Wood, Wire, Wings: Emma Lilian Todd Invents an Airplane by Kirsten W. Larson. Illustrated by Tracy Subisak

Picture Book Grade Levels 2-5


Tinkering with stuff a delightful children’s activity. It’s the essence of exploration, testing hypotheses, trial and error, and much more. And that’s just what this book describes, a young girl who loves to make things out of building scraps. Her love of tinkering eventually leads to designing and building an airplane. She boldly entered the male dominated airplane competitions a few years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight and became the first woman to join the Aeronautic Society. 

The author’s note continues the story with historical photographs of Todd’s airplanes. Beginning with the dirigible flown in 1852, the author includes notable advances in manned flight efforts until 1910, when Lillian Todd’s airplane was successfully flown, a first for a woman. 


After reading and discussing Wood, Wire, and Wings, encourage students to put on their engineering caps to participate in the following activities.

Using the paper scraps in the classroom recycling box make paper airplanes. Encourage “aeronautical engineers” to try different ideas and do test flights. Supply linear measurement tools to measure the flight distances. Supply paper clips, tape, maybe rubber bands, etc. to boost design options. Allow space to display the airplanes with labels including owner’s name, title of model, maximum distance flown, and number of trials.  A short paragraph about engineering thoughts and problems may also be included. Encourage further independent reading by surrounding this display with books about aircraft, famous flights, and well known pilots; Charles Lindberg, Amelia Earhart, Chuck Yeager.    

Get a large box for collecting scraps from packaging; foam containers, bottle caps, egg cartons, lids, chop sticks; anything from anywhere that may be useful for creating small models or prototypes of new inventions. Supply tape, glue, fasteners, etc. to hold parts together. Create a display area for the finished pieces. Invite students to label their creations with the object’s name and a brief paragraph about how it’s supposed to function in order to accomplish a purpose. Surround the display with books about inventors to encourage further independent reading. Invite students to bring “inventions” created at home to show the class.    

Schedule a guided field trip to the Pima Air and Space Museum when parents can come too. Get information from the website so students can anticipate what they may see and prepare questions. The preview will also help students determine what may be of most interest and not to be missed!

Kirsten Larson used to work with scientists at NASA and has written over 25 nonfiction books. Sign up for her classroom activities and nonfiction reviews.

Comments by Virginia Lopez, retired educator