And thus began a love affair between my son and airplanes. He just adores them. We live quite near a regional airport, and for a long time now, just about every time a plane goes over, Sprout rushes to the window to see if he can catch a glimpse. We've been on a couple of family vacations since he came along, and Sprout's favorite destinations are "fly-away" ones -- sometimes I think he likes the airplane part better than the actual vacation!
So it's no surprise that a recent library find, Wind Flyers, was a huge hit with him. Honestly, even if it wasn't about air travel I think it would have been a winner, seeing that it was created by two award-winning kidlit luminaries: author Angela Johnson and illustrator Loren Long. But the fact that the cover features a young boy and his dog climbing aboard a yellow-and-red barnstormer? That just put Sprout over the top.
Johnson adopts an introspective tone with this tale, narrated by a boy who is telling the story of his great-great-uncle, who all his life wanted to fly. As a lad Uncle would do just about anything to try to touch the clouds, including jumping out of a barn window (don't worry, he landed safely in a mound of hay). When he grew up, Uncle enlisted as a Tuskegee Airman, flying missions in World War II in the famous squad of African American pilots. "We were something." Uncle tells his young nephew. "Some of us didn't come back, but we never lost a plane we protected." And Uncle still flies now, mostly just to keep the feeling of the wind, but also, we learn, to pass that feeling on to a new generation.
As you might expect, coming from two such gifted artists, this is an incredible book. First and foremost it serves as an important introduction to a group of heroes whose contribution to our nation's history must never be forgotten. And it's also just a beautiful book to share with a young child. Johnson's narration is spare and perfect, each word set precisely as a stone in a beautiful mosaic. Long's paintings capture the elegance of the prose in visual form, lifting the viewer up into the wind that Uncle loves, the smooth wind, the magic wind of the Tuskegee wind flyers. This is the sort of book you read through several times just for the experience of it. Sprout can never get enough on just one reading, and often asks us to stop on one page or another, drinking in the heady mixture of poetry and light that is word and picture combined.
Whether you read it for the history, for the airplanes, or just for the lyricism, make sure you add Wind Flyers to your reading list soon. It's a piece of art as smooth as the wind that carries it.
First lines: "Great-great-uncle was a wind flyer. A smooth wind flyer. A Tuskegee wind flyer. . . . "
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