Flight is amazingly common in children’s stories. Several other motifs should be considered symbolically similar:
- floating — e.g. by holding onto helium balloons, levitating by magic or by supernatural means
- going up onto a high place, such as a roof or a tree(house) — Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton’s tree house series are mega bestsellers in Australia
- hovering — a subgenre in African American books
- leaping and jumping — 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, where she is required to sit still, restrained like a caged creature.
Christopher Vogler has this to say about how flight doesn’t always mean actual flying:
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
FLOATING = FLYING
A good picture book example of floating can be seen in Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak, in which Ida floats backwards out the nursery window, then floats through the fantasy landscape as if she’s underwater. Gravity works differently in this imaginary world of hers, in which her little sister was kidnapped by goblins.
In other words, a successful utopia requires flight.
FLYING AS WISH FULFILMENT
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.
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
Five Children And It was published in 1902. Inventors had been trying to make a flying contraption for some decades, with 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 people had been killed in their attempts to fly. Adults of 1903 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.
In Karlsson On The Roof by Astrid Lindgren, a small man with a propeller on his back appears hovering at Smidge’s window. Like the children in Five Children and It or like Enid Blyton’s Molly and Peter from The Wishing Chair books, Smidge and Karlson share all sorts of adventures from tackling thieves and playing tricks to looping the loop and running across the rooftops.
FLYING AS DANGER: ICARUS AND DAEDALUS
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
FLYING = FREEDOM
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
Many people consider Heaven = Sky a Christian notion, but Jewish people came up with it.
In We Found a Hat by Jon Klassen, two tortoises resolve their dispute when they dream of flying away together, both of them wearing the hat they both want. They have been freed from their pull towards the hat. Jon Klassen previously illustrated a similar story written by Mac Barnett, in which the two main characters are propelled through space then land in another world without realising.
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.
FLYING… OR FALLING?
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
In his picture book After The Fall, Dan Santat makes use of fear of falling when he revisits the nursery rhyme of Humpty Dumpty.
FLYING AND FREEDOM IN PETER AND WENDY
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
FLYING AS CLOSER TO GOD
“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.”Skellig, David Almond
“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.”
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.
FLYING = SEXUAL AUTONOMY
This idea is perhaps more common in young adult literature than in middle grade. The film Maleficent offers a good example:
I had wings once, but they were stolen from me.Maleficent, the retelling of Sleeping Beauty with the evil fairy as the viewpoint character
Perhaps related to this is the trope throughout Irish and Scottish fairy legends of women floating while giving birth. As Diane Purkiss says, ‘passage is rite of passage, reflecting the dangers of childbirth’. The floating as childbirth metaphor may also indicate the wish to leave a very painful experience.
HOVER-FLYING AS A SUBCATEGORY
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.
ROOFS AS A VARIATION ON FLIGHT SYMBOLISM
If the characters make it onto the top of a roof, consider this similar to flying.
Roger and Lyra on the roof in Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights/The Golden Compass.
Santa Claus is famous for flying through the air in a sleigh pulled by reindeer, settling upon roofs. The Santa Claus story would not be quite so magical if he journeyed from place to place by Toyota Corolla.
SKYSCRAPERS = ROOFS
Since King Kong climbed to the top of the Empire State Building in 1933, the movies have often relied on skyscrapers as a tense setting for action thrills. And the buildings, along with studio ambitions, keep getting higher.New York Times
TREES AS A VARIATION ON FLIGHT SYMBOLISM
Treehouses feature often in children’s stories. In Dav Pilkey’s popular Captain Underpants series, the heroes George and Harold write comics in their treehouse and retreat to it when things get out of hand, to regroup and create their way out of trouble. There are, of course, Tolkien’s Ents, the walking trees who fight on the side of good against Sauron and his army. Or Dr Seuss’s Lorax, who guards the Truffula trees from devastation. Ents and the Lorax are guardians of the ecosystem. When they act we know that something is badly out of kilter – in these cases in the fight between good and evil.
Mention Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree stories, meanwhile, and many a grown-up gets misty-eyed. Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Tree House series has been going strong for 25 years, and has nearly 100 titles. Carter Higgins’s Everything You Need for a Treehouse helps you get kitted out for your own woodland home. And mythology is full of trees.Elizabeth Hale and Lynnette Lounsbury
CLIFFS AND HILLS AS A VARIATION ON FLIGHT SYMBOLISM
For more on the symbolism of altitude, I wrote an entire post about that.
Dr. Seuss loved to vary the altitude of his illustrations, with scenes set on mountains, clifftops, hills trees and whatever fantastical contraption he could dream up. I Had Trouble Getting To Solla Sollew is a good example of that. While his characters rarely fly, the risk of toppling adds to the drama and narrative drive. His characters are often mid-action, leaping and tumbling through the air.
CHILDREN’S BOOKS DEPICTING FLIGHT ON THE COVER
FLIGHT AS HALLUCINATION
When a character either starts flying or sees something flying that… shouldn’t be flying, this often indicates some kind of dream or hallucination.
This is why flight is so often a part of fantasy.
FLIGHT AS MASCULINISED DREAM
Flight as a good boy’s fantasy played right into patriotic propaganda and made sure generations of young men were ‘happy’ to be sent off to war for an adventure. These boys had been primed their whole lives by the adventure story, and the idea that proper boys should want to separate from their natal families and explore the world.
RELATED TO FLIGHT SYMBOLISM
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
Header illustration: by Anton Von Beust “The Flying Machine”, 1895