Talkin’ About Bessie: The Story of Aviator Elizabeth Coleman is an interesting conglomeration of things. It’s a biography, but it’s all told in poems. It’s filled with beautiful illustrations on each page, but it will probably appeal most to kids well past the target age for picture books. Bessie Coleman overcame both sexism and racism to become the first African American woman to gain a pilot’s license and the first African American to gain an international pilot’s license. She died at the age of 34 when she was thrown from an airplane.
Talkin’ About Bessie is a series of fictionalized eulogies that talk about different stages in the pilot’s life. It’s a quick but thought-provoking read, and there’s a bibliography for those who are inspired to learn more.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Racism and Sexism
Born to a poor family in 1892, Bessie grew up in a time where she had little hope of being able to do whatever she wanted. Her school was segregated and only went through 8th grade—although she completed all the grades and excelled at math. When she decided she wanted to be a pilot, there was no aviation school in the United States that would take her because she was black and because she was a woman. She learned French so she could go to school in France where they were much more open minded. Obstacles were put in her way on every possible front, but she fought past them all.
Once she was a star at air shows, she insisted that “coloreds” be permitted to attend her shows, and she had enough clout to make that demand.
Courage and Determination
As if it didn’t already require enough courage to overcome the many ways she was told she couldn’t become a pilot, she also witnessed a fatal crash and then crashed her own plane from 300 feet up. Despite a lengthy stay in a hospital to heal all the broken bones, neither of those catastrophes kept her from continuing to fly.
It’s probably not a surprise that such a determined and ambitious person had a tendency to cheat a bit and to exaggerate her stories. As a child, she would occasionally step on the scales when weighing cotton so her family would get a little more money.
She was the 10th of 13 children. Her father left the family while she was still fairly young. The eulogies suggest that her family was proud, amused, and frustrated with her by turns.
Religion and Faith
Her mother had her read the Bible regularly and faith was very important in the family. Although Bessie lapsed a bit along the way, toward the end of her life she had a renewal of faith.
You know from the beginning that Bessie has died tragically because the book is set at the funeral home as everyone remembers her. The last poem is from her point of view.
Especially for readers who balk at nonfiction (like me!), this is a great compromise. It’s quick and easy to read, but there’s a lot to talk about and it’s likely to whet the appetite for learning more about Bessie Coleman, about the time in which she lived, about the beginnings of aviation, and about the rights of women and African Americans. Although it’s in the form of a picture book, I think it’s ideal for ages 8-12, since many of the concepts seem a bit deep for the preschool set.
Talkin’ About Bessie: The Story of Aviator Elizabeth Coleman by Nikki Grimes, illustrated by E. B. Lewis
Published in 2002 by Orchard Books
Borrowed from my local library