You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Jeffery Boston Weatherford.
Atheneum Books for Young Readers Imprint, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2016.
Second person historical novel in verse, 80 pages including timeline and notes.
Lexile: 910L .
AR Level: 6.0 (worth 1.0 points) .
NOTE: I would consider this book for about 4th grade through adult reading.
This story told in the second person vividly delineates the journey of a black airman during WWII through sparse poems and black and white images based on historic photographs.
I did not expect to like this book. A novel in verse – already something I feel ambiguous about. Then you add the fact that this is in second person, which I tend to dislike even when it’s done well. Finally, I was under the misapprehension that this was a work of non-fiction about the Tuskegee Airmen.
Yet this book which I should have disliked actually captivated me.
First, let’s discuss the illustrations. There is one illustration on almost every other page. A few are full page, but most are half or less. They interact nicely with the text. Some scratch into the page, and in other cases there’s white text on black background so the words flow into the illustration. At a casual glance some of the illustrations look like photographs.
The illustrations are done in a black-and white scratchboard style reminiscent of Brian Pinkney. I kept having to look back at the dust jacket to remind myself that they were done by Weatherford’s son Jeffery from archival photographs. I’m curious if the pictures were chosen to suit the poems, or vice versa, or if a more organic process was followed.
Overall, the book is gorgeously formatted. While the $17 hardcover price is a bit steep, there are used copies available and the paperback is more reasonable. I know we’ll reread this book.
So many aspects will connect with teens:
“They have no clue what you are made of–
that you cut your teeth fighting the color barrier,
that you’ve seen enough action for two wars.”
from “Operation Prove Them Wrong”, page 45.
The poems vary from one to two pages long with the occasional three pager. Since this book is quite small, none are longer than a standard printer page. While they follow an overarching narrative journey, the individual poems have a variety of topics.
On page 18 the poem “Sugar, Sugar” deals with the joy of getting mail from home, particularly from a sweetheart. This poem is universal and could apply to any soldier, or nearly anyone separated from loved ones. On page 19 is the poem “The Other War” which talks about the unseen war against discrimination that black people, and in particular black soldiers, had to fight to survive.
Some poems deal with everyday thoughts and feelings that might occur while progressing through training and the war. Other poems cover current events both from the war and other news. Several deal with specific historical events and people such as the bombing of Pearl Harbor or Dorie Miller being awarded the Navy Cross. While my knowledge of black history pales in comparison to Carole Boston Weatherford’s, everything seemed accurate.
I can see why I was so confused about this book. It’s difficult to describe, let alone promote. Where would I catalog it in the school library? Poetry gets little consideration, students into war books like solid facts and photographs, they don’t want reflection and illustrations. This slim volume would get lost in the fiction collection.
I disagree with the AR assessment of grades K-3. The publisher recommends ages 9-12. I could see this being used for a much wider range of students. It would be an excellent supplement to high-school studies of WWII, could be used for poetic analysis, gives another perspective on racial discrimination in the military. There are so many curricular opportunities here. If I were in a middle-school classroom, I would do this as a whole-class read and have students pick topics from the book to research further and present – it’s a smorgasbord of snippets about black history from this time period.
The word “hell” is used, some fight scenes include death, and pin-up girls are mentioned. I’d recommend this for 4th grade up for classroom use, but it might work for individual students or families at a younger age.
It’s difficult to say who exactly this will appeal to, but I certainly urge you to give it a try. History, social justice, and the fight for racial equality remain relevant topics today. Highly recommended.