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They say you should never judge a book by it's cover - but that is exactly what I did when I chose this one. I bought this book for one reason only - the photo of the red Fokker tri wing on the front. I have always admired Manfred Von Richtofen - but children's books on the Red Baron are difficult to come by in English. This was quite reasonably priced at only £2.81 used including postage. Of course this book is not only about about Von Richtofen, but it does have a 5 page section on him which I felt was quite fair.
The book is part of Franklin and Watt's "Difficult and Dangerous" series for reluctant readers. This series is clearly aimed at boys, and is intended to encourage boys to read by providing very high interest, exciting, non- fiction book, in a relatively easy to read format. Although my son would hardly qualify as reluctant reader, he is only 7, and he enjoys topics which one would usually associate with older readers, so these books are often quite handy for us as well. Other books in this series include Desperate Escapes, Survival at Sea, Secret Missions, and Extreme Exploration.
In addition to the section on the Red Baron, this book also had a brief section on early flight, which focused primarily on the Wright Brothers, and sections devoted to Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, Chuck Yeager and Steve Fossett. Most of these run five pages, and all of them are very well illustrated. I do believe each of these famous aviators makes an interesting story. This is something most boys will enjoy reading about, and especially any child with a love of aircraft. Of course some girls will have a fascination with flight as well, just as Earhart did, and this will hold some interest for them as well.
Naturally, our favourite section was the part about the Red Baron, but my son was also quite interested in Chuck Yeager. But as interesting as the aviators are, this book has only been read all the way through once. It gets pulled down often enough, as my youngest just loves the pictures of the Fokker Aircraft, but the text itself has failed to really capture their interest, and I will point out that both of my sons have a very strong interest in flight. I have read some of our airplane books until I could recite them word for word without even glancing at the text.
So - what went wrong? To start with, the boo struck me as bit Hollywood - trying too hard to sensationalise events. For instance - we are told that when Lindbergh decided to have a go at a $25,000 prize for the first non stop flight from New York to Paris that "nothing like this had ever been attempted". Fair enough, this exact route had not been attempted but the Atlantic had been crossed 8 years earlier by Alcock and Brown, in much older and less advanced aircraft, and others had crossed the Atlantic since. Lindbergh's flight would be longer, requiring more fuel, but I can never see as nearly as groundbreaking as their flight of Alcock and Brown, and I was dissapointed that no mention was made of them. As my sons are quite familiar with the story of the first transatlantic flight, this story did not impress them as much either.
My sons were also dissapointed not to see any of Von Rchtoffen's other airplanes - he went through quite a number of them, and this book makes it seem that he only flew the triplane. I also felt the information was rather limited, and a single quote from 'The Red Battle Flyer' - Von Richthofen's own autobiography appears a bit out of context - and makes him sound more bloodthirsty than I believe him to have been. Like most pilots of his time, Von Richthofen was a gentleman, with a code of honour. The plane was always his primary target - not the pilot. But the pictures were brilliant and I was able to add my own narrative to them, having read another book on Von Richthofen myself. The Fokker triplane is also made out to be inferior to the Sopwith Camel, and while I am no expert in this - I do not believe this to have been the case. Still i won't argue this point as I may well be wrong.
I'm afraid the material on the Wright Brothers was so limited that it held no interest at all to my boys, and the Amelia Earhart piece came across rather dull as well The section on Fosset was interesting enough to read once, but not again. In all fairness though, this was another story we were already familiar with and this might prove more interesting to a child who had never heard this story. We did have fun looking at a globe and tracing his flight around the world.
The worst "quizzes" were the absolute worst part of the book - and there were far too many of them. I understand the point of this is to get children discussing the book, but I could come up with much more interesting questions myself for instance which traits would give you a better chance of surviving a dog fight with Von Richthofen? You have traits like Fer of heights, reckless courage, honesty, etc... The "right" answer is never given but I'm afraid we found this very boring. The Lindbergh quiz was worse though and this did have "the right answers" many of which I disagree with to determine if you have what it takes on make a solo flight. Earhart's quiz has questions like which would be the worst place to be lost - I'll go with lost in space - just like the film. The quiz for Yeager had the most realistic questions such as where the sound barrier was first broken, but then we go back to the silly with Steve Fosset - What would you do first after a nonstop round the world flight - Go for a long walk, have a good meal, play a video game or have a party? Really who cares? This was quite a lot of the book wasted on nonsense in my opinion.
I also disliked the fact that the text is printed in a variety of fonts, some very stylised and difficult for a struggling reader to cope with, and at times printed over pictures and patterns. I do not feel this book was any easier to read than most books on this subject meaning it doesn't really live up to the requirements for a reluctant readers book.
But for all my complaints, this book does have a few things to recommend it. I did like the glossary in the back and think this would be quite useful. This does introduce children to some of the worlds most famous aviators, so they will be learning some history through this, and it does have lovely photos. I do think the premise of this book was a brilliant idea. I just think it could have been better executed. Still for the price I paid, I'm happy enough to have this just for the photos. It may not have much on the Red Baron but a little is better than nothing - so if you happen to have a child with a very strong interest in this, the book may be worth a purchase. If however, you just want a good book on aviation, there are many much better choices. This is not a horrible book. It is certainly readable and may be worth picking up at such a low price for a unit study on aviation. It is OK - but just OK and we have found many really brilliant books in a similar price range.