Wood, Wire, Wings: Emma Lilian Todd Invents an Airplane

by Kirsten W Larson (Author) Tracy Subisak (Illustrator)

Reading Level: 2nd − 3rd Grade

A NCSS/CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Book

NSTA Best STEM Book list 2021

This riveting nonfiction picture book biography explores both the failures and successes of self-taught engineer Emma Lilian Todd as she tackles one of the greatest challenges of the early 1900s: designing an airplane.

Emma Lilian Todd's mind was always soaring she loved to solve problems. Lilian tinkered and fiddled with all sorts of objects, turning dreams into useful inventions. As a child, she took apart and reassembled clocks to figure out how they worked. As an adult, typing up patents at the U.S. Patent Office, Lilian built the inventions in her mind, including many designs for flying machines. However, they all seemed too impractical. Lilian knew she could design one that worked. She took inspiration from both nature and her many failures, driving herself to perfect the design that would eventually successfully fly.

Illustrator Tracy Subisak's art brings to life author Kirsten W. Larson's story of this little-known but important engineer.


In windswept digital watercolors, Subisak depicts her as an active, confident figure.... Todd herself was not a pilot, but her story pairs naturally with those about the first generations of female aviators. 

Kirkus Reviews

A heroine of the skies is given her due....(a) person who disappeared into history after adding to the knowledge of the era, Todd is resurrected here as a role model who can provide encouragement and inspiration by virtue of her single-minded dedication and resilience...(e)nergetic, thoughtful text punctuated by Todd's own words and Subisak's inventive, warmly outlined full-color illustrations follow her life....(c)elebrates its subject's resilience as much as her contributions to STEM and aeronautics. 

School Library Journal

Gr 2-4--While the Wright brothers are known for inventing the first airplane, another inventor wanted to make the design of the airplane more practical. Emma Lilian Todd, sparked by curiosity to tinker, engineer, and invent even as a child, worked to build her own airplane. The illustrations give life to this narrative nonfiction account of Todd's upbringing and her thirst for solving problems through prototyping. Each gear and each part used in her childhood mechanical creations is drawn with noticeable detail. Movement is depicted through wispy clouds and bold strokes in the sky when the story focuses on Todd's fascination with flight. Vivid colors add a warm, rich tone to match the extraordinary effort and care that Todd put into inventing. Quotations from the book's subject and others mentioned in her story are sprinkled throughout the narrative, providing insight into Todd's creative process. A detailed author's note, photographs of the real Todd and her airplane models (with photo credits), a time line, and a selected bibliography are included in the back matter. VERDICT This inspiring work shines a light on a lesser-known inventor who was the first woman to design an airplane. An excellent purchase for public and elementary school biography collections.--Molly Dettmann, Norman North High School, OK

Copyright 2020 School Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

Publishers Weekly

"To Emma Lilian Todd, problems were like gusts of wind: they set her mind soaring." Persistence in the face of repeated failures is a recurring theme in this book about Todd, a little-known pioneer in early-20th-century aviation design. Todd's childhood love of tinkering--"She took apart a clock.... She put the pieces back together this way. No tick. She put the pieces back that way. No tock"--serves her well in her adult quest to design a working airplane. (Todd is quoted: "There is no work so discouraging, so exasperating, so delightful, so mean, so difficult, so exhilarating as building aeroplanes.") Larson's author's note mentions that "many of Lilian Todd's ideas don't survive in modern airplanes." Todd's plucky perseverance appeals, and Subisak's cheerily cluttered loose-lined illustrations conjure a world of patent diagrams, dreams, experimental machines, and grit. An author's note includes photographs and supplemental information. Ages 7-10. (Feb.)

Copyright 2020 Publishers Weekly, LLC Used with permission.

Review quotes

Kirsten W Larson
Kirsten W. Larson's fascination with Wonder Woman began with hours of childhood play. She now lives near LA. kirsten-w-larson.com, Twitter: @KirstenWLarson, Instagram: @KirstenWLarson.

Katy Wu has illustrated several picture books about exceptional women and lives in New York City. katycwwu.tumblr.com, Twitter: @thewildkat, Instagram: @thewildkat.
Lexile Measure
Guided Reading Level
Calkins Creek Books
Publication date
February 20, 2020
BISAC categories
JNF007090 - Juvenile Nonfiction | Biography & Autobiography | Science & Technology
JNF007120 - Juvenile Nonfiction | Biography & Autobiography | Women
JNF061010 - Juvenile Nonfiction | Technology | Inventions
JNF051010 - Juvenile Nonfiction | Technology | Aeronautics, Astronautics & Space Science
JNF057010 - Juvenile Nonfiction | Transportation | Aviation
Library of Congress categories
United States
Women air pilots
Women inventors
Women engineers
Todd, Emma Lilian
NSTA Best STEM Book list 2021
2021 - 2021
A NCSS/CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Book

Subscribe to our delicious e-newsletter!