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The Picture Book Buzz

Jack Knight's Brave Flight - Perfect Picture Book Friday #PPBF

I was excited to discover another of Jill Esbaum's amazing forgotten heroes biographies which explores a pilot's almost unbelievable winter night-time flight to save the U.S. Air Mail service. And I get to offer you a sneak peek at this thrilling book before it releases on March 29th.

Jack Knight's Brave Flight: How One Gutsy Pilot Saved the US Air Mail Service

Author: Jill Esbaum

Illustrator: Stacy Innerst

Publisher: Calkins Creek/Astra Books for Young Readers (2022)

Ages: 7-10



Biplanes, air mail, relay race, and suspense.


High-flying history is brought to life in this suspenseful story of an unknown and daring pilot named Jack Knight, who in 1921 flew his biplane straight into a blizzard over America's heartland and saved the US Air Mail Service in the process.

When Jack Knight takes off in his biplane from North Platte, Nebraska, in 1921, hundreds of people crowd the airstrip. Is Jack transporting a famous passenger? Is he ferrying medicine for a sick child? Nope—Jack has six sacks of mail.

For the past few years, biplanes like Jack's have been flying the mail only during daylight hours. Flying after dark is risky and crashes are too common, so lawmakers decide to cut funding for the US Air Mail Service. Outraged officials and pilots want to prove that flying the mail is best, so they concoct a plan—a coast-to-coast race.

But when a crash, exhaustion, and a snowstorm ground three of the planes, Jack Knight becomes the race's only hope. All he has to do is fly all night long, leaning out of the plane to see, and navigate a blizzard over land he's never covered with an empty fuel tank. Will Jack pull it off and save the Air Mail Service?

Opening Lines:

North Platte, Nebraska.

February 22, 1921. 10:44 p.m.

JACK KNIGHT adjusts his goggles,

eases the control stick forward, and rumbles down the runway.

Hundreds of people crowd the airstrip,

waiting in the wintery chill for...there! Liftoff!

Cheers ring out, and all eyes watch the plywood-covered

de Havilland until it disappears into the night.

What I LOVED about this book:

Jill Esbaum loves writing books about heroes/heroines who've accomplished amazing things and subsequently slipped away into history. This time, she's found an exciting, gripping race to save the U.S. postal service fledgling airmail delivery. Fighting the elements, inherent dangers of early planes, and human error, four pilots set out to complete an historic relay race from San Francisco to New York. If they failed, Congress would cut funding.

As hundreds watched, Jack Knight took flight for his portion of the race - 248 miles from Cheyenne, Wyoming to Omaha, Nebraska. The catch, he'd already flown the reverse of this route that morning.

Text © Jill Esbaum, 2022. Image © Stacy Innerst, 2022.

Immediately setting the scene of Jack Knight's late night flight with a bitter wind, an achy, stiff body (from an earlier crash), and a throbbing broken nose, Jill Esbaum masterfully weaves in Jack's gratitude that he walked away from his earlier crash. Seventeen other pilots hadn't.

Exhausted and cold, but determined to do his part to preserve the airmail service, Jack heads back to Omaha. Pairing Stacy Innerst's stunning watercolor, ink, pencil, & rubber stamped dark illustrations with the increasingly suspenseful text draws the reader through this remarkable and very tense and dangerous endeavor. Flying before radar existed, through a pitch black sky, Jack had to rely on signal fires. But "what if fire tenders have given up an gone to bed...?"

Text © Jill Esbaum, 2022. Image © Stacy Innerst, 2022.

Finally, "bone-tired, " he reached Omaha. Only to learn, one of the other planes crashed, killing the pilot, the other planes are grounded in a Chicago blizzard, and his replacement can't get to the airfield. "Jack Knight is the relay's only hope."

I loved that both Innerst and Esbaum wove in subtle moments of humor. I particularly liked this image of Jack stuffing newspaper into his clothes as insulation against the bitter cold and the description of him needing to be cut out his flight suit.

Text © Jill Esbaum, 2022. Image © Stacy Innerst, 2022.

Since we currently have air mail, and it's a biography of a hero, it will be no surprise that Jack successfully arrives in Chicago and the other pilots continue the relay through to New York. BUT I'll leave the heart-pounding, nerve wracking, and terrifying portion from Omaha to Chicago for you discover yourself. As the illustrations and text put you right into that freezing cold cockpit.

In a fun nod toward the underlying force of the relay, the desire to get mail reliably across the country, I love how the author and illustrator's notes, mail service highlights, and extensive bibliography are all placed upon the back of an envelope. There's also a wonderful tribute to the other airmail pilots in the final spread.

Text © Jill Esbaum, 2022. Image © Stacy Innerst, 2022.

Overall, this is a fun, exciting biography of an unknown, daring hero whose determination and stamina in 1921 not only resulted in securing the future of airmail, but the creation of runways and lit control towers. In addition to teachers and librarians, it's sure to be a hit with kids who enjoy airplanes and adrenaline inducing, dangerous adventures.


- create your own biplane (, or maybe a few, and create a race for them around the house, yard, or park.

- make a mailbox or boxes for your family (here's some ideas) and send letters back and forth.

- send a letter to a distant friend or family member.

If you missed it, be sure to check out Monday's interview with Jill Esbaum (here).

This post is part of a series by authors and KidLit bloggers called Perfect Picture Book Fridays. For more picture book suggestions see Susanna Leonard Hill's Perfect Picture Books.


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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