As most older grade school students will tell you, biographies can be a tough sell. For all that adults can and do enjoy a meticulous and nuanced examination of someone’s life and career, those fourth-through-sixth graders coming into the library are often just looking for something that will help them do their biography book report as easily as possible. The answer may just be using an unconventional source, such as Keiko Imamura and Kaoru Oobayashi’s graphic novel The Wright Brothers: Challengers of the Air.
Part of a series of biographical comics, The Wright Brothers: Challengers of the Air makes the story of Orville and Wilbur Wright’s lives and the invention of the airplane incredibly accessible. And for a manga obviously designed for younger readers, the information presented is quite detailed and thorough. For instance, those who have a passing familiarity with the history involved (admittedly, such as myself) might remember that the Wright Brothers owned a bicycle shop. But few probably know that they came to the business almost by chance when the brothers got a reputation for being able to fix the then new-fangled machines in the course of making deliveries for their actual business, that of a small town newspaper. Readers will also get a sense of the research, the competition, and the danger of the pursuit of powered flight as they see the brothers keep tabs on their contemporaries, run extensive tests, and request the latest scientific data from the Smithsonian Institution.
Writer Imamura adds many little details like that within her story, never dwelling on a particular event, but moving quickly on to the next. This results in a snapshot-style examination of each important moment in the brother’s lives. The story moves briskly along from their childhoods to early careers, through the development process of their plane as well as afterward, as they make flight demonstrations in Washington DC, France, and New York City. A short epilogue details the period after that, briefly touching on the company they founded and showing each brother’s death.
At first it may seem odd that such an iconic American tale is told in a Japanese manga, but the combination works well. Adult readers may have a few grins at places, such as when the brother fervently vow together “We’ve decided to work on a flying machine from now on,” with all the earnestness of a children’s anime, or a moment where the brother’s share a fist-bump of accomplishment. Rather than these moments being a distraction they add interest and light humor to what at times may seem a dry tale. That is, if you don’t include the fun flight scenes.
Speaking of the scenery, artist Oobayashi excels at melding accurate technical drawings of the planes and bicycles with an iconic manga style. The characters of the manga are simplified, looking more like extras from a Pokemon manga than their real life counterparts, but this makes them easily identifiable. Readers will get used to recognizing Orville’s receding hairline and Wilbur’s Mario-style mustache. The panels in general are open with simple background tone work or speed and emphasis lines, which makes the action and the details of what the characters are doing easy to follow and identify. Overall, the impression one gets on flipping through the pages is one of a light, happy tale – not something one would usually associate with most biographies.
The Wright Brothers: Challengers of the Air is obviously a children’s biography, and as such should be shelved in the juvenile section your library. Coming in at 152 pages it would most likely fit the length requirements of most teachers assigning a biography to their grade school class. With the artwork flipped for the US audience, the reading level is also on par with similar text-only biographies. It includes some nice appendices as well, with maps and a timeline of important events in the brothers’ lives. For reluctant readers with open-minded teachers, it would be an excellent choice when those glum grade-schoolers come to your library in search of how to complete their dreaded biography report.