James H. Banning Biography



After reading The Hallelujah Flight by Phil Bildner, I was interested in reading more about the pilot James Banning. It was shocking and saddening to find that his death was tragically tied to discrimination and racism. He was the passenger in a fatal plane crash as he was not permitted to be the pilot. Otherwise, most of the information I found was similar to the content included in The Hallelujah Flight

There is not a wealth of information about Banning, so it made me appreciate even more the way Bildner made Banning come vividly to life. 

I have taken the basic information about Banning’s life and created a short biography for students to read and compare to the story book. I created three versions of the text (advanced, easy, and easy without reference to Banning’s death) for you to pick the text most appropriate for your students. The text can be downloaded here via Teachers Pay Teachers. 


Apples to Oregon


My first exposure to the Oregon Trail was playing the video game on my parents’ computer in the early 1990s. Apples to Oregon by Deborah Hopkinson and Nancy Carpenter follows the route I learned so well without any of the dreaded illness, drowning, or running out of food.  The book does include those beloved landmarks of Courthouse Rock and Chimney Rock and the perils of crossing the Platte River. Even better, the book is such a rich, colorful experience compared to the black and white game I loved so much.

While this book is based on the historical Oregon Trail, it is told as a tall tale from the point of view of Delicious, the daughter of a pioneer who is bringing his fruit trees from Iowa to Oregon. He worries about the survival of his saplings along each peril of the journey. And Delicious makes a scrumptious heroine as she saves the apples.

The book is a gold mine of figurative language. Hyperbole, idioms, similes, metaphors, alliteration, and personification – this book is great for reading and rereading to analyze the excellent use of figurative language. For example, the climax of the book is Delicious’s personified battle against Jack Frost where in the end “that low-down scoundrel was hightailing it out of there.”

Phrases like “muddier than a cowboy’s toenails” and “I spied a foul-looking bunch of clouds stomping around the sun just fit to be tied” make the book a fun read; one that is wonderful to read aloud. The book is appropriate for k-6, but will be most enjoyable to students with background knowledge about the Oregon Trail.

While the book is best classified as a tall tale, it is also historical fiction. The book is inspired by Henderson Luelling who did bring the first apple trees to Oregon in a covered wagon along with his wife and eight children.

Apples to Oregon Discussion Questions Based on Common Core Reading: Literature Standards:

  • Who is the narrator of the book?
  • What were some of the major problems the family experienced on their journey to Oregon?
  • How would you describe the tone of the book? Is it serious, funny, sad…why?
  • Look at the first picture of the covered wagon on the way to Oregon. What do you notice about the wagon? What does this tell you about the family?
  • Delicious is the hero of this book. What actions does she take that make her a hero?
  • This book is a tall tale. The definition of a tall tale is story that has unbelievable or exaggerated events that are told as if true. Many tall tales are set in the American frontier. Give examples of why this book fits the definition of a tall tale.
  • Pick a page or two of the book to reread. What language is used to make the page interesting?

The Hallelujah Flight

The Hallelujah Flight

Historical fiction is my all-time favorite genre. I fell in love with the Little House on the Prairie books as a child and never looked back. But I don’t remember reading historical fiction picture books, so as a teacher and parent, I am completely in love with this genre. I love finding great books like this one,  The Hallelujah Flightwhere I can learn about amazing people in United States history, in such a quick and engaging manner.

This book is based off the first transcontinental flight by an African American pilot, James Banning. He was joined by Thomas Allen, as his copilot and mechanic, in the historical 1932 flight. Together they fixed up a dilapidated plane and prepared to take off from California to New York. They knew the plane wouldn’t make it without additional work, and they didn’t have the money for food or fuel.  Putting their faith in fellow humankind, Banning came up with the idea of having people who offered help along the way sign their names on the tip of the wing. Everyone would then become part of the historical flight, and his plan worked!

The Hallelujah Flight does a great job of honoring Banning and Allen, who became known as the Flying Hoboes, and all those who helped them on their flight. The book also gently touches on the discrimination they experienced in some areas of the United States. Overall, the tone remains positive and uplifting, making it an appropriate text for kindergarten and up.

Bildner found a treasure in this story. Not much information is recorded on Banning and this flight. A quick Google search on Banning doesn’t turn up much. His Wikipedia page is short and sad – he died in a 1933 flight where he was the passenger as a flight instructor had refused to allow him the pilot’s seat. Records of Allen’s remain, so Bildner used him as the narrator. The dialogue between Allen and Bildner is easy to follow, and the book is fun to read aloud. The illustrations are engaging with a retro feel and rich colors. This is a great book for Black History Month or anytime of the year.

Common Core Discussion Questions Based off K-3 Reading: Literature Standards

For The Hallelujah Flight

  • Who is the narrator of the book?
  • Banning and Allen did not have enough money for the flight across the United States. What plan did they come up with to make their dream possible?
  • Why do you think Banning and Allen wanted to fly across the country?
  • Why were Banning and Allen called the Flying Hoboes?
  • Would you have wanted to sign the wing of the plane? Why or why not?
  • What words would you use to describe the plane?
  • What does it mean, “we encountered something far more dangerous than hot weather and nightfall: prejudice”?
  • Why do you think Banning and Allen named the flight, “The Hallelujah Flight?” What feelings do you think they had with the word hallelujah?
  • What lessons can we learn from this famous flight?

Bear Has a Story to Tell

Bear Has a Story to Tell by Philip C. Stead Illustrated by Erin E. Stead

The award winning duo of  Philip C. Stead and Erin Stead have created a beautiful tale with Bear Has a Story to Tell. In the story, Bear is excited to tell his story, but all of his friends are busy with preparations for winter. He helps each animal get ready until it is time for him to hibernate as well. When spring arrives, Bear is finally ready to tell his story. He kindly greets each of his friends, and when the time arrives to share his story, he forgets! What should one do when no story comes to mind? With the help of his friends, he is ready to tell the story of his patient wait.

This book, appropriate for ages 2-6, has a variety of themes to discuss. There is the changing of seasons, the need to be patient and wait, the kindness friends show each other, and the love of telling stories. The calming mood created by the text and illustrations makes this a great book for students who need a quiet story time. It is also an excellent bedtime story.

Common Core Discussion Questions for Bear Has a Story to Tell based on Reading Literature: Grades K-2

–          What did Bear want to do?

–          What words would you use to describe Bear’s personality? Why?

–          During what seasons of the year did the story take place?

–          Which of Bear’s friends had to leave for the winter?

–          How do you feel after reading this book? How do you feel after looking at the illustrations? Do you feel energetic or relaxed?

The Matchbox Diary

The Matchbox Diary by Paul Fleischman, Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline

The Matchbox Diary by Paul Fleischman Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline

The Matchbox Diary is magical storytelling. Objects hold such appeal to young children. Exploring, finding treasures – it is something every child loves and can relate to. This gorgeously illustrated picture book (illustrations of the present day are in warming hues and those from the past look like sepia photographs) begins with a young girl and her great-grandfather. She can pick any object for him to tell a story about, and she picks the perfect one – his matchbox diary. Before the grandfather could write, he kept a diary of small items inside matchboxes to help him remember his journey from Italy to the United States and the challenges and joys he found in America.

The grandfather’s immigration story simply and powerfully tells common themes found in the stories of immigrants – hunger, being apart from family while money for tickets is saved, dangerous storms, medical inspections at Ellis Island, working in factories, discrimination, and a passionate desire to be educated.

The age range on this book is 6-9, but with the illustrations and gentle, interesting stories to accompany each object, my 4 year old is able to enjoy it as well.

Here are some discussion questions for the story based on the Common Core Reading Literature Standards for grades 1-3. Pick and choose as appropriate.

Questions for The Matchbox Diary

  • Who are the main characters in the story?
  • What was life like for the grandfather when he lived in Italy?
  • Why was the grandfather separated from his father?
  • Why did the grandfather keep a matchbox diary?
  • Describe the trip from Italy to America.
  • What was the grandfather scared of when the family reached Ellis Island?
  • Was life in America how the grandfather expected it to be? Why or why not?
  • Why did the grandfather have a tooth in a box?
  • How would you describe the grandfather’s personality?
  • How did the grandfather learn to read and write?
  • What do the grandfather and granddaughter have in common?
  • What life lessons did the granddaughter learn?
  • What mood do the color of the illustrations create?
  • How does reading this book make you feel? Why?
  • The grandfather tells his granddaughter at the end of the book, “Lucky girl. You’ll be writing before you know it. Till then, I’ll bet you’re a good collector. Like me.”  Do you collect anything? Why do you think collecting is important to many people?