Middle School Monday – American Ace by Marilyn Nelson
While I was entertained by this year’s Youth Media Awards, and very excited about the winners, this year I didn’t really have a dog in the fight, so I spent my time reading American Ace by Marilyn Nelson. I have mixed feelings about this one.
On the one hand, it is a well told story of a boy dealing with revelations about his family’s history. And told in verse, which is always interesting. Connor Bianchini has just lost his Nonna Lucia, after whom the family restaurant is named. His father has lost his mother and is deep in the stages of grieving. We find that part of that grieving is the revelation, upon his mother’s death, that he was the love child of a romance between his mother and an American Pilot in World War II. Rather than being the beloved first child of his Italian father, as he always believed, Conner’s farther is at a loss for the truth of his identity. All his mother has left him is a ring, a set of wings, and a letter.
As we follow Connor and his investigations into the ring, which his father gave him, we find out that Connor’s grandfather is most likely African American – an attendee at a Historically Black College or University, and possibly a member of the Tuskegee Airmen. Much is discussed and disclosed about their history, including the discrimination against black officers within the airfrorce before the integration of the armed services.
On the other hand, I question the choice of a Irish/Italian main character. Connor’s family reacts with a reasonable range of emotions upon this revelation. Some are welcoming, some are horrified at the prospect of having an African American in their lineage. But why? Why was it necessary to frame the obvious explication of the Tuskegee Airmen and their vast achievements within the story of a ‘white’ character. I’m just not sure.
I think this title will appeal primarily to students who are already fascinated with the history of American involvement in World War II (like my nephew.) It could be of great use, however, in exploring the topic of integration of the armed services following World War II.
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About Robin Willis
After working in middle school libraries for over 20 years, Robin Willis now works in a public library system in Maryland.
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