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Tales of the RAF

Share In the spring of 1999, Hindsight Limited published Scramble!, the first in a six-book series for reluctant readers, centered around a 12-year-old boy growing up in England during World War II and the Royal Air Force fighter pilots he befriends. The Tales of the RAF series was written to appeal to eight- to 12-year-old boys who have difficulty finding age-appropriate books that suit their interests. Author Don Patterson has since discovered that the series appeals to a much broader audience.

"Just as the mechanic picked up the last screwdriver, the scream of the 'scramble' alarm pierced the air. In seconds, the whole airfield came alive with people rushing to their appointed stations. Air crews turned over the engines of the fighters. Scurrying pilots ran to the awaiting planes and jumped into the cockpits. Command officers made their way to the control room in order to provide vital information for the waves of fighter planes beginning to proceed down the runway. The thundering sound on the field was deafening as each fighter plane throttled up for take off. Plane after plane leapt to the sky.

"Within minutes, the entire 14th Squadron was airborne, the planes quickly climbing away from those still on the ground. Then the field grew quiet again."

     - from Scramble!, by Don Patterson

In 1998, Don Patterson was looking for a solution to a problem many parents face: a child who doesn't enjoy reading. According to Patterson, his son Ian, then eight years old, simply could not find any books that appealed to him. Numerous father-and-son scouting expeditions to libraries and bookstores confirmed Patterson's suspicions that there is a dearth of reading material geared toward the interests and attention spans of boys in elementary school.

Patterson, a successful entrepreneur and the father of two, decided to help remedy this situation by writing his own books.

"I was one of those reluctant readers," Patterson told Education World recently. "I could see the pattern repeating with Ian. Without practice, he was falling behind in reading. He was almost a year behind in reading; his writing suffered too."

Noting his son's interest in airplanes as well as all things mechanical and feeling that Great Britain holds "an exotic mystery for American kids," Patterson proceeded to write a six-book series, Tales of the RAF. Twelve-year-old Harry Winslow lives next to an RAF airfield in the English countryside during World War II. Missing his father, who is stationed in London, Harry befriends all the pilots, especially the heroic squadron leader, Captain Ted Dawson. Although the events occur in another place and time, the inspiration for the characters is a little closer to home. "I'll bet you'd never guess," Patterson said, "that my son Ian is Harry and the dashing Captain Dawson is me!"

To keep the books from becoming tedious for inexperienced readers, Patterson writes in short chapters that keep the stories moving. He is also mindful that being easily readable does not mean being overly simplistic. "It is important," said Patterson, "that the book be easy to read but done in a mature enough way that it doesn't condescend to the child." In addition to combining a young protagonist with whom the reader can identify, exciting aerial action sequences, and some cool airplanes, Patterson is also careful to include some important lessons in such values as friendship, courage, heroism, and responsibility.

Art is an important component of the series. Patterson credits the pictures with enabling him to keep written descriptions brief: "I had the luxury of being able to describe in two or three sentences the sleek, elliptical beauty of the Spitfire; the pictures provide the detail."

Patterson found the illustrator quite by accident when he noticed an advertisement in a historical aviation magazine. Sonny Schug had 20 years of experience as an aviation illustrator, creating pictures of all types of aircraft for publishers and the airline industry. At Patterson's suggestion, Schug, who had never illustrated a children's book, created a retro, 1940s style for the illustrations. The look is both realistic and nostalgic, with just the right amount of detail.

Patterson wanted a softened realism. "I wanted the airplanes to look real, but I didn't want the blood and other disturbing details. Why not do that kind of stylized, 1940s look? It provides color, style, and enough realism." Patterson also wanted to include some details that might elicit difficult but important questions from his young readers, such as the swastikas sometimes visible on drawings of enemy aircraft.

In planning Tales of the RAF, Patterson had as a model the popular American Girl series, books geared toward girls. "The American Girl books are great," said Paterson. "I wanted to do a boy version." As with each of the American Girl series, Tales of the RAF consists of six separate books centered around one young protagonist. Patterson includes an "In Hindsight" section at the back of each book that provides historical background and context for the story. Along with a glossary, each volume gives the reader a history lesson and insight into life in another era. The name of Patterson's publishing company, Hindsight Limited, reflects this interest in promoting an understanding of the past.

Among the more enjoyable features of Patterson's newfound success as a writer is the opportunity to speak to children at schools and bookstores. One surprise he has encountered is the popularity of his books with girls. "In the second book, Fighter Escort, we introduce a girl, a neighbor of Harry's. Originally, she was going to be a boy. She was Danny, and I had to go through and find all the references to Danny and change them to Erin."

With the recent publication of Dawson's Down!, the fourth book in Tales of the RAF, Patterson has begun work on his second six-book series, Pacific Theater. "This one takes place in the United States. Young Tommy Harmon participates in a letter writing campaign in which civilians write to service members. It would have been very exciting for a kid to actually get a letter back." After Pacific Theater, Patterson may go for a change of pace, perhaps setting his next series in Europe in the 1930s and focusing on a well-to-do family traveling the continent by train.

In trying to help fill a void in the area of books written for elementary school boys, Don Patterson has created a series that appeals to a broader range of children. The Tales of the RAF books succeed because of a mixture of easy-to-read text that is not overly simplistic, attractive illustrations, and an emphasis on historical planes, which fascinate many youngsters. Most important, however, is the human element, as seen not only in the RAF pilots but also in young Harry Winslow and his family. As Patterson explains, "I want to show how ordinary people can do extraordinary things and become heroes."

The books highlighted this week are available in most bookstores. If you are unable to locate the books, ask your bookseller to order them for you or contact the publisher directly:

  • Spitfire!, Fighter Escort, and Scramble!, written by Don Patterson and illustrated by Sonny Schug, are published by Hindsight Limited, P.O Box 46406, Eden Prairie, MN 55344.

Lauren P. Gattilia
Education World®
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