Book discussed: Amelia and Eleanor Go for a Ride – Pam Muñoz Ryan and Brian Selznick, Scholastic Press, 1999
Imagine two of the most powerful and committed women in the world taking a short plane flight together, and then returning to talk and enjoy a dessert they both love. Imagine that one is a spokeswoman for human rights around the world, and the other a pioneer in a field thought by many to require traits that women supposedly lack: courage, physical endurance, and quantitative skills. Imagine their story brought to life for both children and adults through the narrative and artistic ingenuity of Pam Muñoz Ryan and Brian Selznick. Then open Amelia and Eleanor Go for a Ride to experience a flight back into the past with headline grabbing text and cinematic images. “How amusing it is to see a girl in a white evening dress and high-heeled shoes flying in a plane!” The “girl” is Eleanor Roosevelt. “There’s no describing it…You just have to experience it on a clear night when you can see forever.” The one with the vision to see forever is…
Fans of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Wonderstruck, and The Marvels, will want to return to this earlier book to experience an earlier example of Selznick’s inspired homage to the old movies that have left us a catalogue of mental images. As a smiling Amelia and Eleanor stand in the doorway of the plane, they are greeted by a throng of reporters. We see the only the backs of1930s newsmen, and women’s, headgear, their fingers raised to ask eager questions, and their fountain pens. We get one more specific glimpse of a reporter’s notebook with a story in progress in longhand script: “Amelia and Eleanor were birds of a feather…” Eleanor is eloquent in her understated manner: “I was thrilled by the city lights, the brilliance of the blinking pinpoints below.” Amelia grasps Eleanor’s arm and smiles in agreement: “She knew just how Eleanor felt.” The story is about friendship as much as daring.
An extensive afterword explains the historical research that preceded the book, and also specifies when the author modified the facts in order to tell her story. Muñoz Ryan gives young readers important insight into her creative process, informing them that “Almost all of Amelia and Eleanor’s dialogue in my story comes from newspaper account, book transcripts, and diaries.” For children who probably have little understanding of how authors and illustrators come up with ideas or develop them, this account is as important as the story itself.
Once you have read this book with young people, you might want to introduce them to another famous flight, which Eleanor undertook with the specific purpose of social change. In 1941 the United States War Department established a training program for the 99th Pursuit Squadron, which would become the legendary African American flying corps of the Tuskegee Airmen. This happened in spite of a deep rooted and destructive prejudice against involving soldiers of color in the War to defeat fascism. In 1941, shortly before the program was officially initiated, Eleanor Roosevelt visited the training site, and insisted on taking a flight with famed flight instructor Charles A. Anderson. As important as the flight itself was the resulting publicity, which Mrs. Roosevelt deliberately promoted in order to show her support for the program and her full confidence in the ability of the pilots. Americans saw photos of her after the flight, and even read about it in her syndicated newspaper column, “My Day.”
Perhaps Muñoz Ryan and Selznick could be convinced to collaborate on an illustrated book about that event. The bravery of the pilots helped to further erode barriers to their full participation in the U.S. military, which was finally desegregated by President Truman’s executive order of 1948.