Review of To Fly
Reviewed by: Marianne Dyson, June 30, 2003
This nonfiction book is the story of the Wright Brothers from grade school to the first powered flight of an airplane.
I must admit my bias: the author is a friend of mine. You'll just have to take my word for it that I loved the book despite that <g>. Anyway, the fact that Wendie is a librarian really shows in this book. She used original sources (some noted in the back matter) for all the historical facts. You can trust that the dates, names, and quotes in the book are accurate.
Even though I knew the basic story (I'm from Ohio and have visited the Wright Brothers' bike shop), I found the historical context and the men's personal struggles fascinating and inspirational. The illustrations provided additional detail to the descriptions in the text besides being gorgeous to look at.
The author did a great job of explaining the challenges involved in solving the problems of powered flight. But not even my friends are immune to my nitpicking their descriptions of aerodynamics. Fortunately, I only have one - a real testament to Wendie's thorough research. The first chapter describes the brothers' attempt to scale up a model helicopter. It won't fly because, "They had not yet learned that a machine twice as big required eight times the amount of energy to move it." This is a misleading use of the terms size and energy. In science, size is usually equated with mass because that is what matters (Sorry - couldn't resist the pun!). The energy required for movement, kinetic energy, is equal to one half the mass times the velocity squared. A doubling in mass therefore results in a doubling in energy required for movement, not eight times. However, to make a three-dimensional object twice as big, such as scaling a two-inch cube into a four-inch cube, requires 2x2x2 or 8 times the volume. If the density remains the same, this would then require 8 times the mass and thus 8 times the energy to move it. The brothers figure this out and, as stated in chapter 11, make an engine out of aluminum instead of the more dense (and thus more massive for its size) iron and steel car engines of their day.
Related to the above, I question the explanation in chapter 2 that the reason the brothers' kites had very thin ribs was because they were poor and had to stretch their supplies. Perhaps that was a factor, but could it also have been that they had figured out that less mass required less energy to move?
I especially enjoyed the author's description of Wilbur discovering how to turn a plane by flexing the wings. I hope that children who read this will be inspired to test their own designs by flying different kinds of kites. In chapter 9, I wished for more detail on why they felt the air pressure tables were incorrect, but I realize that only so much information can be included in a short book. What's interesting and is included is how that research and experimenting led to the brothers' discovery of the best shape to make a wing and propellers. Every kid should be encouraged and inspired to read that a PhD is not required to question "facts" and find answers by experiment.
The Epilog gives a touching conclusion to the story, sharing with us how these two brothers combined their skills and helped each other achieve their dreams of flight.
I give this book 2 points for accuracy, 1 point for expert quotes, 1 point for readability, and 1 point for useful and accurate illustrations. The size/energy confusion is not serious enough to deduct a whole point for clarity, but being the nitpicker I am, I can't give it a perfect rating. So I'm going to take a half point off and hope that Wendie will still speak to me. Total: 5.5 points. To Fly is an inspirational story for all pioneers who dream of flying, either on Earth or into space. Rating: Highly Recommended.
Title: To Fly
Author: Wendie Old
Illustrator: Robert Andrew Parker
Number of Pages: 48
Retail Price: $16.00