Set during World War II, You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen (Atheneum, 2016) follows the training, trials and triumphs of the U.S. military’s first African American pilots.
The book pairs my poems with scratchboard illustrations by my son, Jeffrey Boston Weatherford.
The title is our first collaboration and Jeffery’s publication debut. The book, which includes a detailed timeline and links to primary sources, connects to both the language arts and social studies curricula.
You Can Fly had a long incubation period. The egg may have been laid during a family trip to Tuskegee Institute, Alabama. The earliest version of the text was for a picture book written in second person.
After I was unable to sell that manuscript, I sat on the egg for a few more years. Then I began re-envisioning and reshaping the manuscript as a poetry collection for middle grades-up. I switched the point of view to first person under the title “The Last Tuskegee Airmen Tells All.” Still not satisfied, I changed to third person. Finally, I settled on second person.
Around that time, Jeffery came on board. During a summer internship in children’s book illustration, he created digital art to accompany my poems. We sold the package, but just before the book was about to hatch, the flight got cancelled.
|Carole & Jeffery in 2000|
I began to wonder if the book would ever leave the nest. I continued to
revise the manuscript and to add poems. Jeffery and I decided to scrap
the digital art in favor of scratchboard illustrations.
Armed with a
revised manuscript and sample drawings, we sold the package to Atheneum.
In the subsequent year, Jeffery completed the illustrations and I added
a few new poems.
In mid-April, Jeffery and I received our comp copies.
Our first book together finally has wings.
Fly, little book, fly!
Author & Illustrator Interview
Jeffery and I recently interviewed each other about You Can Fly.
Jeffery: Why did you want to write this book?
Carole: The Tuskegee Airmen’s saga moved me personally. It is powerful—historically, politically and emotionally. I thought the story begged for a poetic treatment.
Carole: You were a serious gamer growing up. Did gaming influence how you illustrated the battle scenes?
Jeffery: Yes, absolutely. I had lots of residual visual references from battles across galaxies. I played everything from Halo to Call of Duty.
Jeffery: When did you first notice my artistic talent?
Carole: Your kindergarten teacher prodded you to finish coloring and work up to potential. By third grade, I was concerned that you were doodling planes, cars, weapons and anime characters in your notebook rather than paying attention.
Around middle school, I realized that your drawings were good. I put you in studio art classes, starting with cartooning. By high school, you were taking private art lessons with the assistant principal who became a mentor.
Carole: What is your favorite illustration from the book?
Jeffery: My favorite is of the boxers Joe Louis and Max Schmeling. It’s a closeup scene from their historic rematch.
Jeffery: What’s yours?
Carole: The one where two planes on a mission have bombed an enemy aircraft. The explosion is so animated; like a comic book.
Jeffery: What is your favorite poem from the book?
Carole: It’s “Head to the Sky,” the first poem in the book and also the first that I wrote—early on when the project was envisioned as a picture book. “Head to the Sky” reflects the power of a dream fueled by self-determination.
Jeffery: I had a window seat and was looking outside. As the plane sped down the runway, I said, “We’re blasting off!”
Carole: That was hilarious. Well, your career as a children’s book illustrator is off to a flying start. How did it feel when you first saw the printed book?
Jeffery: Like a child at Christmas.
From the promotional copy:
I WANT YOU! says the poster of Uncle Sam. But if you’re a young black man in 1940, he doesn’t want you in the cockpit of a war plane. Yet you are determined not to let that stop your dream of flying.
So when you hear of a civilian pilot training program at Tuskegee Institute, you leap at the chance. Soon you are learning engineering and mechanics, how to communicate in code, how to read a map. At last the day you’ve longed for is here: you are flying!
From training days in Alabama to combat on the front lines in Europe, this is the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, the groundbreaking African-American pilots of World War II.