I am a boy mama. I love boys. I especially love middle school and teenage boys. I love their curiosity, their creativity, their love of humor, and their sense of adventure. Finding books that speak to the virtues of boyhood is hard these days – but it wasn’t always so. In the golden age of children’s literature, authors wrote a lot of compelling action stories featuring teen boys doing what teen boys have always done. Those books, however, have slowly disappeared from libraries and our memories. I am thrilled that publishers like Bethlehem Books and Purple House Press know the value of these stories and are reviving more and more of them. The Avion My Uncle Flew, a Newberry Honor book, from Purple House Press is one of those kinds of books. It reminds me of Bethlehem Books’ The Strange Intruder by Arthur Catherall, or Clifford B. Hick’s Alvin Fernald (published by both Purple House Press and Bethlehem Books).
In The Avion My Uncle Flew, we have a very unique book that would be a delight to boys (and girls), and would enrich them while it entertains.
During WWII, twelve-year-old Johnny Littlehorn and his mother tried to keep their Wyoming ranch afloat while his father was away fighting in the war. When the story opens, Johnny has had an accident which resulted in a badly broken leg that needs the attention of a specialist. When his father returns home soon after, the family decides to spend the summer in Europe. Johnny’s mother is originally from France and Johnny’s father is still in active military duty serving as a bi-lingual (French and English) coordinator of the rebuilding efforts. In France, Johnny can see a world-renowned orthopedic specialist attached to the military, he can meet his French uncle, and he can see where his mother is from. Everyone loves this plan except for Johnny.
“Johnny, did you ever realize a war can cause casualties away from the front line as well as on the front line? That is one of the things so terrible about a war. It can reach out and hit behind the lines where soldiers are fighting. Sometimes it can reach clear back and hit a man’s home and hurt the people in his home he loves best. In a way, Johnny, you’re a casualty of war, too . . . we’ve got to get your leg fixed but that isn’t the important thing . . . we’ve got to get you to want to run on your leg, even if it hurts you to run for a time. We’ve got to get you to want to see new people and have new experiences instead of depending on your mother and me, and staying shut up in a house . . .”
Johnny’s injured leg was more than just a problem with his bones. It was also about all of the anxiety and fear and coping that he had done during the war, probably like so many children everywhere. Johnny’s parents knew that what Johnny needed most was a challenge and an adventure.
While in France, Johnny’s father gets word that he is needed in England, and that Johnny’s mother could also be helpful as a translator. They decide to leave Johnny in the care of his uncle Paul who is building an airplane in their home village. Before leaving, they challenge Johnny to do two things during the summer: learn to walk and run on his leg again (two miles, specifically) and learn French well enough to write his mother a six-page letter entirely in French. If Johnny can do those two things, he will earn a fancy new bicycle when they return to Wyoming. Uncle Paul is a good friend to Johnny, and he is determined to help him win that bicycle.
But, it is not as simple as it seems. Before the war, Uncle Paul was wealthy and living on the family estate. He and his neighbors, however, lost everything except the land itself when the German occupiers robbed the banks. Uncle Paul is proud and motivated to revitalize his family name. But, the greedy mayor has other plans. Add in a current of spy-like intrigue that runs throughout. The story takes some fun and exciting twists and turns before Jean (Johnny’s French name) can earn that bicycle.
Because Jean is learning French, we end up learning French alongside him. The way this happens is very clever.
“I could have saved myself an almighty lot of trouble later if I had known mon oncle Paul Langres never trifled when he took on a job, whether it was fighting the Germans, inventing an avion, or taking charge of an American nephew.”
It is pretty easy to deduce what the French words in this sentence mean. Jean learns so casually and gradually that we find we understand more and more as it happens.
“In two months . . . Jean will run. Jean va courir, you watch!”
“Va’ in French can be both ‘goes’ or ‘is going.’ And ‘courir’ is ‘to run.’ Now you can tell me what ‘Jean va courir’ is, my friend.”
I studied Spanish in school, not French, so I appreciated this exposure to the French language. As the story progresses, the words are more complex and there are many more of them. Interestingly, I read this book a week ago. Today I was reading something else, and there was some French in it, and I knew what it said. Without realizing it, I had picked up a tiny bit of French from this book!
It has been my experience that boys love to know how things work. Whether it is how an airplane is made or how French is spoken, I think boys will enjoy this story. I recommend this as a free-read (or a pleasure read), a book for a vacation, or a book to delightfully expose readers to post-war France and the after effects of German occupation. I think this book fits nicely in the 8-14-year-old range and, I, a girl, enjoyed it too.
The Purple House Press re-print of this fun book is, as always, beautifully made. The illustrations inside are original (and you can view a sample at Biblioguides.com) but the cover is brand new and it is truly lovely. I have loved Jamin Still’s Ellen and the Winter Wolves ever since the Wishes of the Fish King Kickstarter and was really impressed with the beauty of this cover.