Sixteen-year-old Connor has a comfortable place in his Italian-American family. He works at the family restaurant and spends weekends practicing K-turns with his dad. But when Connor’s grandmother dies, she leaves behind a secret: Connor’s dad had another birth father, known only as “Ace,” who died in World War II. As Connor researches his heritage, he discovers that his grandfather had an identity far different from what he imagined.
Nelson’s Newbery Honor-winning Carver: A Life in Poems has been a longtime favorite on my bookshelf, so I was eager to read a verse novel from this acclaimed poet. However, while Carver had the depth and subtlety to appeal to adults and young readers alike, American Ace will likely stay firmly on the juvenile shelf. Nelson’s free verse flows with grace and easy humor (“Five o’clock Saturday morning: Dad’s idea / of the safest time for practice driving”), but could never quite escape its didactic agenda: to inform young readers about the history of the Tuskegee Airmen. While the story of these African-American pilots who struggled for acceptance in the segregated Air Force of World War II is undoubtedly one that deserves to be told, I would have preferred a full immersion in the period, rather than a treatise translated to the present day.
There are beautiful moments of multicultural recognition in this book (such as a scene where a woman wearing a hijab is asked, “Do they have apple pies where you come from?” and replies, “In Harrisburg? They certainly do!”) But in the end, I couldn’t shake the sense that Connor was more like a naïve ten-year-old, masquerading as a teen with a girlfriend and a driver’s permit as he learned his lesson of cultural acceptance. This book’s agenda takes center stage: the characters remain mere accessories.