Review of the Day: Escape at 10,000 Feet by Tom Sullivan
Thirteen years ago I made a prediction. Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret had just won the Caldecott, which was a momentous occasion considering the fact that the book looks more like a novel than a picture book. At the same time we were seeing these magnificent imports like Shaun Tan’s The Arrival that took comics and storytelling up a notch. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that comics were finally getting the respect they deserved and so I stated that we were in a new era of art and literature. I said, at the time, that from here on in we’d be seeing incredibly inventive mash-ups of art and text in works for kids. This, in large part, because thanks to our 21st century world, our children had become visual learners. Well, turns out that great big flood of inventive books was more of a trickle, but it’s been a steady trickle so I count my blessings. And we’ve seen some amazing books in the intervening decade, but one area that I had not predicted seeing such a flush of creativity was nonfiction for kids. The inventiveness I craved in my graphic literature was paltry compared to the inventiveness evident in these informational books for younger readers. There is no better way to explain what I mean by that then to direct your attention to the new series “Unsolved Case Files” and their premiere title Escape at 10,000 Feet: D.B. Cooper and the Missing Money by Tom Sullivan. Sporting a comic book’s sensibility with a Common Core State Standard’s love of primary documents and a narrative voice you’d follow to the ends of the earth, THIS is what we need to see more of, people!
The story you are about to hear is true. Only one name was faked to protect the guilty. On November 24, 1971 at 2:00 p.m. a man entered the Portland International Airport (PDX) carrying a black briefcase. He gave his name as Dan Cooper, boarded a plane, and sat in the back row. After takeoff he passed flight attendant Florence Schaffner a note. It read, “Miss – I have a bomb here and I would like you to sit by me.” She did, he showed her the bomb, and then sent a note of demands to the pilot. The plane landed, the demands were met ($200,000 four parachutes, a fuel truck ready to fuel the plane when it landed), and more demands came. Eventually, it was determined that the plane would fly to Mexico City, no higher than 10,000 feet. Then, while flying over the forests of southern Washington, Cooper sent everyone on board to the cockpit. He tied the bag of money around himself, lowered the back stairs, and jumped out. He was never found. And the money? That’s another story. The book covers the mistakes Cooper made, theories about his identity, possible fates he might have suffered, and (of course) the money’s story too.
It’s hard to know which element of the book may strike kids as the most incredible. I mean, let’s just back up all the way here and look at the simple fact that in 1971 you could casually stroll onto a plane with a bomb and a fake name and no one would so much as ask to inspect your bag. And just to make it even kookier, the book assures us that hijackings were practically a regular occurrence. But then there are the elements to the case that have made it irresistible to adults and children for decades. Either Cooper got away with the crime or he didn’t. Which is it? Part of what makes this book so enticing is that often Sullivan will give you a potential answer and then whisk it away from you. Here are the suspects. Here is the most likely suspect . . . who was the wrong age. Here’s another. But what happened to the money? Why did we only find some of it? Kids love mystery novels. Now hand them an unsolved true-life mystery and watch the gears in those little heads spin.
Part of what I find so enticing about the design of this “Unsolved Case Files” series is how it taps into my love of comics in every step of the design yet isn’t a comic at all. There are panels but no speech balloons. It’s just a very visual work of history. Sullivan also has a natural sense of the dramatic, showing Cooper jump, ending a section with “no positive DNA match has ever been found” and then you turn the page and on a black background the white typewritten words “3,000 DAYS LATER” really stand out. In fact, when I think of the ideal reader of this book I think of the kids that love Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales. Both this book and those Tales are expert at taking an already good story and then rendering it in an original, visual style. A style that no one else has ever really done the same way (or as well) before. But Escape at 10,000 Feet is also straight up nonfiction in conservative sense of the term. There’s no fake dialogue. No overt speculation (and when there is it’s backed up with evidence and a very clear statement that it’s just offering some people’s conjectures). Most importantly, Sullivan makes no claims to have solved the case. He offers a variety of different possible answers, each with their supporters and detractors, lays them out before the kids, and then trusts the child reader’s intelligence to select their own answer.
It turns out that the real reason I kept misremembering this book as a comic is because the sheer number of primary documents in the book act the same way that illustrated elements would. A one-way ticket. A pamphlet and seating plan with Cooper’s seat circled in red. Flight transcripts. And look, far be it from me to suggest that a teacher suck the fun and life out of a book, but you cannot look at this and not think that maybe there’s more than a few teachable elements at work here. It’s funny. Maybe the fact that I keep misremembering this as a comic is fitting. One of the many theories about “Dan Cooper” is that he got his fake name from a French comic book series about a Royal Canadian Air Force fighter pilot. To turn him into a comic-like character today just feels right.
Not long ago there was an article in the Washington Post (“Will my grandkids still love me if I buy them nonfiction?” by Jay Mathews) bemoaning the fact that kids don’t like or read nonfiction. Putting aside the fact that the writer (A) didn’t know what he was talking about and (B) didn’t know what he was talking about, let’s pretend for a moment that he was correct. What we do know is that there really are kids out there that are under the impression that they don’t like to read nonfiction when, in truth, they don’t like to read BORING nonfiction. This book is the one you hand to such children. It clocks in at a handsome 104 pages. Just long enough to fulfill requirements from teachers that make kids read books that are “100 pages or more” but not so many that it’ll turn off reluctant readers. From what I can tell, this title is going to make a lot of kids into fans of exciting works of history. That is, if they can wrench this book away from their grown-ups. Because if there’s one thing I know, an enticing unsolved mystery is good but a fantastically rendered unsolved mystery is irresistible.
On shelves March 2nd.
Source: Galley and e-galley sent from publisher for review.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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