Monday, October 20, 2014

The Pilot and the Little Prince: The Life of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry by Peter Sís

The Pilot and the Little Prince: The Life of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry  
by Peter Sís
Published: May 27, 2014
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)
Sold by: Macmillan 
Pages: 48 pages
Genre: Nonfiction
Age Range: 5 - 8 years **
Grade Level: Kindergarten - 3 **
Source: library

** I disagree with the age range here. I would think 3rd grade minimum. 

Summary from Macmillan:
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was born in France in 1900, when airplanes were just being invented. Antoine dreamed of flying and grew up to be a pilot—and that was when his adventures began. He found a job delivering mail by plane, which had never been done before. He and his fellow pilots traveled to faraway places and discovered new ways of getting from one place to the next. Antoine flew over mountains and deserts. He battled winds and storms. He tried to break aviation records, and sometimes he even crashed. From his plane, Antoine looked down on the earth and was inspired to write about his life and his pilot-hero friends in memoirs and in fiction. Peter Sís’s remarkable biography celebrates the author of The Little Prince, one of the most beloved books in the world.

Oh dear, this is another one of those puzzles. This book is absolutely beautiful. My son said that the pictures were more important than the words and they are what told the story.  I find that I agree.
The images are poetic. They tie in very strongly to the feeling of The Little Prince.

Follow the face of the land - Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers

Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers

It is the text is where we run into problems. There is the skeletal story told in normal text at the bottom of the pages. This story flows, but is pretty basic. I suppose that technically if all you read is the text at the bottom, you could consider the book appropriate for the age range listed (5-8) but you would also be missing most of the story.

See, there is more text, in a stylized script inside the illustrations - woven into the illustration or going in a circle around the round images in the page (you can an example in the page above.) This text is where things get more interesting and bulk out the story. However - since this font is small and often goes in circles, it would be almost impossible to read to a group a children. And since children are generally pretty clever, they are going to notice this text and expect you to read it. (Have you ever tried to skip text in front of a group of 1st graders - not happening.) This illustrative text is also where the vocabulary kicks up a couple notches as does the depth of the material. You wander out of the range of 5-7 year olds and into more of a 4-5 grader territory. This is the sort of book where an individual reader pours over each page, soaking in the details.

So, beautiful, interesting - though it really needed to talk more about the books de Saint-Exupéry wrote. Most of them are just listed as emblems with a year published or awards won. He was world famous as an author-pilot, but the book lets that first one lie rather fallow - you are flowing along with the story and then ...

then there is the ending. If you don't know anything about Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and have never read The Little Prince this is going to be a spoiler so

Spoiler alert?  sorta  ...  

See, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry vanished on a reconnaissance mission during WWII - he took off on a spotting mission and never returned. It was one of the great mysteries of WWII.  The assumption generally was that he had been shot down and he was hailed as a hero. So - tough ending for a kids book, but doable. 

The way this book ends - the last two page spread reads ...

"But he never returned. Some say he forgot his oxygen mask and vanished at sea."

"Maybe Antoine found his own glittering planet next to the stars."

But the problem here is that I have never seen anyone imply that he forgot his oxygen mask. This is such a weird line to add - I can only assume that the author is attempting to gently allude to the possibility de Saint-Exupéry might have committed suicide in a fit of depression rather than being shot down by the Luftwaffe as had been assumed for decades. When his plane was discovered, off course from where it was supposed to be, and material finally recovered in the early 2000's, there were no bullet holes in the pieces they found. However, my understanding is that they didn't recover much of the plane, so the lack of bullet holes doesn't really mean that much.

In terms of adult biographies of de Saint-Exupéry this has been a huge point of contention since about 1998. There is some evidence that suggests he might have intentionally committed suicide, but it is also entirely possible that the plane really was shot down by the Luftwaffe or that something happened to the plane, or that there was a pilot error. He was flying around in the middle of a world war after all. There simply isn't enough information, as far as I have seen, to draw a strong conclusion. Either way, no one suggested he left off his oxygen mask, at least not that I have seen anywhere, so as far as I can work out,  that line is made up - which is my first problem.

The second issue that I have is that you don't even need to go there in a picture book meant for K-3 kids. I am profoundly disturbed by the way this author chose to add "Some say he forgot his oxygen mask" - I mean, why? Why end the book like that - there are only three sentences on the last two pages and that didn't have to be one of them. It implies either Antoine was careless/stupid or that it was done with intent. The book never really discusses depression but does list all of de Saint-Exupéry's crashes (and boy were some of them doozies!) The book also talks about the first time that de Saint-Exupéry had to use an oxygen mask. This sets things up in an uncomfortable way. If you want to talk about depression or fog of war then talk about it don't just slyly insinuate something and leave it sitting there like that.

It really upset my son when he read the book and he is 12. He was attracted by the art and was totally focused on the book. Then hit the last page and voiced disapproval. We had to have a discussion about what was being implied there. He loved the book up to that point (which is the other issue I raised - the text is really too complex for the intended age range).  And yes - the way this is set up, kids are going to notice that line.

Plus - the book just ends like that. There are no end notes or anything. It just stops. Most books would at least give you a 'his books live on' or 'the world mourned his loss'  - you could still end the book with the line about "Maybe Antoine found his own glittering planet next to the stars." without leaving your child readers totally bereft. A book that was a celebration of de Saint-Exupéry's life ends rather like a smack in the face. It has been seventy years since he disappeared - you could at least say something about his impact as a author. 

End spoiler alert 

Okay - sorry. I will stop ranting now.  I think the most exasperating kind of book is one that you are really loving up to the point it disappoints you and starts dating that trashy book from the other shelves.

So to sum up  - if you have an older elementary school child interested in maps or old airplanes or who really loved The Little Prince - this would be a good book for them, but be ready to discuss how the book ends.

The author/illustrator talks about this book at

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