Jack Knight’s Brave Flight: How One Gutsy Pilot Saved the U.S. Air Mail Service by Jill Esbaum, illustrated by Stacy Innerest. Calkins Creek, 2022. 9781684379811
Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 3
What did you like about the book? On February 22, 1921, U.S. Mail pilot Jack Knight set off on a dangerous flight as part of an effort to save the Air Mail service. The government had decided to shut down the service for safety reasons (seventeen pilots had died in crashes over the course of about 2 years), but the Post Office wanted to prove it was a fast and efficient way to deliver the mail across long distances. They arranged for a group of pilots, in four different planes, to carry mail across the country in a series of short hop flights. Jack Knight was supposed to fly just one leg – from North Platte, Nebraska to Omaha. He was tired, having already flown his regular route that day, but felt up for the challenge, despite cold temperatures and the dark of night. Upon reaching Omaha, however, he learned that the other 3 planes had already failed in the mission, and the pilot who was supposed to relieve him was not there. The success of the whole project depended on the exhausted, cold, and battered Jack Knight, who now had to fly through a blizzard all the way to Chicago. As the open-cockpit biplane ran low on fuel, Jack struggled to find a safe place to stop as the weather and drowsiness worked against him – one airport was snow covered, and the next had only a night watchman on duty to guide him. And when he finally arrived in Chicago, his flight suit was frozen to his seat!
This exciting, edge-of-your-seat adventure is written in a way that begs to be read aloud. Kids will be astounded to consider the details of the early days of flying: low-tech navigation systems, tiny, open airplanes, and limited ground crew, to name a few. The author uses a conversational tone and does a great job building suspense and describing the many challenges faced by Jack Knight – from slushy goggles to barely-visible signals on the ground. Watercolor illustrations beautifully represent the dark and the bitter cold, and embellishments of pencil drawings and rubber stamps add detail to the plane and the small airports. Back matter includes an author’s note, a timeline of “Highlights in the History of the U.S. Mail” (which begins in 1639), and bibliographic references.
Anything you did not like about the book? There is nothing much to put the story in context for young readers – no introduction to explain the need for Jack Knight’s flight, and the author’s note addresses mail service during colonial times. Readers might also appreciate a map of Jack’s flight.
To whom would you recommend this book? Students in grades 2-4 who like to read about the Wright Brothers, Amelia Earhart and other aviation pioneers will definitely enjoy it. Teachers looking for examples of narrative nonfiction for writing units will value it as a read aloud exemplar and anchor text.
Who should buy this book? Public and elementary school libraries
Where would you shelve it? Nonfiction – 629.13 (airplanes) or 383 (post office)
Should we (librarians) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? No
Reviewer’s Name, Library (or school), City: Leigh Russell King, Lincoln Street School, Northborough, Massachusetts.
Date of review: August 8, 2022