NEW YORK -- On Dec. 17, 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright made history with several brief flights over the beaches near Kitty Hawk, N.C.
The brothers took turns piloting that day, with Orville helming the first flight of the day, which traveled 120 feet and lasted 12 seconds. Wilbur was the pilot on the best flight of the day, which spanned 852 feet and lasted 59 seconds.
Fifty-nine seconds? This may not impress youngsters raised in a time when coast-to-coast jet travel is commonplace, unless they understand the effort it took to reach that milestone. Several children's books released to mark the centennial of the achievement aim to put today's youngsters in the Wright brothers' shoes and to explain the science behind the method of transportation many take for granted.
"The Wright Brothers Take Off" (Grosset & Dunlap, $5.99 paperback, ages 5-8) features fun facts about the brothers, including the fact that their favorite toy as boys was a Chinese flying top made of cork, bamboo and paper. The brothers also lived most of their lives in their childhood home. Wilbur died there, and Orville moved out at age 43.
In a section on hot air balloons, colorful drawings illustrate scientific concepts that make the contraptions work. It shows a boy blowing bubbles into a cup of juice and explains that bubbles rise because air is lighter than juice, and hot air rises because it's lighter than cool air. The text is also punctuated with activities for the reader, like a step-by-step paper airplane exercise.
Most importantly, the book shows the numbers of failures the brothers suffered before achieving their goal and the sacrifices they made. For several years, the brothers worked all year at their Dayton, Ohio, bike shop so they could spend the month of September testing their invention. The frustrating Septembers of 1900, 1901, 1902 are shown in comical illustrations: the glider buried in blowing sand, the brothers eaten by mosquitoes and stormy weather.
Although Wilbur and Orville Wright will be in the history books, another Wright family member is the subject of two books. "My Brothers' Flying Machine" (Little Brown, $16.95, ages 6-9) tells the story of the first flight from the perspective of younger sister Katharine, of whom Orville Wright said: "When the world speaks of the Wrights, it must include our sister. Much of our effort has been inspired by her."
"My Brothers' Flying Machine" follows the three sibling children as they play with a miniature flying machine as older brothers Reuchlin and Lorin looked down on their "childish activity." During Orville and Wilbur's many failures in North Carolina, Katharine eagerly reads the letters they sent her almost daily. The book ends with Katharine - ever selfless, letting other have their turn first - taking her first ride in a plane, over Pau, France, in 1909.
"The Wright Sister" (Roaring Brook Press, $18.95, ages 10-14) uses photographs to tell Katharine Wright's story. A telegram sent home on Dec. 7, 1903; the family's Ohio home; and many photos depicting designs by the Wrights and others make for fascinating visuals. Meant for older children, the book is a full-fledged biography of Katharine Wright, who sacrificed marriage and career ambitions as a young woman to help support her brothers' dream.
Katharine Wright's story is but one in the history of flight, a vast subject painted in witty, broad strokes in "Into the Air: An Illustrated Timeline of Flight" (National Geographic, $16.95).
The timeline begins a million years ago with this scene: "Giant dragonflies zigzagged through steamy swamps above the heads of lumbering reptiles."
The book goes from dragonflies to dinosaurs to birds and bats, even taking a pit stop at the Greek legend of Icarus, who built wings out of wax that enabled him to fly but sealed his doom when he flew too close to the sun and the wax melted.
"Into the Air" briefly covers the earliest attempts at flying machines, including Leonardo da Vinci's 15th-century designs, before getting to the Wright brothers' flight and the jet age that followed. It also features an endnote from former NASA astronaut Kathryn Sullivan, the first American woman to walk in space.
Other aviation-themed books released this year include:
-"Fantastic Flights: One Hundred Years of Flying on the Edge" (Walker & Company, $17.95)
-"Talkin' About Bessie: The Story of Aviator Elizabeth Coleman" (Scholastic, $16.95, ages 5-9).
-"Airborne: A Photobiography of Wilbur and Orville Wright" (National Geographic, $18.95).
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