Award-winning poet Marilyn Nelson had long wanted to write a book for young adults about the Tuskegee Airmen. Her father, Marvin Nelson, was a Tuskegee Airman, one of the first black military pilots who fought in WWII. Her editor was interested but had her own very specific request, Nelson recalls. “She told me, ‘OK, but you have to write the book from the point of view of someone who didn’t know the Tuskegee Airmen existed.’ ” The result of this particular challenge? American Ace, in which Irish-Italian teenager Connor Bianchini unravels the mystery of his grandfather, who was likely a Tuskegee Airman.
In a starred review, Kirkus’ critic praised the book, a novel in verse, suggesting its “meticulous” poetic form offers the perfect vehicle to convey “the devastating fragility of racial and familial identity.” But for Nelson the real challenge was not the discipline of writing each one-page scene in two 12-line blank verse stanzas (“that comes naturally to me”) but writing a novel. “HOW do I write something that long?” she laughs. “I went and read books about plot and climax. I had to figure out foreshadowing and chart everything out. I did a lot of preplanning, plotting, and graphing it out— I’d never done anything like that before.”
Nelson says hurdles can be useful to a writer: they focus attention, limit possibilities in a useful way, and “sometimes being offered a hurdle makes you jump higher,” she adds. For example, without her editor’s particular challenge, Nelson wouldn’t have ended up “writing as a young white man.” She says that creating her protagonist, Connor, a 16-year-old confident in his Irish-Italian roots, was “infinitely a discovery.” For starters, “I don't have any adolescents in my life—my kids are 29 and 35,” she explains. “And I don’t have any white adolescents in my life. Connor is a product of imagination and history and novels I’d read.”
Partly because the project was unfamiliar—and sometimes uncomfortable—Nelson found herself talking to people about it, including a stranger sitting next to her on a flight. “I told him I was thinking about writing a story about a white kid who discovers he has African-American ancestry—what did he think would happen in the kid’s psyche?” She also spent an evening as an outside consultant, visiting the high school of poet Elizabeth Alexander’s son to talk about the Tuskegee Airmen, and asked Alexander’s son for his insights about Connor.
Looking back, Nelson says she probably “got some things wrong” (she remembers her editor asking her, “Would anyone say this? Would a white family say this?” and replying, “I don’t know”). Despite the challenge of exploring unfamiliar territory, Nelson has a great fondness for the family she created and says the various risks were worth it. “I grew to love Connor. And I really like the Bianchini family. They’re just living their lives and they don't think about some things—and then they have to. They’re people who think they’re white, and then they realize they’re not.”
Though her characters still look exactly the same on the outside, this realization changes their sense of identity, the way they perceive themselves “inwardly,” as she says. “This inwardness is what I wanted Connor to see.” Nelson hopes that American Ace offers young readers a chance to enter a complicated conversation about race, as Connor does, “from the inside.”
Jessie Grearson is a writer and graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop living in Falmouth, Maine.