ve read this year and it tells the story of one Alberto Santos-Dumont, a Brazilian living in Paris at the turn of the 20th century, who, it turns out, has a very good claim on being the inventor of the airplane.

Alberto Santos-Dumont, inspired by a childhood passion for Jules Vernes, was crazy about inventing flying machines. He was famous across Paris for his preferred mode of city transport – his own private airship, a dirigible, which he used like an airborne taxi to take him to cafes and shops around town. But like many inventors Santos-Dumont didn’t sit still; he was knew “even the best inventions can be improved” and so he set about designing an airplane.

One chilly morning in November 1906, on the outskirts of Paris, Santos-Dumont promised to make the world’s first public airplane flight. Things didn’t get off to a good start when a rival would-be pilot turned up with his own airplane. But when this plane failed to make it off the ground, it was Santos-Dumont’s turn….

And he was off! Although he flew for barely more than 20 seconds, Santos-Dumont became the first person to lift off and land a completely self-propelled plane. Santos-Dumont was of course delighted: “these machines will mean the end of all wars. Once people are able to fly to different countries, they will see how much we have in common. We will all be friends.

Victoria Griffith must have been jumping with delight as she gradually learned about Alberto Santos-Dumont; what better hero for a story could there be? He was a larger-than-life gentleman (he gave away most of the money he earned for his inventions), an eccentric, he played an important role in a world changing invention and he left a lasting legacy that you may well have heard of, even if you didn’t associate it with Alberto or had never knowingly heard his name before (there’s a clue in the picture below, but I’ll leave it for you to read the book to enjoy the story associated with it!)

Now it’s one thing to unearth a great story waiting to be told, but it’s quite another to weave it all together to create a narrative that grabs you from the outset, captures your imagination and makes you want to know more about the facts in question. Griffith does all of this perfectly, showing us a very important scientific truth along the way – that facts are often far more complicated than the received wisdom about them.

Eva Montanari’s illustrations, with echoes of French impressionism, are lovely. Whilst perhaps not the most breathtaking illustrations you’ve ever seen, soft-hued pastels, chalks and oil paints are used to create a slightly magical feeling, with a softness of focus that made me think of the blurriness you see when travelling fast – all highly appropriate given the magic and speed of flight. (For several examples of images from the book click here to be taken to the appropriate page on Eva Montanari’s website).

A fascinating Author’s Note at the end of the book, along with a selected bibliography and index are great additions to this book I think every library, every primary school should own. If you’re part of a family that doesn’t read much nonfiction this is a book you should definitely seek out; the story is as exciting as any fictional one you might read together, and made even more amazing by the fact that it is true (reminding me of Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality, which I reviewed here).

Of course, another story is waiting to be written about how and why Santos-Dumont’s name in the history of flying is not as well known as it should be. Perhaps that is what Victoria Griffith is working on now…

Unsurprisingly we wanted to fly having reading The Fabulous Flying Machines of Alberto Santos Dumont, and after having spent the morning jumping off the stairs into a pile of duvets, the next best thing was to make our own creations that could fly through the air. I took inspiration from The Big Book of Science Things to Make and Do by Rebecca Gilpin and Leonie Pratt (which I found out, rather belatedly, won the Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize back in 2008), and helped the girls make their own “Zappy Zoomers”.

For each Zappy Zoomer you will need:

  • 1 strip of thin card about 2.5cm x 24cm
  • 1 strip of thing card about 2.5cm x 12cm
  • 4 straws, the bendy type, cut just below the bend
  • sellotape

  • Use the sellotape to make 2 loops of card, one larger than the other. Then attach the straws in such a way that the straws are inside the bigger loop, but outside the smaller loop.

    Once all 4 straws are attached, evenly spaced around the loops, pick it up with the smaller loop facing forward. Hold it by the straw at the bottom and then throw hard – your zappy zoomer should glide quite impressively across the room.

    Both girls had lots of fun getting their Zappy Zoomers gliding around the kitchen

    It was very difficult to get photos of these things in action – the photo below is a bit like Where’s Wally? – can you spot the Zappy Zoomer? (no comments please on my CD and recipe book filing system!)

    Here’s a close up just in case the previous one was too well camouflaged!

    Whilst making our Zappy Zoomers we listened to:

  • Little Red Airplane by The Deedle Deedle Dees, which is about another great in the history of flying, Amelia Earhart (you can watch them giving a live performance of this song here)
  • Blue Airplane by Ralph’s World (you can listen to the whole song for free if you click on Playlist in the top right hand corner of the Ralph’s World homepage)
  • Flying by Recess Monkey

  • Other fun projects that could go well with The Fabulous Flying Machines of Alberto Santos Dumont include:

  • Making and decorating a person sized plane out of cardboard – here’s one you can buy ready to assemble, and here’s another from an NZ company, and there are some ideas for making your own at home here, here and here.
  • Having a paper aeroplane flying competition – here and here are some tutorials for all different sorts of paper planes.
  • Making your own dirigible for a toy to travel in, perhaps using this tutorial from Bookhou Crafts as your starting point.

  • Disclosure: I received my copy as a gift from the author. This review, however, represents my own and honest opinion.

    For another review of The Fabulous Flying Machines of Alberto Santos-Dumont head on over to this post by Betsy Bird at the School Library Journal site.

    Today I’m joining up with other bloggers writing about children’s nonfiction, for the weekly meme Nonfiction Monday. Today’s host is Charlotte’s Library. Do head on over if you’d like to get some more recommendations about great nonfiction books for children.

    3 Responses

    1. Isil

      I love your gift recommendations. Looks like the girls had great fun again 🙂 Oh and never mind the filing system as long as it works for you 🙂

    2. Zoe

      Thanks Isil! Actually the system doesn’t really _work_ for us but sorting it out is so low down the priority list… perhaps over christmas it will get done!

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