By Elizabeth Wroten
Picture Book Review: Flying Above Expectations by Larry Simmons
On 12, Jan 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Published by Melanin Origins
From GoodReads: Join Melanin Origins as we tell of the Tuskegee Airmen and a few of their accomplishments in flight and in moral character. Author Larry Simmons penned this story for children worldwide in hopes to awaken the conquering, persevering and ambitious nature in every child that reads this book.
I know these reviews I write are designed to recommend books based on whether or not they would make valuable additions to library collections and I will talk about this book in those terms (or just go out and buy it already since it’s well worth it), but first I have to share how it really resonated on a personal level in our house. My daughter is nearly six and a half years old and while we managed to avoid the terrible twos and threes, she has really struggled this year with resilience in the face of difficulty and failure. For example, a small mistake on a drawing escalates quickly to her throwing her entire body on the floor wailing, “Everything is ruined!”. I would find it comical if I didn’t find it so incredibly frustrating. I have written before about how important I find the maker movement in large part because it teaches kids how to successfully fail and how to persevere. Yet here I am faced with my own daughter struggling to do that.
Thus far we’ve discussed how to handle disappointment and mistakes and I’m slowly amassing a pile of books that (not so subtly) hit perseverance over the head as a message with a capital “M”. The problem with them is that even the good ones tend to be pretty sneaky about teaching their lesson. I know a lot of people love that and don’t want to get slapped with a lesson, but I need help here. She needs to hear that message loud and clear.
So, when I got this book in the mail the other day I expected a fun historical story about the Tuskegee Airmen. I added it to our bedtime book pile. That night my daughter picked it out of a pile about a foot tall, so clearly it spoke to her. No surprise, the cover is bright and enticing and a little mysterious with the heart on the pilot. As I started reading it I noticed there were two colors of text on the page. The first few black lines of text follow the story of Anderson, the first African American to earn his private pilot’s license. Then a line or two of red text at the bottom of each page are affirmations and encouragement. Things like ” We all get sad, mad, upset, confused and frustrated, but don’t let those things knock you off course! You can still choose to fly above expectations.” Each piece of advice is tied to Anderson’s story, but not so intimately that readers will only see them as relevant to Anderson’s story. I think they do a brilliant job helping kids see how not only is Anderson’s story interesting, but it is applicable to their own lives. They can draw inspiration from him.
My daughter didn’t necessarily make the leap from these lines of encouragement to her own struggles (probably in large part because she wasn’t currently upset about losing a Lego she needed), but she did notice the two different colors of text. I did see how helpful these ideas will be and I immediately explained to her that they were special words from the author to her that were meant to help her see how Anderson helped himself make it through some very challenging situations. The book is full of wisdom about pursuing dreams, keeping at things even when they seem insurmountable, and believing in yourself even when others don’t. We’re keeping this book in the bedtime rotation so we can refer back to it and use the advice as mantras when she does have one of those knock-down-drag-out tantrums.
Now I know my daughter was not necessarily the target audience here as a white, middle class kid. She’s got plenty going for her, especially if the worst thing she suffers from is an errant mark on an art project. I certainly took the opportunity to explain how it was important for her to keep trying and learn from failure, but I also took the opportunity to explain that race was a major factor in what led people to underestimate and discriminate against Anderson and the Tuskegee Airmen and also children of color she knows now. (For anyone interested, there’s a fabulous novel called Flygirl by Sherri Smith about a young woman from the same era wanting to be a pilot in the Air Force and passing as white to do so). The positive affirmation geared toward children of color that can be found in the story and the words of encouragement are reason enough for libraries to have this book on their shelves. Classrooms too! I suspect those children will get even more out of this story than my own daughter. Parents who need something in their back pocket for encouraging resilience, perseverance, and persistence should also have this on their shelves.
If I had one criticism it’s that I wish the illustrations were a little more detailed. My daughter is still on this kick where she really wants to know if the books we read are “true stories”. More historical detail might have helped her see the ties to its era. But not every book needs to be a historical study and the story, positive representation, and affirmations more than make up for the fact that the pictures lack some historical detail. She was excited to discover a photograph of Anderson at the end of the book.
It appears that the book is currently only available as an ebook. I was sent a paperback copy to review, so I’m hoping there will be a physical copy available soon. The book does not release until February 1st, timed I believe with Black History Month. If you want to pre-order/purchase a copy you can do so through the publisher here: Melanin Origins or through Amazon.
Disclosure: I was sent a review copy in return for an honest review.