One of my passions is to tell little-known stories of the past; clearly Shari Becker and Louisa Jaggar share that passion. They went to incredible lengths to tell the story of determined flyer James Banning and now we are the beneficiaries of their hard work. It’s a pleasure and honor to host them today in celebration of their new book, Sprouting Wings: The True Story of James Herman Banning, the First African American Pilot to Fly Across the United States (Penguin Random House); this book is illustrated by the late and treasured member of the children’s literature community, Floyd Cooper.
What Surprised Us While Writing This Autobiography – a back and forth dialogue between Shari Becker and Louisa Jaggar
Shari: When Louisa first told me about James Herman Banning, I’d never heard of him. His story was so compelling. Imagine being told you can’t learn to fly, and then being so determined that you search for years for a teacher and build your own plane! Who does that? I was so enthralled with the story that I knew I wanted to be a part of the project. I asked Louisa if I could join the team.
Louisa: Banning, even now, years later, inspires people. What surprised me and still does is how many people don’t even know his name. He was the FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN to fly across the United States. He was one of the top barnstormers. How is he NOT mentioned in our history books?
Shari: I hadn’t understood how much research Pat and Louisa had done. Like, binders and binders of articles and manuscripts. And even then when we needed more historical context we searched through online databases for facts to round out our story. We discovered an advertisement for Banning’s local movie theater telling customers they could attend a matinee for a small fee or an egg!
Louisa: Pat Smith (researcher) and I had been researching Banning for over ten years as part of Greatest Stories Never Told, 501c3 (www.Greateststoriesnevertold.org) and we found over 90 articles about Banning’s feats in the historical African American newspapers. He was a hero in Black communities across America. Yet because he wasn’t in mainstream papers (white) his accomplishments were lost to history. We believed the list of people who’d contributed to making the flight possible was lost as well. Pat found that list at the bottom of a box in the attic of a museum. What an incredible moment! Imagine the celebration!
Shari: My favorite discovery was Banning’s collection of articles he’d written for black newspapers. He wrote an ongoing column describing his journey. His writing was beautiful, funny and heartfelt. He wrote to his readers as if they were flying with him. I was surprised by how connected I felt to him — by how much I felt like I knew him — through his own words.
Louisa: Banning built his own plane to gain his solo hours. Ask yourself if you’d build your own car from scraps to gain your license to drive. Very few people would go to the lengths Banning went to to make his dreams come true. Banning changed the way I define what makes a hero. Think about Lindbergh. He had teachers more than willing to teach him. He had the money to build his own special plane. Banning had to fight to find a teacher. He flew across the country in an Eaglerock with a 14-year-old engine. Both men were attractive, talented, and charismatic, Banning, though had many more obstacles on his journey. Who is the real hero? How do we define heroes? For me, a real hero overcomes great obstacles to reach their goals. Banning did just that.
Louisa Jaggar is the founder of Greatest Stories Never Told (GSNT). A 501 c3 dedicated to telling stories of minority and female Stem Heroes. She travels around the country as co-director, producer and cowriter of the Flying Hobos, an interactive play featuring the story of James Herman Banning. She is also the Creator and Coauthor of Smithsonian’s Saving Stuff (Fireside 2005). Three other plays featuring Stem heroes are in development. And Shari and Louisa have just finished another book on a Stem hero—to be announced on another day!
Shari Becker is the author of multiple books for children and teens including Junior Library Guild Selections Sprouting Wings and Maxwell’s Mountain and the acclaimed young adult novel The Stellow Project. She is the founder of Whale Rock Literary Workshops, a writing education company that brings together master instructors and advanced authors committed to deep craft. She holds an MA from New York University and has written for Nickelodeon and Disney-owned properties.