Fly High! and be somebody. The amazing story of Bessie Coleman

Throwing it way back. Me, Mary Mac, and Eloise abound 2002.

Throwing it way back. Me, Mary Mac, and Eloise around 2002.

Have you ever been on vacation with someone else’s kids? It’s a lot easier when they aren’t yours. I used to be that single friend, enjoying the kids but not being responsible.

I remember picking my friend Eloise’s daughter Frances out of her crib, thinking I was helping. “Once she’s up she won’t go back to sleep,” Eloise moaned. Who knew? I thought.

I also recall her daughter Mary Mac asking me why I took so long in the bathroom. “Well, I’m not used to someone being in here with me,” I said. If I only knew that someday privacy would be a memory.

On one of my trips with Eloise, I brought Mary Mac the book  Fly High! The Story of Bessie Coleman. Mary Mac, soon to be 16, was five at the time.

The book is by Cincinnati writers Mary Kay Kroeger and Louise Borden. (Kroeger is a former coworker of mine.) Teresa Flavin’s illustrations compliment the story about Bessie Coleman, the first African-American female pilot.

Eloise recently shared with me that she still has the book and uses it in elementary school classrooms.

Bessie walked four miles to and from school every day.

Bessie walked four miles to and from school every day.

What do you love about Fly High?

As the mother of four children, three of them girls, I most appreciate the repeating lines and resonating message of Fly High! – work hard, dream big and “be somebody.” I also appreciate how the authors make a strong point that it was Bessie’s love of reading that gave her the desire and motivation to “be somebody.”

I never heard of Bessie Coleman until you gave Mary Mac Fly High! back in 2003. Harriett Tubman, Josephine Baker, Rosa Parks – these were the women I often read about and heard about during Black History Month. And what an amazing woman she was!  A true pioneer, a dreamer, a hard worker, an adventurer, and according to this authors it all began with her love of reading as a small child laboring in the cotton fields of Texas. What are the odds of a daughter of illiterate farm hands becoming the first African American female aviatrix in America?

Brave Bess told kids, "You can be someday. You can fly high, just like me."

Brave Bess told kids, “You can be someday. You can fly high, just like me.”

Do your kids like it? Is that why you’ve kept it all these years?

 I kept the book because I love it.  In fact I keep a lot of children’s books.  Some to bequeath to my children when they grow up and have children of their own.  Some because they never get old like Munro Leaf’s Ferdinand the Bull or all of Kevin Henkes‘ mice books. I wish I was an elementary school media specialist.  I love children’s literature board books, picture books, early readers, young adult, classics and new.

I also store books in categories to pull and place in a basket by the fireplace each month.  In February I fill the basket with books relating to Valentine’s Day and Black History Month.

Mary Mac especially loves this book because it is inscribed to her by one of the authors, Mary Kay Kroeger.  But all the children love it.  Even my son loves the idea of being a barnstorming pilot.

Tell me about the kids you’ve read this book to and the props you use?

 When I was invited to Guilford County School’s Community reader day and found out I was assigned to a third grade class, I immediately picked this one. I thought the book was both interesting, inspiring, and the pictures were good.

For props I brought in the book, a picture of my children, a stuffed Snoopy dog, a wall clock with a picture of Snoopy in a biplane and dressed in a leather aviator hat, and a world map with Texas, Chicago, Illinois, and France highlighted on it. (Bessie travels to these destinations.)

I began by introducing myself, the book and then showed the children a picture of my children.  I wanted them to know who I was – a mom – and why I chose the book.  I wanted them to know that all of them and all of my children could “be somebody” just like Bessie Coleman.

Eloise uses these props while reading Fly High!

Eloise uses these props while reading Fly High!

I brought Snoopy and the clock because I wasn’t sure if third graders in 2015 would know what pilot or biplanes looked like in the early 20th century.  Thankfully Snoopy remains popular today and is even gaining a resurgence of popularity thanks to the expected release of The Peanuts Movie this year.  I had to laugh when I asked the children if they knew who the stuffed animal was and one boy responded, “Snoop Dogg.”  But I was really amazed at their interest in the picture of Snoopy in the wall clock.  That was by far the most interactive, fun part of our open discussion time.  When I asked what they noticed about the biplane compared to today’s planes I got all sorts of great answers, “Two wings”  “Open top” “Like a Convertible” “Cool leather helmet and goggles” “Propeller driven” and my favorite, “In the Peanuts’ movies, Snoopy imagines his dog house is a biplane” … and that was the question I used to begin reading the book.

After reading the book I shared the map I had printed out to show them just how far Bessie Coleman’s dream, hard work and desire took her.  She traveled from the cotton fields of Texas to the big city of Chicago to the airfields of France.  And I encouraged all of them to “Fly High” through the power of books, their imagination, hard work and their dreams.

When I left I heard the teacher say to her classroom, “Doesn’t that book just make you want to try something new or do something crazy?”  I hope the 20 minutes I spent with them planted seeds … just like Bessie’s mother did so long ago by giving her access to books as a child.

Thanks, Eloise!

Where to find the book and more information

Kroeger and Borden also collaborated on another historical book, Paperboy. This story is based on Kroeger’s father, a paperboy in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine (OTR) in 1927. The story is during the time of the famous Jack Dempsey/Jim Dempsey fight. Ted Lewin’s images of OTR are excellent and Max and Calvin love recognizing parts of their city.

Borden is a prolific, well-known writer. Check out her website to explore her work, favorite authors, school visits, and more. One of my favorites is The Journey that Saved Curious George illustrated by Allan Drummond (another recommended site.) This true story about George’s creators, the Reys, is for adults and kids. Did you know the Reys escaped the German army during World War II on a bike? It’s an incredible and beautiful book.

2 thoughts on “Fly High! and be somebody. The amazing story of Bessie Coleman

  1. Pingback: After all, she’s only six | I love kids books

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