Girl meets sky: Michael Ferrari’s ‘Born to Fly’

Courtesy of Delacorte Press

by Alicia Rudnicki, Library Mix

This is the first essay in the four-part series about girls, both fictional and real, seeking adventure in the sky.

Bird McGill is only 11 years old, but she has spine. The spunky heroine of Michael Ferrari’s children’s novel, Born to Fly, leads young readers on an unforgettable airborne adventure.

Winner of the Yearling Prize
Published in mid-2009, Born to Fly proves that Ferrari was born to write. The unforgettable Bird helped him win the 2007 Delacorte Yearling Prize for a first middle grade novel.

Born to Fly takes place in 1941 and opens with Bird receiving a flying lesson from her dad as a birthday gift. Mr. McGill is an aircraft mechanic who has nurtured his daughter’s love of airplanes so much that she has a favorite—the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk fighter plane, flown by the famous Flying Tigers.

Prior to American involvement in World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sanctioned the formation of a volunteer corp of veteran U.S. military aviators to help China fight back against Japanese air attacks. They flew Warhawks, which were well known for a menacing shark face on their nose cones. The Chinese dubbed the group the “Flying Tigers” for their fierceness.

A Flying Tiger cub
Bird is so excited by her dad’s additional gift of a P-40 manual that she reads it whenever possible, including while walking home from school. She says that the Warhawk “was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.”

See, every airplane needs wings and a tail. The wings need flaps, and the tail needs a rudder. And it’s a good idea to have wheels, if you ever hope to land and take off again. But you can hardly call it an airplane if it doesn’t look like it was born to fly. An airplane can only fly as good as it looks. My dad said it’s like falling in love. If one look at the plane doesn’t make you want to shoot up int the clouds, the plane’s hardly worth talking about.

When none of the classmates Bird invited to her party show up, she ponders the fact that “you must really despise someone to turn down free cake and ice cream.” So she climbs up on the barn roof to seek solace in the sky.

Even Bird’s frilly older sister, Margaret, is intolerant of Bird’s aspirations.

“Dad, Bird’s on the roof again…. Do you have any idea how perfectly impossible it is to scare up a date in this town?” she went on. “Especially when your kid sister thinks she is the Red Baron?”

What makes a child dream?
As Ferrari writes in his “author’s note” at the end of the novel, Congress didn’t lift the ban on females in air combat until 1991. But there have been girls, such as the legendary barnstormer Bess Coleman, who were passionate about aviation ever since the Wright Brothers invented the first airplane in 1903. And there was the daring Amelia Earhart, who disappeared while flying around the world along the equator in 1937.

What is it that makes a child dare to dream?  In Bird’s case, aside from her fearless disposition, there is her father’s love and approval. Dad is Bird’s best friend. So life takes a terrible nosedive for her when the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor and Mr. McGill enlists to be a fighter pilot.

Things get even worse when a mysterious “Jap” boy named Kenji enrolls in her school and must sit in the only empty seat in class—the one next to Bird. She is angry at the Japanese not only for the bombing, but for taking away her Dad.

What Bird doesn’t realize is that the federal government has taken Kenji’s parents away from him. Similar to many other Japanese Americans, they lost all their property and were placed in an internment camp following the bombing of Pearl Harbor despite being American citizens.

Social ostracism and racial discrimination
Bird’s social ostracism intensifies when she befriends Kenji, but her life also becomes dramatically more adventurous. They uncover a number of mysteries lurking in the lake and woods of their little East Coast town that culminate in a literally explosive ending.

Bird and Kenji also discover the ugliness of racial discrimination and the difficulty of doing what is right.

Ferrari is a teacher as well as the father of two young girls. Similar to Mr. McGill, who tells Bird “I think you can be whatever you want to be,” Ferrari is careful to support children’s dreams and interests.

He wrote Born to Fly, in part, because a girl in his sixth grade class had requested an action-adventure story with a female hero, and Ferrari could find none “where a girl got to save the day.”

Bird does save the day in Born to Fly, but it wouldn’t be fair to say how. To find out, you will have to read this joyful book. You can find it at the library.

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