U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission home page

Cover of Tom Swift and His Outpost in Space

Tom Swift's space station features a rocket ship hub for docking as many as 12 rockets at a space outpost. The cover artwork of Tom Swift and His Outpost in Space reveals some technical oversights. Note the crewman exiting from a hatch in the rocket's fuel tank/engine compartment. This would be impossible. Though the astronauts are weightless, the tool-bearing spaceman stands erect near the hatch as though standing on Earth. The claim is often made that the astronaut wears magnetic grappling space boots. If this were the case, the floating astronaut also would be standing erect on the ship's fuselage. Three of the four space workers have no safety tethers. Since they also lack a manned maneuvering unit, they are in grave danger of being lost in space.

Cover of Tom Swift and His Rocket Ship

Tom Swift's rocket ship's design is identical to rocket concepts dating back to early pulp science fiction stories. A common feature of the design shown on the cover of Tom Swift and His Rocket Ship are the three engines positioned at the tips of the aero-stabilizers in the tail of the ship. Their purpose is guidance. Selective firing of the triad of smaller rockets provides Tom's ship steering during thrusting of the main core rocket engine. Such a control scheme enables pitch, roll, and yaw maneuvers.

Cover of Tom Swift and The Mystery Comet

Tom Swift and the Mystery Comet was one of the later books in the Tom Swift, Jr. series. It tells of Tom Swift's efforts to explore a comet after being hired by America's space agency. The Brungarians, the Department of Defense, and UFOs all enter the picture.

Frank Reade cover

The ships featured in the weekly adventures in Frank Reade's magazines were made from a bullet-proof aluminum/steel alloy produced in his foundries and machine works in Readestown, USA. These adventures directly inspired Jules Verne's stories such as The Steam House, Robur the Conqueror, and Master of the World. Reade's helicopter airships predate Verne's Albatross by several years.

Cover of The Light-Bringers

The first book for children that gave an account of the Wright brothers may have been the 1914 book The Light Bringers by Mary Wade.

Covers of early children's aviation books

Some of the earliest instances of airplanes in children's books appeared in books like The Boy Aviators (1910), Aeroplane Boys (1910) and Girl Aviators (1914).

McCall lithograph

"Splashdown," lithograph by Robert McCall chronicles the splashdown of Apollo 11.

Cover of Tom Corbett On the Trail of the Space Pirates

The publisher Grosset Dunlap, Inc. released the series of young peoples books called The Tom Corbett Space Cadet Adventure Stories in the 1950s. Each adventure was by Carey Rockwell, an interesting prophetic name considering the first piloted spaceship to orbit the Moon was constructed by North American Rockwell fifteen years later.

Children's Literature and Flight


Children have always thrilled at the prospect of flight. However, the earliest children's books were purely instructional, making little concessions to the interests of their readers. It wasn't until the 17th century that such collections as Mother Goose and Aesop's Fables appeared. Soon after this breakthrough, John Newberry's Little Pretty Pocket-Book, Intended for the Instruction and Amusement of Little Master Tommy and Pretty Miss Polly, published in 1744, featured an illustration and a few verses on flying a kite—a fitting choice since many children first experienced the thrill of flight through kites. Kites have been featured in children's books every since. Even today there are books that teach children the principles of flight through kites.


Beginning in the 1800s, children's literature closely followed well-publicized technological developments, but not always with adult approval. Experiments with hot air and hydrogen balloons in the 1780s, prompted warnings against the dangers of ballooning. The Third Chapter of Accidents and Remarkable Events Containing Caution and Instruction for Children, published in 1807, recounted two stories of recent ballooning accidents. Child's Museum: Containing a Description of One Hundred and Eight Interesting Subjects similarly warned young people to avoid the temptations of ballooning. But parallel with these dismal tales, more favorable depictions of ballooning were published in several titles including editions of Mother Goose Melodies and Mother Hubbard. The latter character even accompanied her dog on a balloon trip to the Moon. Books featuring balloons became more informative, giving directions for creating paper balloons, retelling the adventures of actual balloonists, and incorporating ballooning in mathematical problems. In 1855, Samuel G. Goodrich published Balloon Travels of Robert Merry and His Young Friends Over Various Countries in Europe, which taught a number of subjects from the vantage point of a balloon.


Older children at this time were entertained with stories by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells about balloons, airships, and interplanetary travel. Alberto Santos-Dumont, a great balloonist from the turn of the century, was first inspired by Wells' stories in his youth. He went on to inspire a later generation with his autobiography for children titled My Air Ships. Dime novels occasionally featured balloons, airships, and fictional flying machines. One popular character, Frank Reade, Jr., invented a new machine in every story. In the course of one year, he invented 15 airships, almost twice as many machines as he invented for water or land transportation. Younger children, however, were reading about Oz leaving the Emerald city in a hot air balloon in L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz, of 1900.


Perhaps some of the earliest instances of bonafide airplanes in children's books appeared in series books. The Boy Aviators, by Captain Wilbur Lawton, and Aeroplane Boys, by Ashton Lamar, both appeared in 1910. These series featured pairs of boys in planes similar to the Wright Flyer. Surprising for the times, the series Girl Aviators, by Margaret Burnham, began the following year. The first book intended for children that gave an account of the Wright brothers may have been The Light Bringers, by Mary Wade, in 1914. It features, along with the Wrights, other notables who, by making "a vastly different world to-day from that of a century ago...have won for themselves the name of Light-Bringers." This charming volume ends its biography of the Wrights with the speculation that aeroplanes, as weapons of terrible destruction, will someday bring an end to all war.


As a young boy, Charles Lindberg read the story of World War I ace Tam o' the Scoots, which inspired him to become a fighter pilot. Possibly the earliest children's book telling his famous story was The Lone Scout of the Sky: The Story of Charles A. Lindbergh, by James E. West, 1927, which included instructions for making a model of the Spirit of St. Louis. Children's interest in aviation was further encouraged in 1928 by the publication of Books on Aeronautics: A Bibliography of Books Likely to be of Use in Elementary and Secondary Schools, by Roland H. Spaulding. Consisting almost entirely of nonfiction, this annotated list included autobiographies of aviators and World War I aces, model airplane guides, information on gliders and zeppelins, and textbooks on air navigation and the economics of air transportation.


In the 1930s, numerous informational books appeared with illustrations and photographs of the various kinds of aircraft, the history of aircraft, how to fly, and how the world looks from the air. At least two books about Amelia Earhart were published. This decade also marked the very first appearance of Dick and Jane in Dick & Jane's Our Big Book, which included a scene where the family watches an airplane. Several aviation characters, such as Flying Jenny and Steve Canyon, and space flight heroes such as Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon appeared in the comic strips before moving on to big little books and comic books.


In the 1940s, children's books followed developments in military aviation and featured many stories about World War II pilots. At the same time there was no lack of aviation-themed books for younger children, for we see Airplane Andy, by Sanford Tousey, and, possibly the first book to teach young children their ABCs through aviation, The New Alphabet of Aviation, by Edward Shenton.


Most early nonfiction aviation books for children were for older readers. But in the 1950s, the people of Crowell and Science, Inc. taught their youngest readers how to fly a Beechcraft plane from Milwaukee to Chicago in Tommy Learns to Fly, by John Lewellen. As early as 1951, Jack Coggins and Fletcher Pratt introduced children to the facts of space flight with Rockets, Jets, Guided Missiles and Space Ships. A year after the 1957 launch of Sputnik 1, Crowell published A Book of Satellites for You, by Franklyn Branley.


Grosset & Dunlap, publishers of popular series such as the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, issued two new series in the 1950's featuring Tom Swift, Jr. and Tom Corbett. The books of the Tom Swift, Jr. series often focused on a fictitious scientific device or vehicle, much like the Tom Swift series in the 1910's to the 1930's. Typical titles were Tom Swift and His Ultrasonic Cycloplane and Tom Swift and His Cosmotron Express. The Tom Corbett series was an offshoot of the avidly-watched television series. Although shorter-lived than the Tom Swift, Jr. series, Tom Corbett was remarkable for having Willy Ley, an influential rocketry expert of the era, as a technical advisor. These series and others like them only fed the enthusiasm of youngsters who would soon witness the first manned space flight.


Children's books successfully kept pace throughout the space race. Soon after the "Mercury Seven" were introduced to the world, children met them in Charles Coombs' Project Mercury and Erik Bergaust's First Men in Space. Youngsters in the Soviet Union were able to read about their hero, Yuri Gagarin, the same year as his flight. Similarly, there were immediate publications celebrating Alan Shepard's and John Glenn's flights. For each successive accomplishment through the 1960's, children's books conveyed the achievement to the Nation's youth. Apollo 11 ensured that juvenile biographies of Neil Armstrong would always be available to inspire the next generation of explorers.


In 1971, Don Dwiggins introduced children to space shuttles with Into the Unknown: The Story of Space Shuttles and Space Stations, ten years before the first shuttle launch. Since then, children have read about all aspects of the space shuttle in a continuous stream of books. Children in the 1970s, first read about women astronauts in a handful of titles, including a biography of the Valentina Tereshkova. But it wasn't until the 1980s, that they could read about African American astronauts. Even then, there was only one title until the 1990s. Amazingly, books about the Challenger accident appeared the very year of the launch. The large number of titles published about the Challenger accident is an example of the progress made in children's books dealing with a topic that previously would have been avoided.


Today's children's aviation books are incredibly varied. They cover all topics from the history of ballooning, through the early days of aviation, and up to the present with how to fly a Boeing 747 jumbo jet. Astronautics generates even more interest. Public and school libraries are well-stocked with titles on astronauts, space shuttles, the history of the American and Russian space programs, and even the International Space Station.


In fiction, we no longer have aviation characters. Instead, air transportation is depicted as part of everyday life. Most major characters, from Arthur to Curious George, have flown in balloons, planes, or spaceships. Aside from its pervasiveness, aviation's impact on children's literature is most telling in today's ABC books. The very first children's books were designed to teach children how to read by introducing letters and giving examples of their use. For the first few hundred years, A was for Archer. Later, A was often for Apple. But today, A is for Airplane.


-Andrew Pedrick



Bader, Barbara. American Picturebooks from Noah's Ark to the Beast Within. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1976.

Bilstein, Roger E. Flight in America 1900-1983: From the Wrights to the Astronauts. Revised Edition. Baltimore, Md.: John Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Cox, J. Randolph. The Dime Novel Companion: A Source Book. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000.

Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences. Exhibition of Early American Children's Books of Aeronautical Interest, Dime Novels About Flying Machines, Aviation Fiction for Boys and Girls. New York: Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences, 1942.

Jones, Ernest Lester. Flight in Literature. Washington, D.C.: National Capital Press, 1925.

Launis, Roger D. and Gillette, Aaron K. Toward a History of the Space Shuttle: An Annotated Bibliography. Chapter 15 – "Juvenile Literature." Monographs in Aerospace History, No. 1. Washington, D.C.: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1992. http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/History/Shuttlebib/ch15.html

Spaulding, Roland H. Books on Aeronautics: A Bibliography of Books Likely to be of Use in Elementary and Secondary Schools. New York: The Daniel Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics, 1928.

Sutherland, Zena and Mary Hill Arbuthnot. Children and Books. 8th ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

Wohl, Robert. A Passion for Wings: Aviation and the Western Imagination 1908-1918. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1994.


Edwards, David B. Book Safari: Aviation Series Index. 1 April 2002, http://www.seriesbooks.com/aviation.htm

FAA List of Aviation and Space Books for Grades Kindergarten Through Three. http://www.dot.state.mn.us/aero/aved/curricula/edk-3/trs/books.html

"Gallery of Teen Space Books." http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/er/seh/teenbk.html

Guinan, Paul. "Frank Reade's Victorian Airships." 2001. http://www.bigredhair.com/airships/

Pippin, Ed. Grosset & Dunlap (G & D) TC Adventures. http://www.solarguard.com/tcgd1a.htm

Pepin, Christopher James. Tom Swift Jr. - Series 2 Book List. http://www.geocities.com/TelevisionCity/Stage/6058/swiftjr.html

"Space Books for Children." http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/er/seh/juniorbk.html.



Educational Organization

Standard Designation (where applicable)

Content of Standard

International Technology Education Association

Standard 4

Students will develop an understanding of the cultural, social, economic, and political effects of technology.

International Technology Education Association

Standard 6

Students will develop an understanding of the role of society in the development and use of technology.