Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

Race for the Sky: The Kitty Hawk Diaries of Johnny Moore

Race for the Sky: The Kitty Hawk Diaries of Johnny Moore

Dan Gutman
For ages 10 to 14
Simon and Schuster, 2003   ISBN: 978-0689845543

Johnny Moore lives on the windswept and very isolated Outer Banks, a finger of land that lies off the coastline of North Carolina. When he reluctantly begins writing in the diary that his mother gives him, it is January 1st 1900. At first he can't understand why anyone would give someone a book that has "no words on the durn pages." His mother then has to explain what a diary is for and the only way Johnny agrees to write in the diary at all is if she agrees to allow him to give up going to school. He has to promise that he will write in the diary daily however. Johnny doesn't quite do this but he does write in it reasonably often and through his words, complete with his colloquialisms, peculiar spelling, and incorrect grammar, we learn a great deal about his world and about the two odd "dingbatters," or outsiders, who come to Kill Devil Hills to build and fly flying machines.

At first Johnny only spies on the strange men who do even the dirtiest and most strenuous of work in their neat suits and high collars. It isn't long though before he is befriended by them and is working alongside them. Johnny begins to learn about the principals that govern flight. We realize that Johnny may run barefoot, he may have left school early, but he is clearly clever and quick on the uptake. He understands what the Wrights are trying to do quite quickly and when it comes to engines he has a deep appreciation for the quality of the engine that the Wilbur and Orville have custom built for their 1903 machine.

In addition Johnny grows fond of the brothers and protective of them and their work. He is suspicious of the other "scientists" who come to visit Orville and Wilbur. As it happens, he has good cause to be wary of at least one of the men. Johnny catches him photographing the Wright brother's current machine. Clearly the visitor plans to steal his host's ideas. When a scientist in Washington fails in his test flights Johnny doesn?t try to hide his elation. As far as he is concerned, the Wright brothers are the ones who should win the race to being the first to fly a manned powered airplane. He has no patience for men who are highly respected in their field if he thinks they might harm Wilber and Orville in some way. For example, Johnny thinks the brothers should send Octave Chanute, the famous civil engineer, packing. "He built the first bridge across the Missouri River" Orville says trying to impress the young man. "That's all well and good, but I ain't never seen no flyin' bridge and I reckon I never will" is what Johnny thinks to himself in response.

With wonderful humor, and a keen sense of what life must have been like for Johnny Moore, the author of this book has created a piece of writing which truly takes us to the place and time where it all happened. Through Johnny we not only see his world in the early 1900's but we also find out all the major events that took place in the development of the flying machine that was to make history on December 17 1903. We grow fond of this smart-mouthed but soft-hearted boy who grows into a man as we read his diary. His English gets better as we read, even with him self correcting his grammatical mistakes by 1908 when Orville and Wilbur come to Kill Devil Hill to try out another plane. Throughout the book there are photos, many of which were taken by the Wright brothers. There are also quotes from letters written by Orville, Wilbur and other characters in their remarkable story. In addition the author has included clips from newspapers and at the end of the diary, a concluding chapter in which he explains how much of the diary is truth and how much is fiction. He also tells the reader what happened to the famous Wright brothers after 1908, what the real Johnny Moore did with his life, and what happened to the other personalities that we met in the diary.