David Hill and Phoebe Morris have collaborated on a third picture book in their series introducing young New Zealanders to historic adventurers. We asked Louise Ward from Wardini Books in Hawke’s Bay to check it out for us.
The first page of Sky High: Jean Batten’s Incredible Flying Adventures grabs you. Whether or not you’ve heard of Jean Batten or know anything about her, Phoebe Morris’ massive, terrifying clouds threatening to envelop the tiny plane and David Hill’s present tense, short sentences make this picture book a thriller from the start.
The plane’s pilot is exhausted, concerned about fuel levels and being buffeted by dire weather. But wait! She sees land and knows that she’s succeeded in becoming the first woman to fly across the Tasman!
As this book is aimed at a readership/listenership of about four years and up, it’s essential for it to engage its reader or listener immediately. The tension of the dramatically illustrated first double spread is a stroke of genius and we don’t mind calming down a bit for the next few pages of biography.
There is skill in being able to condense the salient points of a person’s life into a sentence and we soon learn that Jean was born in Rotorua, her father fought in World War I and that she was a dancer and a pianist. An enticing little nugget of information is that Jean’s mother, Ellen, pinned a picture of the pilot Louis Bleriot up in the room where Jean was born. Already I have questions: What did she do that for? Who was Louis Bleriot? It’s a bit weird to pin up a picture of a pilot on a baby’s wall isn’t it? This is the only mention Monsieur Bleriot gets so I have to turn to the awesome power of the internet to find out more – but I like that. I like that I was intrigued enough to bother and I’m hoping many other readers will do the same.
Next we have a leap forward in time to when Jean is 19. She is determined to become a pilot and announces as much at a talk by Australian pilot Charles Kingsford Smith where she is laughed at. This is a tiny moment – indeed all Hill writes is that ‘people laughed,’ – but that just about says it all. Jean is a determined young woman. It’s 1928. People laughed. I’m picking this will spark another great conversation with young modern readers. Why on earth did people laugh?
Jean Batten has been accused of exploiting her relationships with men in order to fund her ambitions and this is dealt with swiftly: she was pretty, men fell in love with her, they loaned her money and she didn’t always pay them back. She was then able to buy her own plane. I’m a little uncomfortable with the message here. Is it relevant that she was pretty? Won’t someone fall in love with you if you’re not?
So Jean now has her Gypsy Moth, and this is where things get really interesting. Armed with her plane and an axe in case she crash lands and needs to chop it up to make a raft – so cool! – Jean takes to the skies. Exciting and terrifying adventures befall her. She is lost in the desert and aided by Arab tribesmen. There’s another crash landing in Pakistan where she rides a camel in search of a new propeller, followed by another crash. Her plane is replaced but she crashes again, this time in Rome, and is injured.
Proving her determination and courage she takes off again and in 1934, after a beautifully rendered lonely and fraught journey, she reaches Australia, creating a new world record and sending her mother, to whom she was very close, a telegram that reads: ‘We’ve done it. The aeroplane, you, me.’ This bit made me well up and clearly conjured up the adventurer and heartbreaker, making her all the more real to me. It’s a lovely moment, narrated against a backdrop of a solitary Jean, sitting by her plane in a barren and rocky landscape, perhaps missing her mum.
There are more fabulous facts thrown in to the rest of the story: her flying companion (a black cat named Buddy), her return journey, more world records and a great deal of well-deserved admiration.
But this story has such a sad ending after the adventure and the glory: death by dog bite, in obscurity, on Majorca. The final illustration of a much older, wistful Jean, gazing at a flock of seagulls, is heartbreaking. I prefer to dwell on the picture where the shadow of Jean’s plane is an eagle – a metaphor for her strength and courage.
The intention of this award-winning series of books by Hill and Morris, which also includes First to the Top: Sir Edmund Hillary’s Amazing Everest Adventure and Speed King: Burt Munro, the World’s Fastest Indian, is to inform the younger reader about New Zealand’s most famous, inspiring and celebrated historical figures. Sky High will enable another generation to feel Jean’s indomitable spirit of exploration and, like me, to be inspired to find out more.
Sky High: Jean Batten’s incredible flying adventures
By David Hill
Illustrated by Phoebe Morris
Published by Picture Puffin
Louise Ward is a former police officer and teacher, now co-owner of Wardini Books in Havelock North and Napier, finally putting that English Literature degree to relevant use. Wardini Books won the Nielsen Bookshop of the Year award at the 2020 NZ Book Industry Awards, and they are open 24/7 at www.wardini.co.nz.