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Flying Solo and Daredevil: Picture Book Biographies of Women Aviators

Flying Solo: How Ruth Elder Soared into America’s Heart
Written by Julie Cummins and Illustrated by Malene R. Laugesen.
Published in 2013 by Roaring Brook Press
Grades 3 – 8
Book Review

At the age of twenty-three, Ruth Elder, “a beauty queen with a sparkling personality, a smile as bright as a toothpaste ad, and plenty of pluck,” set out to do what no woman had done. She had her heart set on becoming the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. Despite the newness of airplane travel and the predominant sentiment that women had no place in the cockpit, Ruth was determined. On October 11, 1927, almost five years before Earhart’s 1932 crossing, Ruth and her flying instructor, George Haldeman, took off intending to land in Paris. Two thirds of the way there, an oil line ruptured on the plane, forcing them to abandon the plane. Ruth was undaunted, “she never lost her courage or her lipstick.” Readers of Julie Cummins’ picture book biography of this spunky aviatrix will thrill to Ruth’s aspirations and adventures, cheering her as she goes on to participate in what would be known as the Powder Puff Derby, America’s first women’s cross country air race. Malene Laugesen’s soft pastel images capture Ruth’s femininity and spirit and provide a strong sense of historical context. This title provides an excellent introduction to this lesser known figure in women’s aviation history. 

Daredevil: The Daring Life of Betty Skelton
Written and illustrated by Megan McCarthy
Published in 2013 by Simon & Schuster
Grades 3 – 8
Book Review
I just like to go fast.” And “daredevil” Betty Skelton did. Author / illustrator Megan McCarthy offer a picture book biography presentation of the lifelong interests of Betty Skelton, aviatrix, race car driver, and speed boat jumper. Beginning with Skelton’s unusual early interests in the 1930’s , “while most girls played with their dolls, Betty Skelton played with her metal plane,” McCarthy reviews Skelton’s life accomplishments, which include getting her pilot’s license at age 16, pursuing a successful career as an acrobatic pilot, racing cars, and boats, and even training as a potential astronaut with the Mercury 7. Skelton never made it to space; the obstructions posed by stereotypes about women’s capabilities proved to be the only barriers she could not break through. However, she “had proven that women could do it as well as men.” And readers of this book will celebrate her successes and her ability to remain confident and committed. This versatile title will provide much fuel for classroom discussion of women’s roles and rights and the value of perseverance.
Teaching Invitations
Grades 3-8
Pioneering Women. Include these titles in a collection of picture book biographies that feature women who were pioneers in their field. Divide students into small groups and ask students to read the books and make notes about the subjects of their books. Ask students to prepare a brief summary to share with classmates. After each group shares their summary in a whole group session, ask your students to brainstorm categories to construct a comparison chart featuring the women’s lives and accomplishments. Return to small group work with and ask groups to complete the information to construct the chart. When the chart is assembled, hold another whole group discussion, noting any patterns across the categories. The Classroom Bookshelf blog features several titles ideally suited to this activity, including: Who SaysWomen Can’t Be Doctors (Elizabeth Blackwell),  Me…Janeand  The Watcher (Jane Goodall), Night Flight (Amelia Earhart), Annie and Helen and Helen’s Big World (Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan), Life in the Ocean (Sylvia Earle), Miss Moore Thought Otherwise (Anne Carroll Moore), Queen of the Falls (Annie Edson Taylor) and Rachel Carson and Her Book That Changed the World.
Women and Flight: A Collection of Picture Book Biographies. After brainstorming what you know about early female aviators, divide your class into groups. Each group will read one of the following picture book biographies: Daredevil, Flying Solo, Night Flight, Sky High, Brave Harriet, The Daring Miss Quimby, Talkin’ About Bessie, and Soar, Elinor!,  (see Further Explorations below for details). Have the students make a list of what they learned about each female aviator and what new questions they have. Jigsaw the students together to share information. Discuss similarities and differences across these women’s stories.

Duet Model: Flying Soloand Daredevil: Comparing Biographer’s Choices. After reading Flying Solo and Daredevil,first ask students to compare and contrast the life stories of Ruth Elder and Betty Skelton as presented by these authors. What do these two women have in common? What was different about their experiences? What additional information do students want to know about these women? If time allows, use the resources below to explore the answers to students’ questions. Next, ask students to take a close look at the structure of these picture book biographies. These authors employ different organizational strategies to tell the life stories of their subjects. While Julie Cummins highlights key moments in Elder’s life, concentrating on her trans-Atlantic attempt and her trans-continental race, Megan McCarthy provides an early childhood to grave look at the life and accomplishments of Betty Skelton. Ask students to consider the choices made by authors of picture book biographies as they consider how their will narrate a life’s journey and accomplishments. Expand this comparison by adding Night Flight to the discussion; this picture book highlights Amelia Earhart’s trans-Atlantic flight of 1932. 

Multimedia Exploration: An Author’s Sources. After reading Daredevil: The Daring Life of Betty Skelton, allow your students some time to explore the amazing photographs, videos, and additional multimodal material found on author Megan McCarthy’s website. Ask students to consider how these materials add to their understanding of the Skelton’s Life. Ask students to select a contemporary or historical figure of significance to them (or shape their selection to meet curricular goals) and ask them to begin a process of researching their subject’s life by compiling a collection of multimedia resources – PowerPoint or KeyNote may be used as a repository for links and photos. Students can share these resources with each other, making an oral presentation of what they are learning about their subject. Students in grades 6 – 8 could expand on this activity by beginning with a more thorough exploration of McCarthy’s online resources. After reading through the resources, students should be encouraged to discuss which aspects of Skelton’s life McCarthy chose to highlight in her picture book biography presentation of Skelton’s life? What did she choose to exclude? This awareness of the choices made by a biographer will support students’ own writing in this genre.
Grades 6-8
History of Women in Flight. Read aloud the picture book biographies: Night Flight, Soar, Elinor, and Talkin’ About Bessie to provide students with some prior knowledge of other early female aviators. Using the online databases available through your local library or some of the online resources listed below, research these pioneers. You might want to have some read Women of the Wind, others read Almost Astronauts, and others read Women Aviators : 26 Stories of Pioneer Flights, Daring Missions, and Record-setting Journeys  (see Further Explorations below for bibliographic information). Have students debate why Amelia Earhart has gotten so much media attention over the years. Why did she get attention when others did not? Why have some other women like Amelia Earhart, who got media attention in their time, faded from our memories? Have students create a timeline of women’s accomplishments in flight. Alternatively, use the end pages of Flying Solo as a model for students’ creation of a museum galley display of portraits and bios of key figures across time.
Critical Literacy

Women in Flight Today. Ruth Elder, Betty Skelton, and their aviatrix counterparts were pioneering, yet women today still face equity issues.  After reading Daredevil and Flying Solo, have students investigate the number of women who are pilots today in the public sphere, such as the military, and private sectors, such as personal and airline pilots. How many women in the space program today started out as airplane pilots? What might be the incentive for women to become pilots? What disincentives are there? In today’s work climate, how are women pilots treated compared to their male counterparts? Is the current economy impacting female pilots more than male pilots?
Further Explorations
Online Resources
Megan McCarthy: Author Website
Interview with Julie Cummins
Smithsonian Air and Space Museum: Women in Aviation
Women in Aviation International
Women in Aviation Resource Center
Aerofiles: The Powder Puff Derby
Hargrave Aviation Biographies: Ruth Elder
Davis-Monthan Airfield Field Register: Ruth Elder
Betty Skelton: New York Times Obituary
The National Aviation Hall of Fame: Betty Skelton
Official Amelia Earhart Site
Earhart Collection of Purdue University
The 99s: International Organization of Women Pilots
Betty Skelton: Oral History Transcript
New York Times; Those Magnificent Women in Their Flying Machines
Adler, D. (1998). A picture book of Amelia Earhart. New York: Holiday House.
Blair, M.W. (2006). The roaring 20: the first cross-country air race for women. Washington, DC: National Geographic.
Brown, T. L. (2010). Soar, Elinor!Ill. by F. Roca. New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux.
Burleigh, R. (2011). Night flight: Amelia Earhart crosses the Atlantic. Ill. by W. Minor. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Fleming, C. (2011). Amelia lost: The life and disappearance of Amelia Earhart. New York: Schwartz & Wade.
Gibson, K.B. (2013). Women aviators : 26 stories of pioneer flights, daring missions, and record-setting journeys. Chicago, IL: Chicago Review Press.
Grimes, N. (2002). Talkin’ about Bessie: The story of aviator Elizabeth Colman. Ill. by E.B. Lewis. New York: Orchard Books.
Homan, L.M. & Reilly, T. (2004). Women who fly. Ill. by R.M. Shepherd. Gretna, LA: Pelican Pub. Co.
Jerome, K. (2002). Who was Amelia Earhart?:Who Was. . . ? series. Ill. by D. Kane. New York: Grosset & Dunlap.
Klier, K.W. (2008). You can’t do that, Amelia!. Ill. by K. Kemly. Honesdale, PA: Calkins Creek.
Lakin, P. (2003). Amelia Earhart: More than a flier. Ready to Read series. Ill. by A. & L. Daniel. New York: Aladdin.
Langley, W. (2006). Women of the wind: Early women aviators. Greensboro, NC: Morgan Reynolds Publishing.
Mortenson, L. (2008). Amelia Earhart: female pioneer in flight. Ill. by R. McGuire. Minneapolis, MN: Picture Window Books.
Moss, M. (2009). Sky High: The True Story of Maggie Gee. Berkeley, CA: Tricycle Press. 
Moss, M. (2001). Brave Harriet: the first woman to fly the English Channel. Ill. by C.F. Payne. San Diego: Silver Whistle.
Petrick, N.S. (2006). Katherine Stinson Otero : high flyer. Ill. by D. Wallace. Gretna, LA: Pelican.
Ryan, P. M. (1999). Amelia and Eleanor go for a ride. Ill. by B. Selznick. New York: Scholastic.
Stone, T.L. (2009). Almost astronauts. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.
Stone, T. L. (2007). Amelia Earhart. New York: DK Publishing.
Szabo, C. (2007). Sky pioneer: A photobiography of Amelia Earhart. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic.
Tanaka, S. (2008). Amelia Earhart: The legend of the lost aviator. Ill. by D. Craig. New York: Abrams Books for Young Readers.
Whitaker, S.G. (2009). The daring Miss Quimby. Ill. by C. Stock. New York: Holiday House.

Erika Thulin Dawes About Erika Thulin Dawes

Erika is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former classroom teacher, reading specialist, and literacy supervisor, she now teaches courses in children’s literature, early literacy, and literacy methods. Erika is the co-author of Learning to Write with Purpose, Teaching with Text Sets, and Teaching to Complexity.


  1. Sarah Lamstein says:

    Another fine books is Jeannine Atkins WINGS AND ROCKETS/The Story of Women in Air and Space, Farrar Straus, 2003.

  2. Once again, The Classroom Bookshelf has inspired me with a multitude of things I want to do! I love this site, and I think your audience ought to know that when you are invited to present it to audiences of educators and librarians, you really give them their money's worth! Thank you for coming and presenting to our UVU Forum on Engaged Reading! Thank you for you wonderful conception of this blog, and for following through with the very best in books, ideas, and inspiration!

  3. Thank you, Sarah for this addition to the book listing!

  4. We loved the conference! It was an amazing opportunity for conversations with people who love books as much as we do. Thank you!!