Curtis, Christopher Paul 1954(?)-
CURTIS, Christopher Paul 1954(?)-
PERSONAL: Born May 10, c. 1954, in Flint, MI; son of Herman E., Jr. (an auto worker and chiropodist) and Leslie (a lecturer and homemaker) Curtis; married Kaysandra Sookram (an registered nurse); children: Steven, Cydney. Education: University of Michigan—Flint, B.A., 1996.
CAREER: Writer. General Motors, Fisher Body Plant, Flint, MI, assembly line worker, 1972-85; assistant to Senator Don Riegle, Lansing, MI; Automatic Data Processing, Allen Park, MI, warehouse clerk. Worked variously as a maintenance man, as a purchasing clerk, and as a customer service representative.
AWARDS, HONORS: Avery Hopwood Prize, University of Michigan—Flint, 1993, for major essays; Jules Hopwood Prize, University of Michigan—Flint, 1994, for an early draft of The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963; Golden Kite Award, Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), Bank Street Child Study Association Children's Book Award, Newbery Honor Book, American Library Association (ALA), Coretta Scott King Honor Book, ALA, Notable Children's Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies, National Council for the Social Studies/Children's Book Council, and Best 100 Books of 1996, New York Times, all 1996, all for The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963; Golden Kite Award honor book, SCBWI, 1999, Newbery Medal, ALA, Coretta Scott King Award, ALA, and Children's Book Award, International Reading Association, all 2000, and Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award, 2001, all for Bud, Not Buddy; Mayor's Award for Excellence in the Arts, City of Windsor (Canada), 2001. In the same year, the Flint, MI, and Windsor, Canada, Public Libraries formed a joint committee to establish the Christopher Paul Curtis International Children's Author Series.
The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 (historical fiction for children), Delacorte (New York, NY), 1995.
Bud, Not Buddy (historical fiction for children), Delacorte (New York, NY), 1999.
Contributor to newspapers and periodicals, including the Chicago Tribune, New York Times Book Review, and USA Weekend. Curtis's works have been translated into ten languages.
ADAPTATIONS: The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 was released on audio cassette by Listening Library (New York, NY), 1996, and by Bantam Books-Audio (New York, NY), 2000. Bud, Not Buddy was released on audio cassette by Listening Library (New York, NY) and Bantam Books-Audio (New York, NY), 2002, and on compact disc by Listening Library (New York, NY), 2001.
WORK IN PROGRESS: A sequel to Bud, Not Buddy, for Delacorte; Bucking the Sarge, a young adult novel about a fifteen-year-old boy in Flint, MI, whose mother is a scam artist, for Delacorte; Mr. Chickee's Funny Money, a humorous story for primary graders about a child who gets a quadrillion dollar bill as a gift; an adult novel about a sit-down strike in a Flint assembly plant, for Delacorte.
SIDELIGHTS: With only two published books to his credit, Christopher Paul Curtis has become a celebrated contemporary author of juvenile literature. He is the only writer to win the Newbery Medal and the Coretta Scott King Award, two of the most prestigious prizes in the field of children's literature, in the same year. In addition, Curtis is the first African American to win the Newbery Medal since 1977, when Mildred D. Taylor received the Newbery for her book Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Curtis received these accolades for his second novel, Bud, Not Buddy, a book set during the Great Depression that describes how Bud Caldwell, a ten-year-old black orphan from Flint, Michigan, searches for the man whom he thinks is his father. The author's first book, The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, received honor book designations from both the Newbery and Coretta Scott King Award committees. This story, which is narrated by another ten-year-old, outlines how the Watson family, African Americans who, like Bud Caldwell, live in Flint, travel to Birmingham, Alabama, during the early days of the civil rights movement. The family become witnesses to the bombing of the Sixteenth Avenue Baptist Church, a historical event in which four young girls were killed.
Curtis generally is categorized as a contributor to the genre of historical fiction. However, he uses historical events as springboards into fictional stories that blend fact with fantasy, seriousness with humor, and significant events in American history with family heritage. Curtis, who has set both of his books in his hometown of Flint, uses himself and the members of his family as the models for some of his characters. Although he addresses challenging issues such as racism, poverty, homelessness, hunger, and child abuse, Curtis balances these topics with his positive approach. The author emphases self-respect, the acceptance of life and its challenges, and the healing quality of family love, underscoring his books with hope and optimism. Curtis also is noted for using humor to offset the harshness of some of his plot elements. He includes slapstick—for example, in The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, Kenny's older brother gets his lips stuck to the frozen side-view mirror of the family car when he kisses his reflection—and humor involving snot, vomit, and backwash. As a literary stylist, Curtis is considered particularly innovative for shifting between the humorous, situation-comedy style of the first half of The Watsons and the somber, even horrifying, second half. He also is praised for the success of his characterizations, particularly of his main characters; for creating especially vivid settings; for portraying the fears of children authentically; for presenting his themes without didacticism; for writing appealing stories that blend comedy and pathos; for making his works both specific and universal; and for painlessly introducing children to history. Credited for demonstrating how history affects ordinary people, the books include author notes to young readers that encourage them to seek out family history and to investigate the past. Although Curtis has been criticized occasionally for tying up his plots too neatly, he usually is viewed as a gifted author who creates funny, moving works that reflect his understanding of children and what appeals to them. Writing in Peacework, Lani Gerson commented, "I highly recommend the historical fiction of a new writer, Christopher Paul Curtis....Told with humor and warmth, these books . . . present stories of American history from a point of view long missing in children's literature." Lillian Forman of Instructor called Curtis "a great example of a writer who can help children grapple with painful experiences that are part of modern life. His novels . . . deal responsibly and sensitively with such problems as homelessness, racism, sibling rivalry, and the inner turmoil of adolescence. And, without downplaying these problems, they celebrate the warmth and humor of life."
Curtis's personal background is an integral part of his novels. Born in Flint, Michigan, he is one of five children. Curtis has called his parents his greatest influences. The author told Martha Davis Beck of the Riverbank Review, "My parents were very demanding and very concerned that we do well, that we know right from wrong, and that we take care of business." In an interview with Michael H. Hodges of the Detroit News, Curtis said, "My mother always makes me say this . . . 'I come from a very secure, loving family.'" Until Curtis was born, his father was a chiropodist. However, since many of his patients—men and women from their Flint neighborhood—could not afford to pay him, Herman Curtis had difficulty supporting his family. He gave up his practice to work in Flint's Fisher Body Plant No. 1, a car-making factory owned by General Motors, because the job provided a higher income. Herman Curtis, Jr., later became the president of the Midwest Association of Housing Cooperatives, a position that required him to travel and to lecture; he also was a representative for the United Auto Workers (UAW). The author's mother, Leslie Curtis, was educated at Michigan State University; after her children were grown, she became a lecturer on black history in the Flint public schools.
Both of Curtis's parents were very involved in the civil rights movement. As a boy, Curtis remembers marching in demonstrations that were sponsored by the local chapter of the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In these demonstrations, volunteers picketed businesses that took money from African Americans as customers but refused to hire them as employees. The Curtises also went to many family reunions where Christopher heard stories about both his paternal and maternal grandfathers. His paternal grandfather, Herman E. Curtis, Sr., was one of the first African Americans in the state of Illinois to earn a pilot's license. A student of classical violin at the Indiana Conservatory of Music, he played with two jazz bands and ran a trucking business. Leslie Curtis's father, Earl "Lefty" Lewis, was a left-handed pitcher in the Negro Baseball League. He also worked as a redcap, or porter, in the Pullman cars on the railroad and became a union organizer. Later, Curtis would characterize both of his grandfathers in Bud, Not Buddy. In fact, the name of the band that Herman E. Calloway leads, the Dusky Devastators of the Depression!!!!!!, comes from a real band that was formed by Herman E. Curtis, Sr.
Both of Curtis's parents were voracious readers. In her biography Christopher Paul Curtis, Ann G. Gaines quoted the author as saying, "Between my parents, they must have read thousands, tens of thousands of books." Curtis, too, was a good reader; his favorite books in middle school were the adult novels To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and The Bridges of Toko-Ri by James A. Michener. However, Curtis was not as enamored with books as his parents. Instead, he read newspapers, comic books, and magazines such as Time, Newsweek, National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, and Mad. In "Author Chats: Christopher Paul Curtis," sponsored by the New York Public Library, Curtis recalled, "I read a lot, but books didn't really touch me, probably because there weren't a lot of books for or about young black children." Despite the lack of literature that spoke to him, Curtis wanted to be a writer from an early age. He recalled, "I must have been ten or eleven years old—I said to my brothers and sisters, 'One day, I'm going to write a book.' and they laughed at me." Curtis was an active, sometimes mischievous, boy; in fact, he used some of his own experiences, such as his fascination with fire, in his characterization of Byron Watson. In eighth grade, when Curtis ran for vice-president of his student council, he decided to sing a song instead of making a speech. Curtis not only won the election, but he received a standing ovation from his classmates.
After graduating from high school, Curtis was accepted as a student at the University of Michigan—Flint. In order to help him earn money for college, Herman Curtis got his son a summer job at Fisher Body, the plant where he worked. Leslie Curtis tried to dissuade her son from taking the well-paying job because she was afraid it might hinder him from continuing with his education; she was right. Curtis went to college for a year, then dropped out to work full-time at the auto factory. Subsequently, he took one or two college classes per term at night. Curtis worked on the assembly line for thirteen years. Although he found the work repetitive and boring, he liked the people. Curtis enjoyed listening to stories told by his fellow workers who had migrated to Flint from the South. Usually, they would talk fondly about their old homes; however, they also would tell Curtis about their experiences with racism.
Curtis experimented with fiction but, as he told a writer for Essence, "It was bad." In 1974, Curtis discovered Toni Morrison's adult novel Sula. After reading it, he stated, "I knew then that I wanted to write." In 1978, Curtis and some friends went to a basketball game in Hamilton, Canada. At the game, he met Kaysandra Sookram, a nursing student who had moved to Canada from Trinidad. Kaysandra, her husband recalled later, was cheering for the wrong team. Since he lived too far away from Kaysandra to date her on a regular basis, Curtis wrote letters to her constantly. After reading them, Kaysandra told Curtis that he should be a writer. The couple married and had two children, Steven and Cydney; Steven keyed his father's handwritten manuscript for The Watsons into the computer every night, and Cydney contributed a song lyric to Bud, Not Buddy.
At Fisher Body, Curtis hung doors on cars as they passed down the assembly line. In order to vary their routines, Curtis and a coworker decided to work for half an hour at a time instead of working two or three minutes and then switching off. Curtis decided to use his free time to begin writing in a journal, a practice that helped him to relieve the tedium of the factory. One day, Curtis left work and prepared to cross the street to go to his car. He found himself unable to move. While people passed him by, Curtis stood and thought about what he was losing by staying at the factory—his hopes, his dreams, his talents. Finally, a friend helped him across the street. Curtis left Fisher Body in 1985; in 1993, he won the Avery Hopwood Prize, a writing award, at the University of Michigan—Flint, for an essay that he wrote about his factory experience. After leaving General Motors, Curtis worked as the assistant to Senator Don Riegle of Lansing, Michigan, and managed his campaign in Flint and Saginaw. Curtis also worked for a data processing company and as a clerk and a maintenance man.
In the early 1990s, Curtis and his family took a trip to Florida to see his wife's relatives. On the way, he began to germinate an idea about a family from Flint taking a similar trip. He wrote a story called "The Watsons Go to Florida," and submitted it to a writing contest at the University of Michigan—Flint, where it won the Jules Hopwood Prize. In 1993, Kaysandra Curtis suggested that her husband take a leave of absence from his job for a year so that he could turn his story into a book; as a nurse, her salary was generous enough to support their family. Curtis agreed, and set to work on his book, which originally was going to be strictly humorous. However, when his son Steven came home from school with a poem about the Alabama church bombing in 1963, Dudley Randall's "The Ballad of Birmingham," Curtis changed the setting, focus, and tone of his story. Curtis submitted The Watsons to a writing contest sponsored by Delacorte, a book publisher in New York City that offered a prize for a first novel for young adults. Although Curtis's book did not win the prize—it was decided that the book was historical fiction, not YA literature, and that ten-year-old Kenny was too young a main character to interest the prospective audience—it was accepted for publication by Delacorte, and the fledgling author was on his way.
In The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, Kenny Watson, a bright, sensitive boy whom the author modeled on himself and his brother David, narrates the story of how his quirky but close-knit family travels from the blue-collar town of Flint, Michigan, to Birmingham, Alabama. In addition to Kenny, the family includes thirteen-year-old Byron, five-year-old Joetta, and their parents. The Watsons travel to Birmingham on a vacation to visit Mrs. Watson's mother, Grandma Sands, a small but feisty woman who, the family hopes, can shake some sense into Byron, who has become a budding juvenile delinquent. Curtis devotes much of the first half of the novel to Byron's escapades, such as straightening his hair and flushing flaming paper parachutes down the toilet. On their way to Birmingham, the children become aware of prejudice that they had not experienced in their segregated neighborhood in Flint. Once in Birmingham, Byron, who is awed by his grandmother, begins to act more appropriately. In order to keep Kenny away from a dangerous swimming hole, Byron fabricates a character, the Wool Pooh (Winnie-the-Pooh's evil twin) to scare him. However, Kenny disobeys and almost drowns, seeing himself pulled under by the Wool Pooh before being saved by Byron.
At the time of the Watsons' visit, the city of Birmingham was in a volatile state. Many of its citizens were upset by the forced integration of black children into white schools. This frustration was expressed most violently by the racially-motivated bombing of the Sixteenth Avenue Baptist Church. Curtis brings the Watsons face-to-face with this event by placing little Joetta at Sunday School during the bombing of the church. When Kenny goes to the site, he finds one of Joetta's shoes in the rubble and assumes that she has been killed. Once again, the Wool Pooh, which reviewers have defined as a coping mechanism, is present in his thoughts. After he returns home, Kenny finds that Joetta had left the church before the bombing and is unharmed. After he and the rest of the family return to Flint, Kenny falls into a deep depression over the violence that he has witnessed. He begins to hide behind the sofa which, according to family legend, has healing powers for the Watsons' pets. Finally, Byron draws Kenny out and helps him to confront his feelings of fear and anger. Byron tells Kenny that even though life can be unfair, he has to keep on going. Finally, Byron convinces Kenny that, no matter what else happens, he has a family on whom he can count.
Writing in St. James Guide to Children's Writers, Gwen A. Tarbox stated, "By telling his tale through the eyes of Kenny Watson,. . . Curtis illustrates the way that momentous social events and political movements can impact the lives of even the youngest children. Moreover,. . . Curtis provides a detailed and poignant description of the inner life of an African-American family, but he uses a humorous style that is unique and geared to appeal to young adults as well as to children." Tarbox concluded by calling The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 "an insightful and compelling first novel." Most importantly, Curtis treats his subjects with respect, but also reaffirms the value of humor and love in the face of tragedy. Martha V. Parravano of Horn Book noted, "Curtis' control of his material is superb as he unconventionally shifts tone and mood, as he depicts the changing relationship between the two brothers, and as he incorporates a factual event into his fictional story.... Curtis has created a wholly original novel." Writing in Teacher Librarian, Teri Lesnesne commented, "We all have special books in our lives, books which have moved us to laughter or tears, books with characters so memorable we expect to meet them on the streets of our neighborhoods, books which leave a permanent mark on our lives as readers. That was certainly my experience when I read The Watsons."
After completing his book about the Watsons, Curtis and his family moved to Windsor, Canada, so that Kaysandra could be closer to her relatives. Kaysandra became a nurse in an intensive-care unit at a Windsor hospital, and Christopher began to work on a second book. Initially, he planned to write about the sit-down strike that occurred at the Fisher Body Plant in 1936; however, as he prepared this work, the stories that he heard about his grandfathers began to assert themselves. The result was Bud, Not Buddy. As in Curtis's first novel, Bud, Not Buddy features a ten-year-old boy from Flint as its main character and narrator. However, in contrast to the stable family life enjoyed by Kenny Watson, Bud Caldwell—a self-proclaimed master liar whose bravado masks his need for affection—never knew his father and lost his mother when he was six. Before her death, Bud's mother left him clues to the identity of his father: flyers of Herman E. Calloway and his jazz band, the Dusky Devastators of the Depression!!!!!! Shunted between an orphanage and a series of foster homes, Bud decides to leave his latest foster parents, who have shut him up in a shed with hornets, and hit the road. Spending the night in Hooverville, a shanty town out-side of Flint named for U.S. President Herbert Hoover, who was in office during the Great Depression, Bud learns that prejudice and hardship happen to everyone, despite their color. Bud runs into his friend Bugs, a fellow orphan who has left the Home, as the orphanage is called. The two plan to go to Chicago by hopping a train. However, Pinkerton guards and the police raid Hooverville, destroying it. In the melee, Bud misses the train. He decides to walk by night to Grand Rapids, Michigan, a town that is 120 miles from Flint. Bud is picked up by a kindly union man, Lefty Lewis, who takes him to Grand Rapids. When Bud finds Herman E. Calloway, the bandleader is much older than the boy expected. Calloway denies that he is Bud's father and shuns him. However, Calloway's band mates make Bud feel welcome, even giving him a saxophone to learn to play. Finally, after Calloway is proven to be Bud's grandfather, the older man accepts his grandson, and Bud finds a new home with the band.
Bud, Not Buddy often is considered a fresh reworking of the "plucky orphan" genre of stories by authors such as Charles Dickens and Horatio Alger. Writing in Canadian Materials, Mary Thomas said, "This is historical fiction, but of history not too far removed from our own time. In some ways, this makes it more difficult to get inside Bud's skin, but the effort is worth it. We rejoice when he finally finds some folks of his own, discovers jazz, and appears to be on the verge of getting a life. Some books widen horizons; this one stretches them out to Prairie dimensions." Michael Cart of Booklist noted that the novel "will attract and delight countless readers with its genial good humor and generosity of spirit....Curtisturnshisnovel into a celebration of the human capacity for simple goodness." Writing in Horn Book, Roger Sutton called Bud, Not Buddy a story "as classic as it is immediate," while Daria Donnelly of Commonweal concluded that Buddy "seems an utterly authentic boy" and that Curtis "has created a perfectly rendered character rather than a sociological fact."
After the critical and popular success of Bud, Not Buddy, a book that received best-seller status, Curtis was able to write full-time; he also completed his bachelor of arts degree in political science from the University of Michigan—Flint. Curtis is a regular speaker on his life and works at schools and libraries. In an essay on his Web site, Curtis revealed his inspiration for writing: "I believe that young people are often blessed with the best ears for detecting what rings true or what feels right in a particular piece of writing. To me, the highest accolade comes when a young reader tells me, 'I really liked your book.' The young seem to be able to say 'really' with a clarity, a faith, and an honesty that we as adults have long forgotten. That is why I write."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 37, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2000.
Contemporary Black Biography: Profiles from the International Black Community, Volume 26, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2000.
Gaines, Ann G., Christopher Paul Curtis, Mitchell Lane Publishers (Bear, DE), 2001.
St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers, 2nd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Thrash Murphy, Barbara, Black Authors and Illustrators of Books for Children and Young Adults: A Biographical Dictionary, 3rd edition, Garland (New York, NY), 1999.
ALAN Review, spring, 1996, Jeanne Marcum Gerlach, review of The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963.
Booklist, February 15, 2000, Michael Cart, "On the Road with Bud (Not Buddy)," p. 1094.
Canadian Materials, February 4, 2000, Mary Thomas, review of Bud, Not Buddy.
Commonweal, April 7, 2000, Daria Donnelly, "Hey! Harry Potter Has Cousins!," p. 23.
Detroit News, February 4, 2000, Michael H. Hodges, "Children's Author Is Still a Kid at Heart."
Essence, June, 2000, "First Person Singular."
Horn Book, March-April, 1996, Martha V. Parravano, review of The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, p. 195; November, 1999, Roger Sutton, review of Bud, Not Buddy, p. 737.
Instructor, September, 2000, Lillian Forman, "Christopher Paul Curtis," p. 59.
Peacework, July-August, 2000, Lani Gerson, "Beyond Harry Potter: Children's Books Too Good to Miss."
Real Change News, July 24, 2002, Andrew Block, "A Storyteller for All Ages."
Riverbank Review, winter, 1999-2000, Martha Davis Beck, "An Interview with Christopher Paul Curtis."
Teacher Librarian, March, 1999, Teri Lesnesne, "Writing the Stories Brewing inside of Us: An Interview with Christopher Paul Curtis," p. 54.
Christopher Paul Curtis Web Site,http://www.nothingbutcurtis.com/ (March 10, 2002).
Drive Online,http://www.thedriveonline.com/ (April 16, 2003).
New York Public Library,http://www2.nypl.org/home/branch/ (August 7, 2002), "Author Chats: Christopher Paul Curtis.*"