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The Story of Aviator Elizabeth Coleman

by Nikki Grimes & illustrated by E.B. Lewis

Age Range: 8 - 10

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2002
ISBN: 0-439-35243-6
Publisher: Orchard/Scholastic

“Brave Bessie Coleman,” the first black woman in the world to earn a pilot’s license, has been the subject of several recent picture book biographies: (Fly, Bessie, Fly, by Lynn Joseph, 1998; Fly High!, by Louise Borden and Mary Kay Kroeger, 2001; Nobody Owns the Sky, by Reeve Lindbergh, 1996). Grimes takes an unusual, fictionalized approach to portraying this determined, undaunted woman who made aviation history. She recreates the voices of 20 people who supposedly knew Bessie, expressing their point of view in a free-verse format. Each double spread has the person’s monologue with his or her name or role running down the edge of the page with a cameo drawing like a photo at the top; opposite is a full-page illustration in Lewis’s typical style that strikingly adds dimension and context to the times and the woman. From her father, who left the large family in Texas, to sisters to flight instructor to news reporter to young fan, the monologue device succeeds somewhat in piecing together a portrait of this woman who braved hardships of both poverty and prejudice. Her dream was to open an aviation school for African-Americans, but a plane crash in 1926 ended her life at age 34. The handsome design, large format, and beautiful artwork make this very attractive, but the lack of source notes or clarification of what’s fictionalized—especially quotes—and the strange opening scene set at Bessie’s wake as she speaks to her mother from her photo on the mantel, will leave many readers confused. (Picture book. 8-10)