Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Lighter Than Air by Matthew Clark Smith

Lighter Than Air is a picture book about Sophie Blanchard, the first woman to fly in a balloon. Ballooning was a popular craze in eighteenth-century France as man began to look to the heavens and sought a way to fly.

Two French brothers, Joseph-Michel Montgolfier and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier had invented a hot-air balloon and run several trials with it. Joseph's idea for the hot air balloon came about while watching the embers rise into the air from a fire. He and his brother built a box with and attached sac constructed out of taffetta and lit a fire in the box. Their first balloon travelled almost two kilometers before crashing.

When the first manned balloon flight took place in November of 1793, Sophie Armant was five years old. Her full name was Marie Madeleine Sophie Armant and she was born in 1778 in Trois-Canons, France. Sophie who was nervous of the noisy carriages used for travel in those days, wished she could fly like the birds. As she grew up, ballooning continued to flourish in France, even becoming incorporated into the fashion of the era and even in furniture.

One of the most famous balloonists was Jean-Pierre Blanchard, who along with John Jeffries an American doctor, were the first to cross the English Channel in 1785 in a balloon. Sophie was fascinated by Blanchard's feats and was determined to become a balloonist. This was a daring ambition as women would not thought capable of doing many things that men did. Sophie married Blanchard, who had earlier abandoned his wife and four children to pursue his ambition of becoming a balloonist. Blanchard believed that having a young woman accompany him might make ballooning more profitable. Soon Sophie made her own solo ascent in 1805. He was correct. After his death in 1809, Sophie carried on becoming a famous balloonist.

Lighter Than Air tells the remarkable story of how Sophie Blanchard became the first woman balloonist and was so famous that Emperor Napoleon made her Chief Minister of Air Ballooning. Author Matthew Clark Smith is a naturalist and writer who makes his home in Mississippi. Smith wanted to tell Sophie's story because he views her as the first in a long and proud line of women who became aeronauts, pilots and astronauts, proving that women can do anything men can do!

Lighter Than Air is illustrated with the lovely ink and watercolour art of Matt Tavares who is an award-winning children's book author-illustrator. His first picture book was Zachary's Ball which was published in 2000. Tavares states in a note at the back of the book that he tried to use the sky to help tell Sophie's story.

Other resources to further your interest:

The Smithsonian website has an article, Sophie Blanchard - The Highflying Frenchwoman Who Revealed the Thrill and Danger of Ballooning.

Nova's website also has a webpage, A Short History of Ballooning which is helpful.

A short animated film The Fantastic Flights of Sophie Blanchard was made in 2012.

Book Details:

Lighter Than Air by Matthew Clark Smith
Somerville, Massachusetts: Candlewick Press 2017

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