Wood, Wire, Wings: Emma Lilian Todd Invents an Airplane

To Emma Lilian Todd, problems were like

gusts of wind: they set her mind soaring.

This lyrical sentence introduces us to a girl aswirl with ideas, curiosity, and a tinkering spirit.

Just HOW do things work?

Lilian figures things out. But what can a girl in the late 1800s do, if the world isn’t quite ready for her to be a full-time inventor?

Get a job at the U.S. Patent Office, of course! And when she sees plans for fantabulous flying machines, she wonders if they could really fly. This sets her on her journey to make an airplane of her own with far less support and far fewer resources than male inventors. Notably, the financial support she receives ends up coming from Olivia Sage, who said:

“I have always been interested in [Lilian] because I think she is a capable woman and I like to see women do things.” [1910]

Kirsten shows a bright and inquisitive mind at work, and how she observes and adapts a variety of elements for her project.

She also shows how a major failure in front of a large crowd in 1909…

…only makes Lilian more determined to succeed. By 1910, she’s revised her design, and it flies!

An excellent resource for showing kids that curiosity and failure (it means that you’re trying) can turn dreams into reality.


Make your own paper airplanes. Experiment with different shapes to see how they fly differently.

Pair this book with sections from To Fly: The Story of the Wright Brothers by Wendie C. Old (a longer picture book)

Take apart old devices (with permission, of course) to see if you can figure out how they work. Then see if you can put them back together again.

Title: Wood, Wire, Wings: Emma Lilian Todd Invents an Airplane

Author: Kirsten W. Larson

Illustrator: Tracy Subisak

Publisher: Calkins Creek, 2020

Themes: airplanes, curiosity, persistence, inventions

Ages: Grades 1-5th

For more perfect picture book recommendations, please visit Susanna Hill’s blog.

16 thoughts on “Wood, Wire, Wings: Emma Lilian Todd Invents an Airplane

  1. Sarah Tobias says:

    I love this. Definitely on my to read list. I like to say,

    “Life is an experiment, if things aren’t working out one way, then let’s make adjustments and try another.”

    Have a great weekend!

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Engineers unite! This book does a great job of showing the evolution of a design and the effort it takes to create something that works. My son is planning to be an engineer, too, and likes coming to me for his calculus questions, LOL.

  2. Kath Carroll says:

    I just took a look at some pages of this book. The story is fantastic and the illustrations are marvelous (I’m always a sucker for old patent pics)! Definitely putting this one on my TBR list! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Patricia Tilton says:

    We all know about the Wright Brothers, but I haven’t heard of Lillian and that surprises me. What a great share about a very bright and ambitious woman, determined to design and fly an airplane.

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