Retired Duke professor goes supersonic with first children’s book

CorrespondentOctober 4, 2013 

  • If you go

    Alan Biermann will read from “Chuck Yeager Goes Supersonic: An Action-Packed True Flying Adventure” at 2 p.m. Oct. 12 at Flyleaf Books, 752 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Chapel Hill and at 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Oct. 17 at the Southern Village Farmers Market in Chapel Hill

— When Alan Biermann’s kids were little, they wanted to read about real heroes.

“My son was not enthusiastic reading about teddy bears,” Biermann said.

In bookstores, he said, “Jiminy Crickets, why aren’t there really great hero stories for 6-year-old kids?”

Years later, after he retired as a computer science professor at Duke University, the Chapel Hill resident decided to create the type of children’s book his son would have liked.

The result? His first title, “Chuck Yeager Goes Supersonic: An Action-Packed True Flying Adventure,” for children ages 5-9, with color illustrations by Yaejin Lim.

The book is now for sale in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, online and can be ordered through local book stores. Biermann will read from and speak about it on Oct. 12 at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill.

Biermann thought Yeager – the first pilot to break the sound barrier, on Oct. 14, 1947 – was the perfect topic for his first children’s book. During high school and college, Biermann worked in an airplane factory, and he has flown sailplanes over the Mojave Desert.

Later, as a parent, he found that “my son was wild about airplane stories.”

Years before the Yeager book, Biermann wrote computer science textbooks. MIT Press published his “Great Ideas in Computer Science” in 1990, then second and third editions. Hal Abelson, a computer heavy at MIT, called it “a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful book,” and universities including Harvard used it as a textbook.

When Biermann flew the first draft of “Chuck Yeager Goes Supersonic” by his new cohorts in the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, he said, reaction was swift.

“They said, ‘Alan, you can’t have long sentences like that.’” Local children’s editors and elementary teachers and their pupils also helped him refine his style for young readers.

He sent manuscripts to six or eight publishers. “They uniformly agreed, we are not publishing this type of book at this time.” Never mind that later, staff at the Smithsonian “loved the book,” Biermann said, and began selling copies to visitors.

Biermann gave a copy to Duke Provost Peter Lange, who thought the book ideal for kids interested in science. Lange said his son, when he was growing up, would have loved it.

Lange encouraged Biermann during the project: “It’s a great thing for faculty members who are retiring to keep active, and I think this is a great example.”

Biermann found out about the company CreateSpace, through which he could self- publish. Then, casting about for an illustrator, he found Lim’s bio on the web.

“She said, ‘I would love to,’” and sent him her rendition of a scene with pilots standing before an airplane. “I said, ‘This is ingenious! This is unbelievable!’” Biermann said.

Their collaboration expanded to a designer who married pictures and text. Lim even drew Biermann’s granddaughters, from a photo, to accompany his explanation of the speed of sound. Even adults have thanked him for that lesson.

Teacher Michelle Whitfield of Rashkis Elementary School in Chapel Hill read the book to her fifth graders, then had Biermann come in and speak to 90 students.

“The children ended up loving the book,” she said. “It was very engaging for them because it was a real-life story. It caught their attention.”

“I am so proud of this book,” Biermann said. “I look forward to delivering it to a lot of children in the coming years.”

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