Mining for Heart: “Writing About Historical Events: 3 Tips for Adding Heart” by Jill Esbaum

Jill Esbaum is one of the incredible children’s authors I met at my first writing retreat. She shared her knowledge, encouraged us, and made me think this crazy writing for children idea just might be possible. I’m grateful to know Jill and excited to share this post about crafting heart in her fabulous new release, JACK KNIGHT’S BRAVE FLIGHT—HOW ONE GUTSY PILOT SAVED THE U.S. AIR MAIL SERVICE. 

Jill is also offering a giveaway! Leave a comment after the post for a chance to win a copy of JACK KNIGHT’S BRAVE FLIGHT! 

Congratulations to Cindy Boyll, the winner of the giveaway from Brooke Hartman! 

Jack Knight FINAL FC

Writing About Historical Events:  3 Tips for Adding Heart

by Jill Esbaum

When I learned about 1921’s historic, all-day-all-night, cross-country relay to save the U.S. Air Mail Service, I knew it would fit beautifully into the picture book format. Fortunately, the story also came with a bona fide hero, Jack Knight. (Writing about an event is so much easier when I can see/feel it through a witness.)

Here’s the gist:  Men who learned to fly open-cockpit biplanes for WWI combat were left out of work after the war. Some started flying mail in short, regional hops, which led to the creation of the U.S. Air Mail Service in 1918. But flights were limited to daytime, when pilots could lean out to spot landmarks below. Any mail going farther was transferred onto trains, which ran all night. The system was working. Except …

There were a lot of crashes. Too many pilots (and expensive planes) were being lost. Enough, lawmakers said. Experiment over. Except …

Air Mail officials and pilots were not on board. They knew flying at night, keeping the mail in the air, could get it across America FASTER than any plane-train combination. To prove it they concocted a daring stunt, an all-day-all-night race across America. The relay would begin February 21st in order to end on George Washington’s birthday, the 22nd. They hoped the stunt would whip up enthusiasm from ordinary citizens and get the entire country rallying to save the service.

Early the morning of Feb 21st, two planes started east from San Francisco. Two planes started west from Long Island. Every few hundred miles, they’d land and turn their planes over to fresh pilots. With four planes in the relay, surely success was guaranteed. Except …

The race encountered problem after problem, one being that a blizzard moved into a wide swath of middle America, making it impossible for replacement pilots to get to airports and grounding the two westbound planes in Chicago. Enter Jack Knight and a doozy of a story that shows human dedication, determination, and endurance beyond belief. Except it’s true.


So here are three things I did to add heart to the story, with examples from the book.

  1. Made sure readers knew what was at stake (aside from Jack Knight’s life!).

            At least one [plane] must get through, or air mail is doomed.


  1. Used specific verbs, some of which do double duty by describing what’s happening and revealing Knight’s emotional state.

            Chicago is more than 450 miles away, and at some point, he’s going to collide with that blizzard.

Collide shows readers that Jack knows there’s a dire ordeal ahead.

            Recalling how cold the trip has been already, he gulps hot coffee––and stuffs newspapers inside his leather suit for extra protection.

Gulps. Stuffs. Both sound a little desperate and rushed, which adds to the drama.


  1. Wrote in close third person, present tense, to get inside Jack’s head/heart and keep the narrator as invisible as possible.

While he’s flying a route totally unfamiliar to him:

            Signal fires are supposed to guide him. But it’s awfully late. What if fire tenders have given up and gone to bed …?

            No, there’s one!

And because Jack suffered a crash the week before and now has a plaster across his broken nose:

            Every jolt of the bucking plane is like a punch to Jack’s aching nose.

A bit later, when the engine’s rhythmic throb makes him drowsy:

            He leans into the icy wind and lets it scour his cheeks until the danger of falling asleep has passed.


Every you-are-there detail was found in research materials, there for the plucking. I hope you’ll watch for Jack Knight’s Brave Flight––How One Gutsy Pilot Saved the U.S. Air Mail Service. Jack’s portion of the race makes for an incredibly gripping true tale.

Don’t forget to leave a comment below for a chance to win a copy of JACK KNIGHT’S BRAVE FLIGHT. (US addresses)


Jill Esbaum is the author of more than 50 books for kids, including fiction and nonfiction picture books, a graphic early reader series, and many nonfiction series books for National Geographic Kids and other publishers. Her Jack Knight’s Brave Flight (Calkins Creek), illustrated by Stacey Innerst, launches March 29th. The book has been named a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection and has earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly. More fiction and nonfiction picture books are forthcoming, including Bird Girl–Gene Stratton Porter Shares Her Love of Nature with the World (2024).


28 thoughts on “Mining for Heart: “Writing About Historical Events: 3 Tips for Adding Heart” by Jill Esbaum

  1. I love finding books to read and share with my students about people I have never heard about before. I am excited to now learn all about Jack Knight.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Congratulations, Jill! Your tips are wonderful. I love the vivid verbs you used and the POV you chose for the story. Writing in present tense makes it feel like you are there in the cockpit with the pilot. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This picture book sounds like a thriller! So well done. Thank you for the writing tips and examples of strong verbs that convey two meanings. I’m keeping that one in the front of my brain.

    Liked by 1 person

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