Did you know that the National Air and Space Museum Library (NASM) collects historical children's books on aeronautical themes? Yes, there are picture books and juvenile readers about balloons and planes and pilots nestled on the same shelves with highly technical manuals on rocketry and legal documents about the inventions of the Wright brothers, amid the other treasures of the Ramsey Room.
And why not? Looking at children's books, you can see how quickly interest in aeronautical inventions spread among the American public. For the young readers of these books, flying was not just an adventure or a novel way to travel, but a new profession that they could realistically hope to enter someday. They could imagine themselves to be inventors, or pilots, or intrepid world travelers, and if they were hard-working, smart, and resourceful they could even succeed and prosper in this exciting new age.
This entrepreneurial spirit was embodied by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, an agency that specialized in commissioning and ghost-writing mystery and adventure stories for children in the first decades of the 20th century. You may be familiar with some of the series originating from the Stratemeyer Syndicate, including the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, and Tom Swift. Edward Stratemeyer (1862-1930), who founded the company, adapted the style and some of the plot techniques for his stories from the sensational adult dime novels of the 19th century, toning down the details to suit a juvenile audience. Although some parents and educators thought the Stratemeyer novels had little educational or moral value, the series were wildly popular with youngsters who loved to identify with the clever and confident protagonists who rallied their friends to fight the bad guys, help the genius inventor, win the competition, and save millionaires in distress (acquiring a nice reward for their trouble, too). Even if the dialogue in the books was sometimes stilted and the plots were thin, there were enough details of technological wizardry and adventure sprinkled throughout the stories to spur any bright child's imagination.
Although boys were the main audience for these aeronautical series, girls certainly enjoyed reading them too. One of these books owned by the Libraries, The Motor Boys in the Clouds, or a Trip for Fame and Fortune (c1910), has the neat cursive autograph of "Irene A. Corbally, August, 1911", with an elegant little flourish drawn beneath the date. When this book was being recataloged for NASM's rare book collection this summer, the cataloger noted the autograph and did an internet search to see if the former owner could be further identified, since the name is quite distinctive.
And how delightful to discover that the inscriber was most likely 11-year-old Irene Corbally Kuhn (1900-1995), who grew up in Greenwich Village, New York and became a globe-trotting journalist and radio pioneer with a life as rich in adventure as those stars of the Stratemeyer Syndicate stories. Her obituary in the New York Times provides the highlights of her life and career. In 1928, she was the first news broadcaster to be heard on the radio in China, and she was actually one of the earliest female radio journalists anywhere. She worked for a number of newspapers (including the Chicago Tribune, the New York Daily News, and the Honolulu Star Bulletin), for the National Broadcasting Corporation, and as a screenwriter for various Hollywood movie studios. In 1938, she published her memoirs under the title Assigned to Adventure. Later, in 1952, Ms. Corbally Kuhn co-authored a vivid account based on her years living in China during the rise of Mao Zedong, The Enemy Within: An Eyewitness Account of the Communist Conquest of China, written with Father Raymond J. de Jaegher, S.J. The young girl who so carefully inscribed her name in the Libraries' book back in 1911 kept a lifelong spirit of adventure, fuelled at least in part by her love of reading stories like The Motor Boys in the Clouds.—Diane Shaw
(clockwise from upper left)
The Motor Boys in the Clouds, or A Trip for Fame and Fortune, by Clarence Young (New York: Cupples & Leon, c1910)
The Motor Boys Over the Ocean, or A Marvelous Rescue in Mid-Air, by Clarence Young (New York: Cupples & Leon, c1911)
Airship Andy, or The Luck of a Brave Boy, by Frank V. Webster (New York: Cupples & Leon, c1911)
Ben Hardy's Flying Machine, or Making a Record for Himself (New York: Cupples & Leon, c1911)