Rosemary Wells is famous for the comforting, cuddly characters Max and Ruby, two young rabbits who get in and out of all sorts of trouble. In Wingwalker, she covers more serious territory, telling a tale in which faith and an open mind weave magic, and things heretofore unimaginable are, in fact, possible.
Reuben is a second-grader in Ambler, Oklahoma, in the less-frantic era of the 1920s. At a county fair, he wins a ride in a bi-plane—every young boy's dream. But the experience is so terrifying, the youngster vows never to ride in a plane again.
The air holds woe as well as wonder when the dust storms of the Depression rush through Reuben's hometown. Suddenly his father, a dance instructor, and mother, a café cook, are thrown out of work and, together with millions of other Americans, are forced adjust to their new circumstances.
How the family manages through the tough times makes for an inspirational tale of friendship and courage. Reuben's father scours the want ads daily. When he can't find work close to home, he decides to expand the family's horizons and look elsewhere. An unusual advertisement beckons them to Minnesota, where the job of "wingwalker" with a traveling carnival awaits. Reuben and his mother both have doubts about dad's career choice, but they hope for the best as they sell off their possessions and load up the car.
Part of the book's magic (not just in a figurative sense) comes from the carnival's characters: the fat man, the tattooed lady, the fire-eater and the human snake. All have lessons to teach Reuben as he struggles to overcome his worries and turn them around so that he, too, can join his father as a "wingwalker."
Wells' easygoing, honest storytelling makes Wingwalker the type of book kids and their parents will enjoy reading together. Brian Selznick's illustrations are full of brown and golden hues, which remind one of the sepia tones of old family photographs. And Wingwalker warmly addresses a basic child's fantasy—soaring high through the air, free as a bird.
Ron Kaplan writes from Montclair, New Jersey. Copyright 2002 BookPage Reviews
Horn Book Guide Reviews 2002 Fall
With its burnished imagery and distinctive premise, this Depression-era story begins promisingly but dissolves into a warm puddle of nostalgia. Second-grader Reuben all-too-easily overcomes his fear of flying after his dad, a dance teacher, gets a job performing his dance steps on a plane wing in midair. The chapter book is uplifting but not altogether believable. Copyright 2002 Horn Book Guide Reviews
Horn Book Magazine Reviews 2002 #4
With its burnished imagery and distinctive premise, this Depression-era story begins promisingly but dissolves into a warm puddle of nostalgia. Second-grader Reuben and his parents are happy living in Ambler, Oklahoma, where oil drilling rigs dot the prairie like "big iron grasshopper[s]." Then dust storms hit, and the town's economy collapses. Reuben's father, a dance teacher with a love of airplanes, answers a newspaper help-wanted ad for a wingwalker. The family heads for Minnesota, where Father will earn twenty dollars an hour to perform his dance steps on a plane wing in midair. Meanwhile, Reuben meets a string of intimidating-looking carnies with sermon-variety life stories and hearts of gold. Bathed in coppery light, Selznick's dignified illustrations also tend to idealize. His rendition of the traveling fair's fat man, for example, is more pudgy than freak-show obese. This same man helps Reuben all-too-easily overcome his fear for his father's safety as well as his own fear of flying. After a short plane ride back in Oklahoma, Reuben had vowed never again to "go higher than [his] attic window." Just a year later he decides to venture out on the wing with his dad. Like other elements in this chapter book, it's uplifting, but not altogether believable, mostly because the spare narrative and characterizations are underdeveloped. Copyright 2002 Horn Book Magazine Reviews
Kirkus Reviews 2002 April #2
This big-hearted, Depression-era, American fairy tale seems to come alive out of a former generation like a well-worn family yarn. Reuben's perfect childhood in Oklahoma disintegrates with the arrival of the Dust Bowl that deprives his parents of their jobs. This presents his father, a teacher of ballroom dance, with a thrilling opportunity to become a "wingwalker" with a traveling county fair, an opportunity that his wife strongly opposes. Physically small, Reuben himself has a reputation for being a bit of a sissy whose nickname is "shrimp-boats." He can barely stand to watch his father execute his ballroom steps on the plane wing, let alone think of accompanying him. But the folks of the fair take Reuben to their hearts and give him encouragement. When his father wants to take Reuben up on the wing with him, the Human Snake advises, "Hold your father's hand." This enables the boy to stand hand-in-hand in the air with his proud father. Wells's prose is spare but has both richness and freshness of simile and image, e.g., "a drilling rig pumping away like a big iron grasshopper." If some details (the purchase of a new Studebaker) strain credibility, it is true to a form in which repeated telling establishes confidence in the rightness of a story. Selznick has a lock on the iconography of history as it intersects with dreams. As if keeping a promise to the story's symbolic metaphor, his paintings are full of sky, airplanes, and upward-looking faces. Handsomely designed, the glossy stock and neat, consistent framing lend serenity and a sense of looking into stopped moments in a vintage album. A small disappointment is the final painting, to which readers will turn eagerly, and which depicts the father, not in his trademark "best black suit," but in far less dapper attire. (Fiction. 6-10) Copyright Kirkus 2002 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved
Publishers Weekly Reviews 2002 March #4
Studded with Selznick's evocative illustrations, Wells's affecting chapter book opens in 1933, when the young narrator wins an airplane ride with a stunt pilot at the Oklahoma Air Races. Reuben is terrified, but his airplane-mad father can't see it: "I saw pride shining in his eyes like stars," Reuben observes. "If I did not go, I would forever cut a little diamond shape of disappointment out of my father's heart." After the dreaded wild ride, Reuben swears he will never go higher than his attic window. But Reuben's sights are to be radically expanded. When dust storms turn the green prairies "the color of meal crackers," Reuben's parents lose their jobs. His father, answering an ad for a "wingwalker" who "must be brave and light on the feet" (the job entails standing on the wing of a plane as it circles above paying onlookers), moves the family to join a carnival in Minnesota. In a voice at once ingenuous and wise, Reuben relays his mutually enriching encounters with the kind carnival performers, who help him soar, literally and figuratively. Rendered in a muted palette, the art has a quiet gravity, whether showing Hopper-like streets of small towns or even people queuing at carnival attractions, their eyes averted or hidden from the viewer. The final spread has all the more power for its contrast: sunlight illuminates a cloudy sky as the hero, finally, takes wing. Ages 7-10. (May) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal Reviews 2002 May
Gr 3-6-In this deceptively slim, slice-of-life chapter book, the narrator recounts a pivotal childhood summer. Reuben is a carefree second grader living in rural Oklahoma with his mother, a café cook, and his father, a dance instructor, when the Depression and Dust Bowl end the family's stable, quiet way of life. Desperate for work, the boy's father takes a job as an airplane wingwalker in a Minnesota traveling carnival. Reuben's retelling of the dramatic events is subtle and matter-of-fact, filled with the small, everyday details that color memories and help readers to see life through his eyes. Although some youngsters may need historical background to understand the family's experiences, they will relate to Reuben's feelings, and to the timeless themes-coping with teasing, peer pressure, unwelcome change, and overcoming one's fears. The carnival workers are portrayed with dignity and humor. Filled with muted earth tones and hinting of folk art, Selznick's striking, bordered paintings create an evocative portrait of the era, and aptly complement the quality text. Even the endpapers reflect the period, resembling popular wallpaper patterns of the '30s. An engaging story, and a well-crafted, thoroughly enjoyable book.-Heide Piehler, Shorewood Public Library, WI Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.