Pairing Picture Books and Primary Sources: Jack Knight’s Brave Flight: How One Gutsy Pilot Saved the U.S. Air Mail Service by Jill Esbaum and Stacy Innerst

When I find a historically based nonfiction picture book that is also a page turner that keeps me on the edge of my seat, I know that my students are going to enjoy it. And I hope it is one that I can find primary sources to connect to. Jack Knight’s Brave Flight by Jill Esbaum and Stacy Innerst was one of those books for me. Luckily, primary sources were plentiful.

About the Book

Jack Knight's Brave Flight

Jack Knight’s Brave Flight

Jack Knight’s Brave Flight focuses on a moment in time when U.S. Air Mail, the quickest way to get mail across the country, was in question. Plane crashes and pilot deaths put the program in jeopardy, with mail travel by train being a slower but safer option. 

In a test of the Air Mail practice in late February, 1921, sets of planes and pilots planned to travel from east to west and west to east to move the mail. In a turn of events that fiction writers would write, the true story finds Jack Knight the last hope after delayed pilots and crashed planes. Jack battles frigid temperatures and snow storms while flying through the night. As you might suspect, he is ultimately successful and the funding for the Air Mail program is saved. 

Author’s and illustrator’s notes, a robust bibliography, and a fascinating timeline giving other highlights of the history of the U.S. Mail round out the engaging back matter. 

Where to Incorporate Primary Sources

Photograph of airmail pilot Jack Knight and unidentified individual

Photograph of airmail pilot Jack Knight and unidentified individual

When I think about bringing primary sources into a historically based picture book, one early question is where the primary source will be used in relation to the book. I have three simple choices: before the book, during the reading of the book, and after the book.

This book leads me to one option that is obvious to me, utilizing primary sources after I read the picture book to students. The story itself is paced so well and has no moments of rest, bringing readers from one intense moment to the next. I do not want to disrupt that story flow. The primary sources I have in my curated set really focus on Jack Knight after the flight account in Esbaum and Innerst’s book. Chronologically, it makes sense for students to interact with those sources after reading the book.

There are many newspaper articles that can be found before February, 1921 in Chronicling America that give accounts of Air Mail through different cities across the country. Many of those show the expansion of Air Mail. The ones that show that Air Mail was at risk all relate to Congressional funding. As one might imagine, those articles can be challenging to read with little context. Because of this, I didn’t feel these sources set up the book in the way I would have hoped. Again, I’m left with exploring primary sources after reading the book.

Two Paths for Primary Sources After the Book



Readers may be left with two questions after reading the book. What happened to Jack Knight? And what happened to Air Mail? Both questions lead to two interactions with primary sources.

To answer the first question, look to articles found in the curated set of primary sources accompanying this post. Ask students to read them collaboratively, with each group or individual working to chronologically share highlights of Jack Knight’s professional life reported in news articles. End the readings with students then taking all of those highlights and coming up with a short number of character traits that would describe how people might have viewed Jack Knight after reading those articles. 

Exploring the future of U.S. Air Mail gives students the perfect opportunity to explore Chronicling America. The twenty-million plus pages of digitized U.S. newspapers cover the rise of U.S. Air Mail. Students can search the database and explore articles. Working in groups, students can perform advanced searches covering just a month or two in each group. This allows students to become experts at their brief moment in time and add to the discussion on the topic. 

News findings can be shared by printing out articles or utilizing an online collaboration tool. Either way, students should have some way to briefly summarize the findings. To focus students, have them pinpoint their attention on one element. For this topic, it may be looking at the geographic impact of Air Mail or possibly focusing on the pilots themselves. Whatever the focus, it will give students a way to target their summary when sharing what they find.

Whether through student exploring to find primary sources or through teacher-selected historical items, the primary sources can help students answer questions from this edge-of-your-seat picture book about aviation.


Author: Tom Bober

Tom Bober is a school librarian at RM Captain Elementary, 2018 Library Journal Mover and Shaker, former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress, and author of the upcoming book Elementary Educator’s Guide to Primary Sources: Strategies for Teaching. He writes the Picture Books and Primary Sources posts for AASL’s KQ blog and has written articles for several publications. Tom also presents at conferences, runs workshops, and gives webinars to promote the use primary sources in student learning. He began his career as an elementary classroom teacher, was also an educational technologist, and has spent the last nine years as a school librarian.

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