September 12, 2011

A fascinating figure takes flight

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“Everyone knows that Alberto Santos-Dumont invented the airplane,” right? Even if you’ve never heard of Santos-Dumont, you’ll be delighted to meet this real-life historical figure in Victoria Griffith’s vivid debut picture book.

Alberto was a Brazilian in Paris who had a 35-foot dirigible of his own design as his personal mode of transportation. He’d fly his airship over the streets of Paris, landing to run errands, stopping at Maxim’s restaurant for coffee or dropping by the hat shop to replace the hat burned up by the airship’s hydrogen gas. Alberto told the shop owner, “I tell you, these machines will mean the end of all wars.” He felt that flying to different countries would open eyes and minds to how people all over the world have much in common. In fact, as Griffith writes in her fascinating author’s note, Alberto became distraught over the use of airplanes in warfare, so much so that, further saddened by his fall from favor, he took his own life in 1932.

But Alberto wanted to do more than fly his dirigible through the skies of Paris, though he is the only one known ever to do so. In 1906, he flew an airplane of his own design for 20 seconds, the first pilot to take off and land a self-propelled craft. The Wright brothers had flown in Kitty Hawk in 1903, but their plane required high winds and a rail system to propel the plane. Clearly, it’s a matter of debate as to what constitutes a true airplane, as the Wright brothers have gone down in history, and Alberto Santos-Dumont is largely unknown.

But now this fine picture book resurrects his story in lively prose and large-scale illustrations rendered in pastels, chalks, oil pastels and oil paint, perfectly capturing the drama of the events. The fuzzy lines lend a feeling of history to the illustrations, and gestures and humorous touches, such as a dog holding the dirigible’s tether or Alberto racing horse-drawn carriages, make Alberto Santos-Dumont and his times come alive.

The Fabulous Flying Machines of Alberto Santos-Dumont is a lovely work for young readers who will soon spread their wings, too.

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