Stories About Regular Folks Doing Remarkable Things
I learned about the Caterpillar Club when I interviewed some flying WASPs—not the kind that buzz around on tiny wings. These WASPs were airplane pilots, the first women to fly for the United States military. They served during World War II: the Women Airforce Service Pilots (or WASP, for short).
The Caterpillar Club they told me about was named for silkworm caterpillars that helped save pilots’ lives. If a plane developed engine trouble in midair, pilots could float to safety by using a parachute made from silk, a lightweight cloth that silkworm caterpillars help create. These caterpillars use a spit-like substance in their mouths to spin a long silk thread that they wrap around themselves, forming a cocoon that they live in for several weeks until they become moths. Those long silk threads can then be unwound from the cocoons and woven together to make silk cloth.
About twenty years before World War II, a parachute company started the Caterpillar Club for people whose lives were saved by using a parachute to escape from a disabled plane. People could write to the company about their parachute rescue, pay a membership fee, and the company would send them a little caterpillar pin.
However, the WASP pilots I spoke with said that some pilots liked to feel they were part of the Caterpillar Club even if it wasn’t an aircraft’s fault that led them to use a parachute. During World War II, pilots—both men and women—trained to fly military aircraft for the Army in small open planes. The planes didn’t have a roof. If a nervous pilot-in-training forgot to buckle the seat belt and the plane tipped over, the pilot could fall out! Fortunately, they always wore a parachute. Landing safely—thanks to the parachute—not only let them feel part of the Caterpillar Club, but also helped the students remember to never, ever forget to buckle up again.
However, by World War II, many parachutes used by U.S. pilots weren’t made of silk. The silk-producing areas of the world were controlled then by Japan, which the U.S. was fighting in this war. Because U.S. companies could no longer get silk cloth, they began making parachutes from a new material scientists had just invented—nylon. Most parachutes are made of nylon today. Even so, the Caterpillar Club lives on.
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If you are interested in finding out more about the WASPs, Amy Nathan has written a book on the subject. Through firsthand accounts, she tells how these early pilots they test-flew newly repaired aircraft, dragged banners behind their planes so male trainees could practice shooting moving targets with live ammunition (!), and ferried all kinds of aircraft from factories to military bases.
Yankee Doodle Gals will give you a new look at World War II and show you just how dramatically society has changed since then. Click here for more information.
MLA 8 Citation
Nathan, Amy. "Caterpillars to the Rescue." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 20
Mar. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
“It is at these times you realize the blessing of a good, thick skirt,” said Mary Kingsley after she crashed into a cleverly concealed leopard pit lined with twelve-inch ivory spikes.
The year was 1895, the place Equatorial West Africa, and the spunky lady saved, thanks to her observance to the dress code of the day, was a young Englishwoman collecting species of fish and beetles for the British Museum.
Mary Kingsley was the daughter of a physician who spent most of his time traveling. Although she received no formal education (reserved for her brother Charles), Mary learned to read, becoming fascinated with subjects such as science, exploration and piracy.
At one point she was granted permission to teach herself German, but only after she could iron a shirt properly. Mary learned chemistry, experimented with gunpowder and electricity, and became engrossed by the intricacies of plumbing. After years of caring for her invalid mother, in 1892 both her parents died. With the small inheritance left to her came the fulfillment of a dream: to explore West Africa.
When Mary crashed into the leopard pit, she was traveling in what was then the French Congo, getting to know the Fangs, reportedly a tribe of cannibals. Traveling by canoe, she was once marooned in a crocodile-infested lagoon. When one tried to climb aboard, she was there with a paddle, ready to “fetch him a clip on the snout.”
After two trips, she wrote a book called Travels in West Africa. She became a sought-after lecturer and celebrity. In public appearances she was both funny and serious, peppering her narrative with jokes, often at her own expense, but also being critical of the way the British had steamrolled into the African continent, with little regard for its ancient cultures.
In 1900 she sailed to Africa for the third time, responding to an urgent call for nurses in South Africa, where war was underway. Assigned to a hospital where hundreds of soldiers were dying from a raging epidemic, she became ill herself, and died two months later. She was buried at sea with military honor.
In her book, she remembers: “Indeed, much as I have enjoyed life in Africa, I do not think I ever enjoyed it to the full as I did when dropping down the Rembwe… Ah me! Give me a West African river and a canoe for sheer pleasure.”
Rave reviews for Roxie Munro's book Market Maze:
"A great way to introduce kids to their foods' origins and to prepare them for a greenmarket visit of their own." Kirkus (Starred review!) excerpt.
"From a parent’s or teacher’s point of view, here’s a good way for kids to gain the visual discrimination skills needed for reading, while they learn about the sources of food at their local farmers’ markets. For kids, though, the combination of mazes and hidden objects is just plain fun. It’s a winning combination." Booklist review excerpt.
Roxie Munro is a member of iNK's Authors on Call so you can meet her face-to-race through interactive videoconferencing. Learn more about her programs here.
MLA 8 Citation
Munro, Roxie. "Mary Kingsley." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 15 Mar. 2018,
Nonfiction is the New Black
French aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin (1863–1937) was a scholar of ancient Greece. With the sting of France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 in his mind, he believed that strong young men were better able to fight wars. He especially admired the English school system, in which academic learning and physical fitness worked side by side. His studies convinced him that this harmony of mind and body originated in the gymnasia of ancient Greece.
This harmony reached its highest level in the Olympics, which originated in the Greek village of Olympia in 776 BCE. They continued every four years until being suppressed in 393 CE as a pagan ritual. The Games began with a single event—a sprint of about 200 yards—and eventually encompassed a wide variety of sports. The Games were so prestigious among the Greeks that winners were set up for the rest of their lives.
To reintroduce this sporting ideal into the modern world, de Coubertin proposed reviving the Olympics. Olympia was too small and too remote to serve as the site, so de Coubertin and his associates chose Athens, the Greek capital and largest city, instead.
Two hundred forty one athletes from 14 nations descended on Athens in April 1896 to compete in nine sports: track and field, cycling, fencing, gymnastics, shooting, swimming, tennis, weightlifting, and wrestling. Only track and wrestling had been part of the ancient Olympics.
Another event not in the original Games was the marathon run. Organizers wanted a signature event to recall the glory of ancient Greece. In 490 BCE, a messenger supposedly ran from the plain of Marathon to Athens to announce a stunning victory over a much larger invading Persian army. So the route of the first-ever “marathon race” was about 22 miles, from the battlefield to the Olympic Stadium. The winner, Spiridon Loues, had done no formal training. His occupation of water carrier in the hills overlooking Athens gave him considerable stamina and he became an instant national hero. A prominent Greek industrialist reportedly offered his daughter in marriage. Loues was already engaged. He settled for a horse and cart for his business instead.
Today the Olympics are regarded as the premier sporting event in the world. In the 2012 Olympics in London, England, 10,768 athletes from 204 nations competed in 26 sports. Nearly 4,800 were women—something that never happened in the original Olympics. All the entrants then were men.
Jim Whiting has written a book on the ancient Greek writer Herodotus, who is known as the father of history. Herodotus provides most of what is known about one of the most important periods in world history. It began in 490 BCE. An invading Persian army was defeated at the Battle of Marathon. It concluded just over ten years later with Greek victories at Salamis and Plataea. The triumph allowed the Greeks to develop ideas and institutions in politics, economics, science, and even sports. These are the bases for how the Western world thinks and acts today. For more information, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "Reviving the Olympics." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 20
Feb. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
Two weeks before Halloween in 1944, a small jet fighter plane was parked on an Ohio airfield. The plane was wearing a kind of costume. It had fake propellers attached to the front of its wings. Was this jet getting dressed up so it could zoom off trick-or-treating at airports around the country?
Not exactly. Those fake propellers weren’t a Halloween prank. They were serious business, a disguise that the Army hoped would fool enemy spies.
Jet planes don’t use propellers, the spinning blades that give other aircraft the power to fly. A jet’s power comes from jet engines attached to the under side of its wings. A jet engine sucks in air and spins the air very fast inside the engine. The air is then mixed with gas fuel in the engine and an electric spark sets the gas-air mixture on fire. This burning mixture blasts out of the back of the engine with so much force that the plane can move forward and zoom up and away.
In 1944, World War II was still raging. For most of the war, military planes had been propeller planes, both for the United States and Britain, as well as for their enemies, Nazi Germany and Japan. Jet engines had only been invented a few years before the war began but weren’t used in military planes until early 1944, when Germany became the first country to use a jet fighter in battle.
The U.S. had built a jet plane—the XP-59A—but it was still being tested. In the fall of 1944, a version of this new jet, called the YP-59A, was shipped for testing to Wright Field, an Army aviation test center in Dayton, Ohio. To keep spies from finding out about the plane, it not only had fake propellers but also an armed soldier standing guard.
On October 14, 1944, test pilots took turns test-flying this jet at Wright Field, after the fake propellers were removed! They noted problems, so none of these U.S. jets were ever used in the war. But although the plane never made history winning any battles, one of the pilots testing it did make history that October day: 26-year-old Ann Baumgartner Carl. That day she became the first American woman to pilot a jet aircraft. She was one of the WASP pilots--Women Airforce Service Pilots—the first women’s unit to fly for the U.S military.
If you are interested in finding out more about the WASPS, Amy Nathan has written a book on the subject. Click here for more information.
MLA 8 Citation
Nathan, Amy. "When a Jet Wore a Costume." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 28 Sept. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/when-a-jet-wore-a-costume.
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