Alis the Aviator: an ABC Aviation Adventure – Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail and Kalpna Patel, Tundra Books, 2019
Alis the Aviator creates poetry out of flight. Danielle Metcalf-Chenail, writing about the first Indigenous commercial pilot in Canada, is able to make words soar. Along with Kalpna Patel’s bright paper cutouts of planes and people, including a young aviation-obsessed girl, this unusual book teaches, inspires, and entertains. The ABCs of aviation, from Arrow to Zeppelins, take flight in this beautiful book.
Alis is ambitious and modest at the same time. The assemblage of colored paper into meticulously detailed aircraft and scenes of joyous human creativity demands the reader’s attention. Alis herself begins by constructing paper airplanes; what could be simpler? Her dog is asleep on a fringed rug at her feet, not even awakened by curlicues of paper from her project drifting onto his head.
Soon, however, Alis moves beyond her initial experiments, and takes us on a tour of the real thing. Seated in a small RCAF Chipmunk or gazing up in wonder from a hiker’s trail at Norseman and Otter planes, Alis is aviation personified. Each image and each line of text is different; the reader lifts off at “A” and continues on through a wild and bumpy flight. Another incredible two page spread takes the reader back in time to World War II, with VICTORY spelled out, if not yet assured, and Rosie the Riveter smiling in the lower corner. Workers on the Lancaster and Mosquito bombers are depicted as smaller and less defined, with tapering cones for bodies and small found faces without features, reminiscent of Japanese kokeshi dolls. The people in the scene subordinate themselves to the task.
In an entirely different scene, Patel juxtaposes old sepia-colored newspapers with dramatic headlines about feats from the past: “P is for parachute, a jump like no other./Q is for Queen, which crashed into the loam,” contrasting on the next page with “R is for Renegade/…a plane you build at home.” (image). From wild adventure to the security of model building, Alis is enthusiastic about it all.
The text is accessible, but also sophisticated and full of fun imagery and inventive rhymes: “D is for Dakota a northern weather vane/E is for Electra, a shiny metal steed./F is for Fairey Swordfish, not known for its speed.” It’s easy to string to together related items beginning with each of twenty-six letters, and many alphabet books do just that. In Alis the Aviator, the letters are a pretext for a journey through the imagination of a plane enthusiast. The book includes a biography with photos of the real Dr. Alis Kennedy, and an illustrated glossary rich with information and miniature images of all the planes in the book. If a child is already in love with the world of flight, she will be thrilled with this book. If she is not, the fantastic artwork and compelling poetry will encourage her to board the flight.