Taking Off: Airborne with Mary Wilkins Ellis

In early 20th-century Britain, Mary Wilkins Ellis (1917-2018) talks her father into letting her ride in an airplane even though she’s only eight, and she subsequently earns her pilot’s license as a young adult. As WWII continues, women aren’t allowed to join the RAF, but English manufacturers begin to build “hundreds of new kinds of warplanes” that desperately need civilian pilots: “Mary let out a whoop. She had a license. She could apply.” Delicate, softly tinted pen, ink, and watercolor spreads by Caldecott Medalist McCully make Mary’s work seem as calm as the green fields she passes over as she ferries aircraft large and small to RAF bases. Even close calls, as when an engine cuts out in midair, convey steadiness in a picture book about women pilots,.. who were able to do what they loved most in an era when not many women’s dreams were fulfilled. Back matter and references are included. Ages 6-8. Published by Holiday House

“Mary Wilkins caught the flying bug at age eight, when she witnessed the aerial stunts of Cobham’s Flying Circus near her hometown in England. Fortunate that her parents supported her dreams of becoming a pilot, Mary eventually earned her license and flew for the pure pleasure of it. At twenty-four years old, Mary was able to put her skills to new use, applying in 1941 to the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), an organization of civilian pilots who delivered new war planes from factory to airfield in support of the Royal Air Force during World War II. Women pilots, of course, faced common dangers associated with flying untested machines of every given make with no model-specific training, while also navigating skepticism and outright derision due to gender. At one point Mary lands a massive Wellington bomber only to be greeted by a suspicious ground crew: “‘I’m the pilot!,’ she said. They didn’t believe her and searched the plane.” Mary’s story has broad appeal for readers who enjoy a targeted shot at the patriarchy, as well as kids drawn to the thrill of war stories. McCully’s ink line and watercolor artwork sports an airy translucence that invites viewers to project themselves into the skies, and end notes, with a photograph of Wilkins, continue her bio with post-war activities. Source notes and additional resources are also included.”

– EB, Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books