My second book for Barrington Stoke’s super-readable Little Gems series, Sophie Takes to the Sky, is inspired by a real-life heroine from history – Sophie Blanchard, who is often described as the world’s first female aeronaut. She was the first woman to work as a professional balloonist, and she became famous all over Europe for her amazing exploits.
Born near La Rochelle in France in 1778, Sophie was reportedly a very nervous child, who was frightened of loud noises and too afraid even to ride in a horse-drawn carriage. When I first read about her, I was fascinated by how this easily-scared and timid young girl could have gone on to become an intrepid pioneer of aviation – which gave me the central idea for my book.
Not much is known about Sophie Blanchard’s real-life childhood, although historians think that she probably had her first ride in a hot-air balloon aged around sixteen (for the purposes of my story, I imagined a secret ballooning adventure which could have happened when she was even younger!) However, when she married Jean-Pierre Blanchard, the world’s first professional balloonist, she joined him in his ballooning career, and from this time onwards, there is lots more detail about her adventures.
Sophie began joining Jean-Pierre on balloon flights in 1804, and described the feeling of flying as ‘an incomparable sensation’. Although not the first woman to fly in a hot air balloon, she was certainly groundbreaking, becoming the first woman to pilot a balloon herself, and the first to make ballooning her career.
The couple continued to fly together until 1809, when her husband died after suffering a heart attack and falling from his balloon. After his death, Sophie continued to work as a balloonist, giving displays all around Europe, which frequently drew huge crowds. She entertained the Emperor Napoleon, and later King Louis XVIII, who appointed her his ‘Official Aeronaut’. She became known for her daring night-time flights, for letting fireworks off from her balloon, and for intrepid adventures like flying her balloon through storms, or even over the Alps, where it was so cold that icicles formed on her hands and face!
But ballooning was very dangerous. Sophie was in several accidents, and eventually died in 1819 when her balloon caught fire at the Tivoli Gardens in Paris. After she died, a memorial was erected above her grave in Père Lachaise Cemetery. The story of her death was recounted throughout Europe, and can be found referenced in the writings of Jules Vernes, Fyodor Dostoevksy and Charles Dickens among others. Today, she is remembered as a pioneer of aviation and a bold adventurer.
Here’s a little more about my story, in which I’ve imagined what Sophie’s childhood might have been like.
Sophie Takes to the Sky by Katherine Woodfine, illustrated by Briony May Smith
Scaredy-Cat Sophie is afraid of everything! So when a balloonist comes to the town fair, Sophie is left behind while everyone else goes to watch him fly in his marvellous balloon. She’s far too frightened of the crowds, the commotion and even riding in a horse-drawn carriage.
But Sophie longs to watch the hot-air balloon sail across the blue sky. If she could just be brave enough to face her fears, who knows where her journey might take her …
A touching tale for young readers of learning to overcome anxiety and follow your dreams.
Illustrated by Briony May Smith, this is a reimagining of the childhood of Sophie Blanchard, one of the world’s first female aeronauts.
‘A super-readable story, imbued with wonder’- Imogen Russell Williams, The Guardian
‘A wonderful adventure for a little girl who overcomes all her fears… a charming story that will encourage all readers to be brave’ – Julia Eccleshare, LoveReading4Kids
‘A touching story of courage and self-belief’ – Fiona Noble, The Bookseller
‘The true story of balloonist Sophie Blanchard is beautifully retold… this special book reminds us that huge bravery and great feats often begin with little steps’ – Children’s Books Ireland, Mind Yourself reading guide.
Buy it now from Waterstones, Bookshop.org or Amazon
Find out more about the real-life heroines that have inspired my other Little Gems titles: Rose’s Dress of Dreams and Elisabeth and the Box of Colours