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Graphic Biography Review: The Wright Brothers, written by Lewis Helfand, illustrated by Sankha Banerjee

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The Wright Brothers is one of the latest publications from Campfire Graphics, publishers of illustrated editions of classic literature, original fiction, mythology and biographies for young adults. Campfire, according to its mission statement, aims “to entertain and educate young minds by creating unique illustrated books to recount stories of human values, to arouse curiosity in the world around us, and to inspire by tales of great deeds of unforgettable people.” Other books in the series include: Harry Houdini, The Three Musketeers,The Dusk Society, and Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc.

The lives of the Wright Brothers and their pioneering attempts to construct a flying machine is clearly the kind of inspirational story that is more than likely to capture the youthful imagination. Lewis Helfand’s account emphasizes the brothers’ faith in their abilities, their rejection of conventional behavior, and their perseverance. It suggests that genius needs to develop according to its own rules, an idea that some parents may want to treat gingerly.

Helfand’s account begins in medias res with one of the Brother’s early failed attempts at flight, and then goes back in time to their childhood. He focuses on their precocious intelligence and independence. Formal schooling is less than stimulating. They, especially the younger Orville, are as apt to run off to their own pursuits, as they are to spend time in the classroom. Diplomas are less important than knowledge and skills.

As they grow older, they are motivated by practical considerations: they are pictured as typical American innovative entrepreneurs. They develop an interest in printing into a successful printing business. They start a company to repair and eventually build bicycles. And then they are bitten by the flight bug, the race to be the first to invent a flying machine.

Helfand takes some time to describe some of the earlier failed efforts other than those of the Wrights, but his story is mainly devoted to their efforts. He follows their career through their success at Kitty Hawk and then through the rest of their lives. It is a story which is not only interesting, but is well suited as an object lesson for the precocious child.

Sankha Banerjee’s illustrations, although not as gritty as the norm in other Campfire editions, are not idealized or prettified. There is a realism to much of the portraiture. Colors tend to be subdued, although they too are brighter than the Campfire norm, especially in the scenes depicting the attempts and successes with flight.

Following the usual Campfire format, the book opens with a page introducing some of the major characters. After the story, there is a page containing further information related to the subject. In this case there are facts about the history of flight from Leonardo da Vinci and Otto Liliethal. There is a reference to Marco Polo and Chinese kites and also a note on the 2001 North Carolina quarter which honors the Wright Brothers. A crossword puzzle based on information in the narrative rounds out the book.

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About Jack Goodstein