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Review of the Day: Courage Has No Color by Tanya Lee Stone

Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickles, America’s First Black Paratroopers
By Tanya Lee Stone
Candlewick Press
ISBN: 978-0-7636-5117-6
Ages 10 and up
On shelves now

If I were able to sit down with my small, childhood self to render advice about the world, I’d probably just hand myself a series of thoughts about subjects I was forced to learn about in school. For example, I would probably mention right off the bat that though my textbooks made it infinitely clear that American history consists only of a series of distinct separate moments in time (Pilgrims, Colonial American, Revolutionary War, etc. etc.) history is not a static thing. We are always learning more. Heck, there are elements and angles to it that go well and truly beyond what they’re able to cover in school. So those kids that once only ever learned about Ellis Island are now learning and hearing about Angel Island as well. We might learn about the accomplishments of our Founding Fathers, but we’re finally getting a better sense of the fact that they were slaveholders as well. And then there’s WWII. I don’t know about you, but usually my history class sort of raced over WWII when we learned about it. You had your Allied Forces, Hitler, Pearl Harbor, atom bomb, and that was that. So in the midst of all this I can be nothing but pleased with Tanya Lee Stone’s Courage Has No Color. Having already established herself as capable of giving voice to missed historical opportunities, Stone turns her attention to a core group of brave professionals that risked everything and managed to do a great deal of good in spite of the obstacles they encountered along the way.

The history of African-Americans serving in the military has always had its pitfalls and problems. Yet one of the stories too little known concerns The Triple Nickles and their work during the war years. In 1943 Walter Morris, a black serviceman in charge of an African-American unit, could see that his troop’s morale was dangerously low. In light of this he got permission to train his men the same way the white paratroopers at Fort Benning, GA were being trained. In time, their work paid off and President Roosevelt’s order to create an all-black paratrooper unit fell on them. All would have been right as rain but instead of being sent into battle they were instead told to fight fires on the west coast. Little did they suspect that this seeming busywork was actually fighting an enemy closer at hand than anyone had ever suspected. Peppered with art from artist and serviceman Ashley Bryan, Stone’s book takes its cues from original primary sources, interviews with the subjects themselves, and produces one of the finest looks into these heroes too little lauded in their day.

It’s not entirely facetious to say that Stone distinguishes herself by specializing in the art of the unfulfilled. Put another way, how on earth does one go about writing about dashed dreams and promises that never came to be without writing a narrative dipped up to its ears in depression? Courage Has No Color is hardly the first book for young people about military groups of black individuals that faced prejudice both on and off the battlefield. The Harlem Hellfighters When Pride Met Courage and Unsung Heroes of World War II The Story of the Navajo Code Talkers both immediately come to mind. What distinguishes The 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion is that they were never given a chance to perform in battle. Much like the women of her Almost Astronauts, these men trained and were denied their moment of glory. But rather than make this book a depressing account of what these men didn’t get a chance to do, Stone takes the time to instead show everything that they accomplished in the course of their lives. Not just their work as fire fighters, but also how their sacrifice paved the way for future battalions and future paratroopers.

When I tell people that the bulk of my historical knowledge comes from all the children’s books I read, I’m not really kidding. I kind of wish I was, of course, since books for kids can only cover a very limited slice of any given historical moment. That probably accounts for why I like works for kids to do their own research. Once in a great while you’ll encounter a nonfiction book for kids that produces information you simply cannot find in titles for adults. Stone’s book probably counts for this. As she says in her backmatter, “Tiny bits and pieces of this story have been scattered in obscure places for decades. There have been articles written about the Triple Nickles, as well as one slim book by Bradley Biggs, which is primarily an autobiographical perspective, but putting all the events, perspectives, and the complete story together in historical context has never been done.” The end result is a series of personal narratives that will be much desired in this age of Common Core learning. Not only that, Stone also works in facts and elements to this book that until very recently went unknown. I’ll confess that I first heard about the Japanese balloon bombs in the middle grade novel Jump Into the Sky by Shelley Pearsall (a great fiction companion to this book) but it took Stone writing about them in Courage Has No Color to really get me to believe.

Says Stone of herself in this book’s little biographical section, “One of my goals is to help fill in some of the missing pieces in the fabric of our history and encourage readers to think not only about what happens, but the how and why it all unfolds the way it does.” Our nonfiction authors can only give our history meaning if they have the talent and scope to do so. When I was a child I remember my mom telling me that while in hindsight significant moments in history might seem obvious, to the people living those moments it’s never quite so clear. Stone’s great strength lies in her ability to cull a narrative from seemingly disparate elements. These weren’t everyday heroes. These were real men, denied their chances to prove their worth. And yet, they proved themselves in other ways. Consider this a fine bit of research and history that deserves praise and honors galore. Well played, Stone. Well played.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.