Flying High with Bessie Coleman
March 20, 2006
A while back, the author Chris Barton talked about the good cocktail party conversation one can have after reading children's non-fiction. Case in point: Fly, Bessie, Fly, by Lynn Joseph, is the story of Bessie Coleman, the first African-American aviator in the United States. Born in Waxahachie, Texas, in 1896, Bessie wanted a life that soared beyond small-town, cotton-field drudgery and the co-existing prejudice of the era—the kind of institutionalized racism that meant a young girl and her sister must stand in the "colored" line to buy carnival tickets. Schools for black children didn't even open until the cotton harvest was over.
As soon as she was old enough, Bessie Coleman headed for Chicago and later, France, because flying schools in the United States refused to admit African-Americans. The girl from Waxahachie was determined, though, and she went on to become the United States' first black aviator. Supportive family and friends helped and encouraged Bessie along the way. In her day, she was quite famous.
Joseph tells a fascinating and ultimately inspiring story, ably illustrated with watercolors and pen-and-ink (on full pages) by Yvonne Buchanan. For a picture book, the text is somewhat lengthy, and for that reason, I would use it as a read-aloud for six- to-nine-year-olds. (You can paraphrase as you go along if you're reading to younger children.) The book ends on just the right note: at a Chicago air show in 1922, soaring over relatives and friends, Bessie looked down from her plane and thought, "Ma was right...We are all born the same under God's eyes." (Definitely a Kleenex moment for this reader.) I highly recommend Fly, Bessie, Fly, which I "discovered" in a Black Books Galore! guide. Lynn Joseph's and Yvonne Buchanan's picture book even landed on an FAA reading list.
Fly, Bessie, Fly
written by Lynn Joseph; illustrated by Yvonne Buchanan
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 1998
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