Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Book of the Week: BORN TO FLY by Michael Ferrari

Born to Fly is a an extemely enjoyable adventure novel that stars a girl, but which will be loved by both boys and girls. Ferrari’s writing is wonderful throughout and I have a number of great excerpts to share with you. To start with, here is the novel's first sentence:
Just because I was a girl in 1941, don’t think I was some sissy. Shoot, I saw stuff that would’ve made that bully Farley Peck pee right through his pants.

I love that opening because it does three things right away: it introduces our character and gives the reader a feel for her, it promises conflict, and it just comes right out with the date. I’m often frustrated with historical novels that wait ten or twenty or even fifty pages to tell me when the story is taking place. Granted, sometimes it’s more important to open with an exciting event or a character exchange and not every novel can or should begin with a character reading a newspaper or listening to the date on the radio.

But whenever possible, if the time period is important to a story, it’s better if writers follow Ferrari’s lead and just come right out with the date. Otherwise, I, and I don’t think I’m the only one, will be distracted through the first part of the story checking the back cover or skimming ahead to find a date and a frame of reference—that’s valuable time that I’m not hooked by the writer and being drawn into the narrative.

I could tell you about the main character in Born to Fly, but Ferrari does a much better job of writing a resonating character description to catch the reader’s imagination:

Seeing me in my World War One pilot’s skullcap and goggles and my Huck Finn dungarees, you would’ve never guessed that someone with a neat name like Bird McGill was actually just an eleven-year-old girl.

Can't you just see her standing there? And look, Ferrari did the same thing with the character's age he did with the date. It just saves time.

We learn all about Bird’s love of flying and her heart’s fondest desire to be a fighter pilot despite the fact that she’s a girl—remember, this is 1941. So Ferrari’s protagonist has a goal firmly in place to drive the narrative, but Ferrari is too smart to just leave it at that. Two important things happen at the start of the novel. The first is the bombing of Pearl Harbor, resulting in Bird’s father being called to war.

As important, if not more so in terms of the novel's plot (not American History), Bird’s best friend moves away and she is lonely. This creates a second subconscious desire in Bird and an unstated goal for the protagonist: not only does she want to fly, she needs a friend, and the reader recognizes this even if Bird does not. Ferrari doesn’t just tell us Bird is lonely, he shows us:

Sitting on the roof of our barn, I had a bird’s-eye view of our backyard picnic table and the remnants of my unattended birthday party—un-used hats, clean paper plates, unopened party favors. Mom had made me hand out invitations to all the girls in my class. Not a single one came. They weren’t my friends or anything, but still, when you’re ten years old, you have to really despise someone to turn down free cake and ice cream.

Fortunately for lonely Bird, there’s a new boy at school. A new Japanese boy. Just after Pearl Harbor. He’s staying with his Uncle because his parents are “away.” There’s also an airport in this sleepy Rhode Island town where they train pilots with PS-40s. Could it be Bird will manage to fly one? Will she and Kenji, the new Japanese boy, become friends during such a turbulent time? Are there spies hiding in town developing nefarious plots against America from within (and actually, wouldn’t it be weird that I brought it up if there weren’t)?

I can say no more, Esteemed Reader, lest I risk ruining your reading of Mr. Ferrari’s novel. And you should read it because it’s really, really good. That concludes my review. Let’s talk craft.

As I promised to shorten these posts, I’m going to show two examples from the book of historical details used to great effect, and then I’m going to plug upcoming interviews again, and then I’ll leave you with some choice passages. Sound like a plan? Ready… break!

Example One:

When I got there she was just sitting on the front porch swing in the same black dress she'd been wearing for two months. Her eyes didn't even move. They just stared down at this portrait she clutched of her son, Carlie in his white Navy Uniform... ...I stared up at the gold star in her window. It wasn't as pretty as you’d think. Normally, you’d figure that gold is better than blue—but it wasn’t to anyone who knew what a gold star meant. I bet the Widow Gorman would have given everything in the world to trade that gold star for a blue one, if she could.

I’ve talked about this before in my review of Emma’s River, but I firmly believe the best historical writers find historical details linked to death and/or gruesome events. Why? Because readers are sick and they like it. Especially young readers.

A good historical writer doesn’t try to fully recreate the past in the mind of their reader—those who do often bore their readers. All the historical details in the world aren’t going to change the fact that Born to Fly is being read by mostly younger readers in 2010 who were not alive in 1941 and have no direct frame of reference. For many, Pearl Harbor is a movie about shirtless Ben Affleck, and the day is soon coming when there will be children who don’t even know who Ben Affleck was (please God, not this day).

The thing to do then is to cherry pick the most interesting and most necessary details to create more the suggestion of the past than the past itself. Helpful tip: human beings die, they don’t like it, and their ears prickle at the faintest whisper of the possibility of death occurring sooner than predicted (never). Details regarding anything to do with death garner immediate reader curiosity. But be careful! Details too gruesome, particularly in a book targeted at a younger audience, will turn off readers. Gross them out too much and they’ll put the book down.

The morbid detail of the gold star and its impact to a family is spot on perfect. It’s interesting and it illuminates the atmosphere of worry and sorrow back home during the war, creating instant empathy in the reader—it’s not all bloodlust:) What if that star were on my window, the reader thinks. If this were the only detail of WWII presented (it isn’t), it would be nearly enough. The reader might still be imagining a somewhat inaccurate world of shirtless Ben Affleck (inaccurate, but so right), but he/she gets the main concept: during WWII, someone you love might not come home.

Later, Ferrari uses this idea he’s intentionally cultivated in the reader’s mind to great effect. While out in a field, Bird is bombed by a bag of flour by a pilot in training, which is another interesting detail. Who knew test pilots practiced with flour? But the purpose of this scene is to set up a meeting between Bird and the pilot as their meeting is important to the later plot.

Ferrari could have brought the two together after this in any number of settings, but he has wisely chosen the one guaranteed to generate maximum suspense, which also reinforces the reader's sense of war-time tension:

Suddenly the doorbell rang and I jumped right out of my bed. You see, out where we lived our doorbell almost never rang, especially at night. After a moment I could hear Mom’s slow, measured footsteps cross to the door. I ran to the top of the stairs and stuck my head through the banister to see. As Mom opened the door, I noticed that her hand was shaking. On our doorstep were two Army Air Corps officers standing at attention, one behind the other. The older one in front took off his hat.
“Mrs. McGill?” he asked.
Mom took a deep breath. Like she was bracing herself for something bad, which made my hand clutch the banister.
“I’m Captain Winston; this is Lieutenant Peppel.” The captain stepped aside.
Lieutenant Peppel stepped forward, head bowed. “Ma’am, I’m awful sorry.”
Mom covered her mouth. “Oh God!”
“The lieutenant thought it was part of the exercise, Mr. McGill,” the captain explained.
“I had no idea your little sprout was gonna be out on the airfield this mornin’,” said the young lieutenant.

It’s great stuff isn’t it? I could go on and tell you how much I admire Ferrari’s courage in presenting 1941 children as the bigots they were saying the racist things they likely would have said. Sanitized history is a lie and showing or at least hinting at the darker parts of the time establishes authorial credibility. I could go on about that, but I won’t. I promised short, so we’ll call it a review.

Born to Fly is well worth your time and dollars. It also won the Delacorte Yearling Prize for a First Middle-Grade Novel and if you’ve got a novel and you sure would like to win that, you should definitely read this book so you know how much you’re going to have to up your game. Don’t forget to visit on Thursday when we’ll have author Michael Ferrari by to face the 7 Questions, and again on Saturday for literary agent Robert Astle.

As usual, I’ll leave you with some of my favorite passages from Born to Fly:

Alvin was only four but he had a voice like Louis Armstrong. It was so deep and hoarse, like he woke up gargling like a bullfrog. You’d never believe it could come out of such a small person.

Embarrassing? She spent an hour every morning stuffing socks in her bra and I was embarrassing.

The snow sprinkled over the families saying goodbye on the platform like giant grains of rice at one of Father Krauss’s weddings. The conductor whistled and the soldiers and sailors reluctantly grabbed their duffle bags, kissed goodbye, and filed on board.

A description of a plane--MGN: It was a beautiful noise, a distant hum that was somehow strangely familiar, like a billion bumblebees swarming home to the hive.

...Mrs. Simmons, whose flabby arms were busy flapping as she wrote on the blackboard.

In front of me was a towering man, dressed all in black, with a knit mask pulled over his face. But I could see his eyes. They were dark and empty, like a shark's. He grabbed me, lifting me off the ground, and covered my mouth so that I couldn't scream.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn’t happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own. 


  1. Oh wow, this sounds absolutely fantastic! I love historical MG, love this time period and the voice sounds brilliant. Thanks so much for the review--will look forward to the author interview!


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