Courage and Civil Rights: An Interview with Tanya Lee Stone

On this day, many of us retell the stories of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his speech, the bravery of Rosa Parks on the bus, and the students of Little Rock. But few realize that the seeds of the civil rights movement began during World War II.

courageIn Courage Has No Color, award-winning author Tanya Lee Stone tells the story of our nation’s first black paratroopers who integrated the army six months before Truman’s executive order calling for “equality of treatment and opportunity” in the military in 1948.

Tanya met Walter Morris, the sergeant who decided to train his men in the service company of the Parachute School as paratroopers. He wanted them “to act like soldiers, not servants.” Because of Morris’ leadership, the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, the Triple Nickles, was born.

At the end of the war, black and white servicemen had shared experiences that began a shift in society. “White Americans found it difficult to ignore the fact that they had been fighting Hitler while perpetrating atrocities and inequalities on their own black citizens—especially when those black citizens had done their part to unite in the fight against the same foe,” Tanya writes.

Courage Has No Color earned four starred reviews, was named Publishers Weekly Best Books 2013 and Kirkus Best Books of 2013, and received many honors, including the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award and NAACP Image Award Finalist. Tanya took some time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions.

Tanya Lee Stone

MUF: This is an amazing story about the courage and patriotism of the Triple Nickles. You tell the largely hidden story of the Japanese balloon bombs, giving meaning to the firefighting these paratroopers did in 1945. Yet these paratroopers never went overseas to fight Hitler. Was it hard to write about that disappointment?

TS: Yes, it was. It was a tricky thing to piece together as well. There was a lot of disappointment and sadness involved with this story as well as pride and accomplishment, heroism and honor.

MUF: Sergeant Walter Morris was a true leader and, it seems, a storyteller. I was saddened to learn that he died in October 2013. Was he happy to see his story told?

TS: Oh, he was elated. And the book came out the day after his birthday, so he had it in his hands. I was on the phone with him during his birthday party and a lot of the Triple Nickles men were there, and we were all whooping and hollering. It was an honor and a joy to have gotten to know Walter these last ten years, and not only was he happy to see his story told, he was able to participate in that telling. I will forever be grateful for that.

MUF: This book began as a picture book, and it sounds like you resisted turning it into a longer work for middle grade readers. Can you talk about that decision?

TS: The phone call I received from Hilary Van Dusen at Candlewick came at a moment when I was probably more tired than I had ever been from writing. I had just finished The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie right on the heels of Almost Astronauts, with a picture book in between. Ashley Bryan had read the picture book version of Courage Has No Color and the praise he gave me bolstered my confidence. And did I mention I was tired? So when Hilary told me she wanted me to expand it to the scope of Almost Astronauts, I was resistant. We both agreed that I was tired, and I asked her for some time to think about it. Of course, my sister-by-choice, Sarah Aronson didn’t hesitate at all in reminding me that she had been telling me that for some time! Once I took a nap and thought about it some more, I knew most certainly it was the right choice.

MUF: One of the things children’s books do—and you do well—is to tell the truth, with room for hope. Was it hard to write your last chapter, “We will have a colorless society one day”?

TS: I don’t think I would characterize it as hard, and my research in that area didn’t surprise me, but it was certainly sobering. Of course, that is balanced by many of the forward steps our culture has taken. There is certainly room for great improvement.

MUF: You’re an award-winning writer of children’s nonfiction books. I know that takes a lot of research and firsthand interviews with amazing people. Tell us: Have you ever jumped out of a plane?

TS: Ha! I almost did—in college—but I chickened out! I will never forget what it felt like to climb to the Drop Zone and look out the door of that plane, though!

2 Responses to Courage and Civil Rights: An Interview with Tanya Lee Stone

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  2. I look forward to reading this book. I delved into Mercedes and the Chocolate Pilot with my 4th grade students this year… Possibly, they could learn from this amazing story, too. I will obviously read it first for age appropriateness….. Thanks!