Flight is amazingly common in children’s stories. Several other motifs should be considered as similar, symbolism wise: floating and going up onto a high place, such as a roof.


When considering flight as a metaphor, include floating, too. As John Truby writes in his review of Avatar, ‘In the history of utopias, the single most important quality is floating or flying. Think of the floating tea party in Mary Poppins, Harry Potter playing Quidditch on his broomstick, or the floating house in Up.’

Truby points out that if a fantasy world is to be successful on a grand scale, it must have the qualities of a utopia.

In other words, a successful utopia requires flight.


A lift skywards via balloons can also be seen in various other stories such as The Twits by Roald Dahl.

Dorothy and Toto fly through the air in a farmhouse transported by hurricane.


Raggedy Ann, 1968. There are many different ways a character can take to flight. Here she is tied to a kite by some mischievous boys.

Flying isn’t always literal flying either — in children’s stories it might be leaping, jumping, that sort of thing. In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s fourth book for children, On The Banks Of Plum Creek, Laura and Mary jump with unrestrained joy off a stack of hay (until they’re told not to by their father). This contrasts with later chapters in the book where the outdoorsy Laura finds it difficult to concentrate in class.


The ability to fly is a common form of wish fulfilment both in adult and in children’s literature, especially if we widen our definition to include ‘flights of fancy’:

Flights of fancy allow us, as readers, to take off, to let our imaginations take flight. We can sail off with characters, freed of the limitations of our tuition payments and mortgage rates; we can soar into interpretation and speculation.

How To Read Literature Like A Professor, Thomas C. Foster

E. Nesbit’s book Five Children And It explores in serial fashion a variety of common wishes. The first chapter explores the wish to be beautiful, in the second chapter the children become temporarily rich (and learn that gold can’t buy happiness), and since Nesbit has a keen understanding of what people would commonly wish for, should they happen upon their own Psammead, the children soon wish for the ability to fly.

plum thief

It’s a sign of the more naive times that it looks as if the plum farmer is looking straight up the skirt of the little girl.

Nesbit also had a good grasp on what flying was for, in children’s literature, and the ideology of most works that have come before. By ‘come before’, I’m pretty sure Nesbit was thinking about the Icarus story when she wrote:

So perhaps the winged children really did do one good thing that day. If so, it was the only one; for really there is nothing like wings for getting you into trouble. But, on the other hand, if you are in trouble, there is nothing like wings for getting you out of it.

— Five Children And It

Enid Blyton's Wishing Chair books are basically a series of adventure in which flying first gets the children into trouble, then out again.

Enid Blyton’s Wishing Chair books are basically a series of adventure in which flying first gets the children into trouble, then out again.

Five Children And It was published in 1902. People had been trying to make a flying contraption for some decades, with very little success. Then, in 1903 the Wright Brothers achieved something notable and after that humankind had cracked it: We’ve been using the skies for travelling ever since. But what was it like, living in these times of proto flight? A lot of men had been killed in their attempts to fly. Adults of 19903 would have — many of them — thought, “Well that’s nice, but no way you’re getting me in the air!” and I’m sure I’d feel the same way if space tourism became an affordable thing for the masses. “That’s nice, but I’ll stick to Earth, thanks!” No wonder children’s literature of this time was all about how flying can get you into trouble… but also out of it.

Nesbit goes out of her way to break the inevitable Christian link between winged children and angels, by pointing out that they're wearing the wrong sort of clothes.

Nesbit goes out of her way to break the inevitable Christian link between winged children and angels, by pointing out that they’re wearing the wrong sort of clothes.

In Karlsson On The Roof by Astrid Lindgren, a little man with a propeller on his back appears hovering at Smidge’s window. Like the children in Five Children and It or Enid Blyton’s Molly and Peter, Smidge and Karlson share all sorts of adventures from tackling thieves and playing tricks to looping the loop and running across the rooftops.


Gowy Icaro Prado

Gowy Icaro Prado

All cultures around the world seem to have stories about flying, but one of the most influential stories in Western literature is the Greek story of Icarus and Daedalus.

There doesn’t have to be any ‘actual’ flying in order for an author to make use of flight symbolism. Simply using the name Daedalus did it in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

— How To Read Literature Like A Professor, Thomas C. Foster


Or does it?

A lot of the time, flying equals freedom. Not just freedom from specific circumstances in the plot but also freedom from more general burdens. In a slightly religious sense, flying = freeing of the spirit. The notion that the disembodied soul is capable of flight is deeply embedded in the Christian tradition and probably many others. But for the ancient Greeks and Romans this concept was problematic: the souls of blessed and damned alike were meant to go to an underground realm. The belief in a celestial heaven leads much of later Western culture, who think of a soul as light and travelling upwards.

But as in all symbols, the ability to fly can also be symbolic of ‘failure to fly’, or failure to take advantage of one’s freedom.

If anyone flies or falls for too long, Icarus and his imaginary cousins are probably being invoked.

There are plenty of stories about flying whose flights — like Icarus — are interrupted prematurely. In each case there is an element of rebirth.

How To Read Literature Like A Professor, Thomas C. Foster

In My Father’s A Birdman by David Almond, flight imagery is used as an escape for the grieving, widowed father who is not coping with life, relying on his daughter to be the adult figure.

In Skellig, flying means many things, one of those things being freedom:

[Michael]  has an archangel’s name. He has moved to Falconer Road. A falconer is someone who trains winged creatures. Michael helps the winged creature, Skellig. Owls join in the care of Skellig. Michael’s friend Mina (Myna, bird) chants Blake’s verses about a caged bird and observes and draws birds. Birds represent freedom, flight, the soaring spirit. To attain its freedom, a bird must leave the nest (the old house) and find its place in the world (the new house). It is time for Michael to exit the golden cage of childhood and soar up into the terrifying and beautiful world of maturity. It is time for innocent children (Michael and Mina) to resuscitate a winged creature that has given up hope.

The Literary Link

For more on flight as freedom, see The Freedom Of Flight (in film) from Now You See It.

The Steven Spielberg film E.T. features an alien flying on a bike as its main image. The characters in E.T. show hostility to anything new. This is a xenophobic town. When our main character and the poor alien are about to get caught by all the people chasing after them, the bicycle leaves the earth and with it the earthbound grownups. Flying is freedom.


It’s not just flying that’s symbolic: with any flying comes the fear of falling. So what does it mean when a character falls? If a character plummets but still survives this is seen as a feat in its own right. Falling as an act is as symbolic as flying itself.

— How To Read Literature Like A Professor, Thomas C. Foster


Childhood is a time of constraints which frustrate even the happiest children and the flying Peter (of Peter Pan) is an emblem of freedom and autonomy. But more powerfully symbolic is the fact that he teaches the Darling children to fly, for they are surrounded by the kind of restrictions and impediments that children recognise — rules about bedtime, medicine, pyjamas, baths, night lights — so it seems that if they can fly then any child can break free. Their departure through the nursery window , ‘like a flight of birds’ is an exhilarating image of escape from the mundane. In liberating the children from the boring routine of school and office which Mr Darling represents, Peter, like Jack in ‘Jack And The Beanstalk’, overcomes the giant, the oppression of public authority.

Deconstructing The Hero, Marjery Hourihan

At one level, CHILDREN ARE BIRDS and SCHOOLS ARE CAGES operate as fairly traditional (and obvious) symbolism.

— Roberta Trites, in a discussion of David Almond’s My Name Is Mina and Skellig, Literary Conceptualizations of Growth: Metaphors and cognition in adolescent literature


flight symbolism piano baja

“They say that shoulder blades are where your wings were, when you were an angel [Mum] said. “They say they’re where your wings will grow again one day.”
“It’s just a story, though,” I said. “A fairy tale for little kids, isn’t it?”
“Who knows? But maybe one day we all had wings and one day we’ll all have wings again.”
“D’you think the baby had wings?”
“Oh, I’m sure that one had wings. Just got to take one look at her. Sometimes I think she’s never quite left Heaven and never quite made it all the way here to Earth.”

— Skellig, David Almond

This is related to the concept of angels of course, and also to the Victorian concept of the child as completely innocent, clean and pure.


I had wings once, but they were stolen from me.

Maleficent, the retelling of Sleeping Beauty with the evil fairy as the viewpoint character

Maleficent wings


Flight isn’t always about literal flying, however, through the air, with wings. Christopher Vogler explains the motif of Magic Flight:

Fairy tales include a chase that involves a whimsical transformation of objects, known as the magic flight motif. In a typical story a little girl escapes from the clutches of a witch with the help of gifts from animals she’s been kind to. The girl throws down the gifts one by one in the witch’s path and they magically transform into barriers that delay the witch. A comb becomes a thick forest that slows the witch while she gobbles it up. A scarf becomes a wide river which she has to drink.

Joseph Campbell gives several illustrations of magical flights, and suggests the motif stands for a hero’s attempts to stall the avenging forces in any way possible, by throwing down “protective interpretations, principles, symbols, rationalizations, anything…(to)…delay and absorb” their power.

What the hero throws down in a chase may also represent a sacrifice, the leaving behind of something of value. The little girl of the fairy tales may find it hard to part with the lovely scarf or comb given by the animals. Heroes of movie adventures sometimes have to decide what’s really important, and toss money out the window to slow their pursuers and save their lives. Campbell cites the extreme example of Medea. Escaping with Jason from her father, she had Jason cut up her own brother and toss his pieces into the sea to delay the pursuit.

– The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters


Hover-flying may be considered a sub-genre within African-American picture books.

  • Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold (1991)
  • Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky (1992)
  • Wings by Christopher Myers (2000)
  • Fly! by Christopher Myers (2001)

This hover-flying might be interpreted as expressions of personal autonomy and social responsibility. Hover-flying may also be a metaphor for migration (exodus narratives), utilizing a vertical rather than horizontal way of defamliarising a setting such as a poverty-stricken South or a ghetto.


If the characters make it onto the top of a roof, consider this similar to flying.

Les douze lutins de la princesse Mab, by Jérôme Doucet. Illustrated by Henry Morin. Librairie Hachette, Boulevard Saint-Germain, Paris. .1930. “Mab gravit l’étroite échelle”

Roger and Lyra on the roof in Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights/The Golden Compass.


The Girl Who Could Fly

Skirts: not great for taking to the skies. But it’s fun to draw ‘el vuelo de la falda’.

flying on a contraption

No Flying In The House

Russian flying girl


Roald Dahl’s five weeks flying in the airforce had a huge influence on him and his writing. Almost every children’s story he wrote featured flying in some form. The leaps and bounds of The BFG, Billy’s flying through flames on a swan in The Minpins, James tethering birds together in James and the Giant Peach, Mrs Twit lifted up by balloons, children being thrown by the Trunchbull in Matilda. His short story collection Over To You is a collection all about flying.

What are the best children’s books on flying? from The Guardian

Flight And Children’s Literature from Carol Hurst

Children’s Literature and Flight, focusing on planes and space travel