Thursday, May 05, 2016

You Can Fly with the Weatherfords

When I was young and learned my father served in the Naval Air Corps during WWII, I became a voracious reader of anything and everything about the war, including the Holocaust, Pearl Harbor, Jackie Robinson, Rosie the Riveter, the WACs, and more. What I didn't find were stories about the Tuskegee Airmen. My young self would have been as thrilled as I am today with the release of an amazing poetry collection entitled You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen, written by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Jeffery Boston Weatherford.
You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen is a collaboration between award-winning children’s book author Carole Boston Weatherford and her son, debut illustrator Jeffery Boston Weatherford. They have woven poems and scratchboard illustrations into a history in verse inspired as much by World War II newsreels as by modern day graphic novels. The project was nearly ten years in the making. With starred reviews in Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly, the book for middle grades is off to a flying start.

Here the mother-son/author-illustrator team interview each other.

Carole: When did you first hear about the Tuskegee Airmen?
Jeffery: I first heard about them when I was a young boy. We took family trips to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington and to Tuskegee Institute, Alabama where we toured exhibits about the Tuskegee University’s founder Booker T. Washington, botanist George Washington Carver and the Tuskegee Airmen. I always had dreams of flight.

Jeffery: Why did you want to write this book?
Carole: I first learned of the Tuskegee Airmen in a magazine article in the 1980s. I was so moved by their story that I saved the magazine. My literary mission is to mine the past for family stories, fading traditions and forgotten struggles. The Airmen’s saga is historically and politically significant. As a children’s literature professor, I knew of at least one historical fiction picture book and of several informational books about the Tuskegee Airmen. I felt that the story would lend itself well to a poetic treatment.

Carole: Tell us about your family’s military ties?
Jeffery: My great great great grandfather Isaac Copper fought in the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War. He was one of 17 veterans who founded the town of Unionville on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. My mother’s father Joseph Boston Jr. served in World War II. He was a technical sergeant in the Army Corps of Engineers in New Guinea and the Philippines. My grandmother still has his uniform and medals.

Jeffery: Which poem was most challenging to write?
Carole: “Operation Prove Them Wrong” was by far the toughest to write. It was like plotting scenes for a war movie. I had to boil down Operation Corkscrew and Operation Diadem to a few lines that captured the battles. It might have been easier if I were gamer like you or at least a World War II buff.

Carole: You were a serious gamer growing up. Did your background as a gamer influence how you illustrated the battle scenes?  
Jeffery: Yes, absolutely. I had lots of residual visual references from battles across galaxies.

Jeffery: What is your favorite illustration from the book?
Carole: I like the one opposite the poem “Routines.” It shows a dogfight in which one plane gets bombed and explodes. The explosion is quite animated, like something out of a comic book. I almost want to add an action bubble: Boom!

Carole: Describe your creative process.
Jeffery: For inspiration, I viewed documentary photographs from the Library of Congress and National Archives collections. While researching picture references, I had some dreams of meeting Tuskegee Airmen. I also watched the movie Red Tails. For each illustration, I drew a graphite study to layout the composition. Once that was completed and approved by the publisher, I refined the image and transferred it to scratchboard. I used various nibs for different effects.
Jeffery with Airman portrait

Jeffery: What do you want readers to take away from the book?
Carole: I want them to be inspired by the courage and determination of the Tuskegee Airmen. I want them to understand that the sky is no limit if they are willing to prepare themselves, practice and persevere. The book aims to lift the ceiling off of young people’s dreams. 
P-51 Mustangs flying in formation over Ramitelli, Italy.

Did you know? The Tuskegee Airmen got the name Red Tails when their ground crew painted the tail of the P-47 red.

WWII by the numbers: Before the Tuskegee Experiment began, there were only 130 licensed African American pilots in the U.S.

Here's one of my favorite poems from the book.

Train Ride to the Clouds

All aboard for Tuskegee Institute,
where Booker T. Washington uplifted ex-slaves
and George Washington Carver 
is working wonders with sweet potatoes!

If Carver can make paint
from clay and plastics from soy,
then the school Booker T. founded
can surely make you a pilot.

If you did not believe that were true
you would not have packed your bag 
and boarded the train for Alabama
with a Bible and a box lunch from your mama.

If your faith were not vast as the sky,
you would never have taken this leap.

Poem © Carole Boston Weatherford, 2016. All rights reserved.

The poems in this volume are moving, vivid, and packed with information.  The poem in the Epilogue describes the race barrier breaking moments that came after the Tuskegee Airmen paved the way for integration of the U.S. military. The backmatter includes an author's note, timeline, and extensive list of additional resources and primary sources. 

You can find helpful teacher resources for this work at:

My thanks to Carole and Jeffery for sharing their conversation and their work. You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen was released on May 3rd and is available now. Don't miss it!

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