Lynn: It was one of those shining moments in history when “the first Negro enlisted man accepted for the airborne forces…and the first officer” met. They were the start of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, the first black paratroopers in our nation’s history created in the midst of the dark days of WWII. Tanya Stone tells their inspiring story in Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickels, America’s First Black Paratroopers (Candlewick 2013). It truly is a story of courage and perseverance but sadly much of that courage and grim determination was required to combat the horrifying discrimination rampant at the time. Stone weaves the story of these brave men and their wartime efforts within the larger story of discrimination within the military and the nation itself. Stone provides this telling quote from Stephen Ambrose, “Soldiers were fighting the world’s worst racist, Adolph Hitler, in the world’s most segregated army.” Yet despite this, the men of the 555th were willing to give their lives to keep this nation safe.
Skillfully crafted and documented, this is a fascinating story, the result of intensive research including lengthy interviews with some of the surviving soldiers. There were large chunks of history here that were new to me and I suspect much of this story will astonish most young readers. The stunning accounts of discrimination and the story of the bomb-laden Japanese balloons made my jaw drop!
This is outstanding nonfiction and is a real curriculum gem as well as being a deeply compelling reading experience. There is so much to talk about here but I’ll stop to give Cindy a chance.
Cindy: Readers, did YOU know that Japan had school children make large balloons out of layered tissue paper and then used them to drop bombs on the U.S. hoping to start forest fires that would divert our attention from the war effort? I didn’t. The account is fascinating for that reason and for what it meant for the Triple Nickles who because of this development were diverted from heading to a combat zone. It was easier to reassign them to this domestic duty than to bother the generals with having to integrate the troops at the late stage of the war. The work they did, parachuting into forest fires was important, but it was not the work they were trained to do, nor the work that they wanted to do to serve their country. But they were soldiers and they did what they were told.
Read aloud the first chapter with a second person narration of what it’s like to jump out of an airplane and watch readers jump for this book.
In addition to all of the strengths of the book that Lynn listed, I want to mention the forward by Ashley Bryan. This noted black children’s book author and illustrator was drafted into WWII out of art college and served as a stevedore. His service landed him on Omaha Beach in the invasion of Normandy. Part of his survival was his art work. He carried a sketch pad in his gas mask and after reading Stone’s draft of this book (and an earlier picture book version it started as) he offered to share some of that field-drawn art with her. I read this in galley but have added the book to my next book order and can’t wait to see the finished hardcover to see the higher resolution reproductions of Bryan’s art and the wonderful historic photographs that Stone unearthed.
I’d also like to mention The Story Behind the Story section at the back of the book, in which Stone details her research process. We’ve mentioned similar sections in recent Marc Aronson’s books and I really like this addition for young readers and researchers. I think students often forget that there are real people researching and writing these books. Not only is this section a good reminder of that, but in sharing some of the struggles and decisions involved in unearthing and whether or not to use resources, it provides valuable instruction.
I can’t help but hope that with the writing and publication of each book that illuminates the discrimination from our country’s past that we will be one step closer to eliminating the discrimination of our country’s present. Let it be so.
Common Core Connection
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.7.1 Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
The men of the 555th and other black units risked their lives to serve their country in spite of the pervasive racial discrimination and horrifying treatment. Why were these brave men willing to sacrifice so much? Cite text as evidence.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.7.9a Apply grade 7 Reading standards to literature (e.g., “Compare and contrast a fictional portrayal of a time, place, or character and a historical account of the same period as a means of understanding how authors of fiction use or alter history”).
Ask your school or public librarian to help find a fictional book about a minority soldier in WWII. Compare and contrast the account in the fictional book to that presented in Courage Has No Color. Do the accounts present similar, different or conflicting information? Cite examples. If the accounts differ, which do you believe is more accurate and why?