—American Ace, by Marilyn Nelson
Marilyn Nelson’s American Ace came out last month, and it is lovely. It’s about a boy discovering that his Italian-American grandfather—his father’s father—wasn’t actually his biological grandfather, and that his biological grandfather was actually an American who met his grandmother in Italy during World War II. He and his father understandably want to know more, but the only clues they have to work with are a class ring, a pair of pilot’s wings, and the man’s nickname: Ace.
It’s a novel in verse, but unlike the majority of verse novels, most of these poems work on their own as well—they’re all interconnected, but each one also captures a concrete moment or event or feeling. It deals with family and culture and race; with the relationships between fathers and sons, between extended family and immediate. Ultimately, it’s less about the mystery itself, and more about how a shift in a person’s understanding of his own identity can affect how he sees the world and his place in it. It’s about discovering history in terms of the macro and the micro—about seeing the larger patterns of history and about how individual people fit into that pattern, about the Tuskegee Airmen as a group and about the individuals who made up the whole.
It was such a pleasure to read that I’ve been working my way through Marilyn Nelson’s backlist, and I’ve also got my eye on the following books about WWII-era pilots and flight, and more specifically, on the experience of black servicemen and women:
You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen, by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Jeffery Boston Weatherford
Due to the glory that is Voice of Freedom, Fannie Lou Hamer: The Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement—a GORGEOUS-in-all-ways picture-book biography written in verse—I’ve also been working my way through Weatherford’s backlist. Like Voice of Freedom, this is nonfiction in verse form, and tells the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first black pilots in the U.S. Armed Forces, from their training—and struggles against racism, within the context of the military and within the context of the larger American culture—to their service during WWII.
Flygirl, by Sherri L. Smith
During WWII, a group of female pilots—the Women Airforce Service Pilots—fought for the right to serve, but black women were not allowed to participate or join. This is the (fictional) story of Ida Mae Jones, who passes as white in order to do so—who risks everything to do what she believes is right, and for a chance to fly. Relatedly—not about a pilot, but also about a young black woman who serves during WWII—I’ve also got the hankering to revisit Mare's War, by the ever-excellent Tanita S. Davis.
I love Tanya Lee Stone’s nonfiction, which always strikes me as entirely readable and impressively comprehensive. This one is about the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, the first black paratroopers in the United States—spoiler: they never saw combat overseas during WWII, because racism—who served as smokejumpers in the Pacific Northwest. (I feel that smokejumping might be the most terrifying thing I can imagine. You’re jumping out of a plane…INTO A FIRE. Eeeek.)
Talkin' About Bessie: The Story of Aviator Elizabeth Coleman, by Nikki Grimes
I can never seem to put a list of books together without one outlier, and this one is it—Bessie Coleman died in 1926, well before WWII. But, more poetry! This is a fictionalized biographical picture book told through the voices of 20 people who knew Bessie Coleman, the first black woman to get a pilot’s license. The Kirkus reviewer wasn’t enamored of the lack of back matter, but it’s Nikki Grimes, so I’m in.
As always, I’m always up for recommendations!
In addition to running a library in rural Maine, Leila Roy blogs at Bookshelves of Doom, is a contributor at Book Riot, hangs out on Twitter a lot—possibly too much—and watches a shocking amount of television. Her cat is a murderer.