If you write for children, you can probably imagine how floored I was to learn, a few years ago, that the amazing Stacy Innerst would be illustrating my JACK KNIGHT’S BRAVE FLIGHT – How One Gutsy Pilot Saved the U.S. Air Mail Service (Calkins Creek/Astra), released just last week.
Stacy’s books have been on dozens of Best of– lists over the years and honored with MANY starred reviews and awards, including the NYT/New York Public Library’s Best Illustrated Children’s Books Award and SCBWI’s Golden Kite for Picture Book Illustration. He was kind enough to chat with me about himself and his part in creating our book, but before we get to that I should tell you a bit about it. The book, I mean.
It’s 1921. Biplanes (surplus planes manufactured for use in WW1) all over the country have been flying the mail in short hops during daylight hours, when pilots can see where they’re going. Flying at night is deemed too dangerous, so before dark, mail is transferred onto trains. Still, plane crashes are too common, costing lives and expensive planes, so lawmakers decide to cut funding for the 3-year-old U.S. Air Mail Service. Not worth it, they say.
Outraged air mail officials and pilots want to get the public on their side, rallying to save airmail, so they concoct a daring plan–a nonstop, coast-to-coast relay to prove that keeping the mail in the air, even at night, is the fastest way to move it across America. Newspapers get out the word, and people all along the route vow to keep oil barrels and bonfires alight across the dark prairie to guide pilots through the nighttime portion of the race. At every stop, crowds greet pilots with cheers and encouragement.
But when Jack Knight touches down in Omaha, he learns that a crash, exhaustion, and a snowstorm have grounded the other three planes. He’s the only one left in the race. The only way it can continue is if he can fly on to Chicago. Over land he’s never covered. Through a blizzard. With (too soon) a nearly empty fuel tank. What could go wrong?
Plenty. What nobody could have predicted, though, was that the wiry Jack Knight, still achy and stiff from a crash the week before, wearing a thin flight suit completely unsuited to the below 0º temps he’ll be facing, is one of those guys who just won’t quit.
As you can see by this quote from the back of the book, he made it (and he and his fellow pilots beat the old plane-train cross-country record by 39 hours!). But it was a harrowing test of human endurance. JACK KNIGHT’S BRAVE FLIGHT has had lovely reviews all around:
“….In snappy, climactic prose, Esbaum traces the obstacles Knight encountered, including bodily discomfort and an unavoidable blizzard in Illinois. Innerst’s atmospheric illustrations conjure the rough elements and close quarters in deep blues and cool gray washes, with fluid figures, stamped text, and finely brushed details adding texture. A riveting journey about an undersung aviator. Back matter includes creators’ notes and a timeline sharing highlights in the history of the U.S. mail.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Esbaum retraces Knight’s night with breathtaking pacing and a touch of humor, deftly underscored by Innerst’s equally taut yet waggish mixed media artwork.” —The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books
“An exciting story ….This historical adventure has great appeal and may renew kids’ interest in the postal service; a valuable addition to nonfiction collections.” —School Library Journal
“The jaunty storytelling and atmospheric illustrations vividly depict the challenges of flying an open cockpit plane in winter with only signal fires to guide pilots through the night and snow impeding opportunities to refuel. The broad strokes of dark watercolor and ink are just detailed enough to evoke the shapes of planes and people on a snowy night. This is a lively read.” —School Library Connection
Back matter includes notes from both Stacy and me, photos, a timeline: Highlights in the History of the U.S. Mail (more fascinating than I would have believed!), and more. Okay, let’s get to the chat!
JE: First, Stacy, a basic question: Why did you want to be a picture book illustrator?
SI: I’ve been making pictures since I was very young and I’m the child of a librarian and a writer, so I suppose it was meant to be. I studied fine art in college—painting and drawing and art history, but I really became an illustrator when I started having a family and I had to make a living. I was doing editorial illustrations for newspapers and magazines when my kids were little, but every night we were reading picture books at bedtime. It was the best part of my day and I think theirs, too. We talked about the stories we were reading and evaluating the pictures as we went. It became a kind of laboratory for me on the whole world of picture books. They told me what they liked and didn’t like about the illustrations, and I was amazed at how affected they were by the art.
Every couple of weeks we’d leave the library with as many books as we could carry. Among the pile were some of the books that were read to me as a child — Books by Margaret Wise Brown or Leo Politi or E.B. White. I had a sort of epiphany when we were reading Little Fur Family, with those fantastic illustrations by Garth Williams. I hadn’t seen the book since I was very young, and on the cover there is a little fur child playing with a red ball. When I saw that picture, I had an immediate sense memory of my child-self looking at that red ball. I remembered what it felt like to be small, and to look at pictures in a book while someone who loved you read the words. That was an indication to me of the communicative power of picture books.
JE: It’s astounding how one small thing can bring back such vivid memories … and all through our lives.
I live only 45 minutes from the Iowa City airport, so I fell for this story hard. Could you tell our readers what about this project made you want to take it on?
SI: Well, first of all it’s a book about flying! I couldn’t resist making those pictures from a bird’s eye view. As an illustrator, that’s the kind of unusual vantage point that you love and the writing was so wonderful in the way it described the experience of flying.
I was also drawn to the story of a group of people who risked their lives to do something that they felt was needed at the time. Jack Knight was a pilot — It’s what he did — So naturally he felt that he was the one that had to fly the mail in a blizzard at night. He was at the right place at the right time to accomplish something great.
That kind of thinking is truly heroic and far too rare. We take so much for granted these days and often expect immediate gratification and same-day drone delivery. It wasn’t that way just 100 years ago.
JE: As the timeline at the end of the book details! We’re so spoiled these days. What technique do you use, Stacy, and how has your work changed/evolved during your career?
SI: I tend to paint with watercolor and gouache and draw a bit with ink these days. I’ve come to really like the way I can draw expressively with a brush when I’m using that medium. For Jack Knight, I also used a rubber stamps to create the sense of mail postmarks and so on. Ultimately I scan the paintings and refine the color and compositions on the computer.
Over the years I’ve also painted with oils and/or acrylics and used collaged paper and fabric.
I’ve used whatever I thought I needed to best convey the story. For example, I painted with acrylics on blue jeans for a book about Levi Strauss.
JE: That sounds inventive — and fun! How much revision was involved in this project?
SI: There is always a fair amount of revision in picture book biographies. The details matter so I do a lot of research to make sure everything is period-correct. The biggest challenge for this book was finding just the right model of airplane and locating reference photos of the airport hangars and so on. I actually found biplane flight simulators online that I used to get a sense of the controls and open cockpit flying.
Most of the revisions were in the sketch phase of the book—getting the page breaks and pacing right in the spreads and making sure the clothing, vehicles and architecture are authentic. We went back and forth with the early sketches.
JE: What’s next for you, Stacy?
SI: I’ve got another fun book out later this spring about Ben and Jerry, of ice cream fame, written by Lisa Robinson. I’m also working on a few other projects, two of which I’m writing and illustrating and I’ve just started the sketches for a book about the painter, Gilbert Stuart, and his portrait of George Washington, written by Sarah Albee.
JE: Excellent! We’ll be watching for those. Thanks for much for visiting with us, Stacy! Readers, you can learn more about Stacy here, on his website.
We hope you’ll check out our new book! ENTER OUR BOOK GIVEAWAY by commenting below! Winner will be chosen Friday, April 15th, 2022. U.S. residents only, please.