SELECTIONS FROM CHRISTOPHER PAUL CURTIS’ LIBRARY
Bud, Not Buddy, Delacorte, 1999.
The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, Delacorte, 1995.
Bucking the Sarge, Wendy Lamb Books, Fall 2004.
Christopher Paul Curtis says he writes because writing is fun. In fact, fun is the source of his inspiration. When he’s working on a new book, Curtis often cries and laughs out loud. Prior to writing for children, Curtis had several dull jobs, among them hanging doors on an auto assembly line in Flint, Michigan, unloading trucks in a warehouse, and maintaining an apartment complex. Every day he writes he’s grateful. “When kids ask, ‘If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing?’ there’s no mystery. I’d still be unloading trucks in a warehouse. I know a real job can’t come anywhere near writing.”
Curtis kept journals and experimented with original fiction for several years. But he says the fiction was all bad. His wife, Kay, encouraged him to take a year off from work to devote himself to his writing. Curtis’s favorite hang-out is the public library because he likes the distraction of the daily bustle and can easily block it out.
The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 (Delacorte, 1995), Curtis’s first book, will always have a special place in his heart because through it he discovered what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. While writing, Curtis remembered himself as a ten year old in 1963—the trouble he got into, school, his friends. Originally, he planned to have his main character, Byron, and his family drive to Florida, but when Curtis got everybody to Florida nothing happened. After Curtis’s son, Steven brought home a poem called “The Ballad of Birmingham” by Dudley Randall, about the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, Curtis realized the Watsons were bound for Birmingham.
After Curtis won the Coretta Scott King Honor and the Newbery Honor for The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, he returned to his public library to write Bud, Not Buddy(Delacorte, 1999). “I made a conscious effort to mentally get back to where I was withThe Watsons.” Back to a time before he worried about editors’ reactions, parents’ reactions, or even his readers’ reactions. He wanted to create a new story and have fun doing it.
One of the reasons Curtis loves to write is the way ideas build on each other to become stories. He takes bits of conversations, characteristics from family members or strangers he sees on the street, and situations from history books and lets the ideas tumble. In Bud, Not Buddy Curtis draws on events of the 1930’s which he carefully researched. He recalls being particularly interested in the slang of the ‘30’s and getting a feel for the rhythm of the language. But he also draws on his own family. His daughter, Cydney, wrote the “Mommy Says No” song on page 124 when she was five. Lefty Lewis is based on Curtis’s maternal grandfather, Earl “Lefty” Lewis who was a railroad porter and a minor league pitcher in the Negro Baseball Leagues. Herman E. Calloway is based on Curtis’s paternal grandfather, Herman E. Curtis. A classically trained violinist, Herman Curtis also played bass fiddle, accordion, and piano and directed several bands. One of them was really called Herman E. Curtis and the Dusky Devastators of the Depression, like the band in Bud, Not Buddy.
When Curtis writes, he feels like he’s having a conversation with his main character. The more clearly he can hear his character’s voice in his head, the easier the story flows. When he finishes a book, he feels like he’s lost a friend he won’t be talking to anymore. Byron in The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 and Sparky from Curtis’s upcoming book Bucking the Sarge (Wendy Lamb Books, 2004) are his favorite characters because they are struggling to find themselves. Their actions are unpredictable and even Curtis doesn’t know what they are going to do next until they tell him.
Curtis lives in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. Although his stories have young protagonists, he never consciously decided to write for children. Rather, he writes stories that matter to him as they fit into the context of his life. When Curtis reflects on his early attempts at fiction, he understands now that he needed to take the time and do a lot of living before he could be successful.
Perhaps one young reader best summarizes the grace and feeling we’ve come to expect from Curtis: “I was real inspired by your book [Bud, Not Buddy] especially at the end. My mom has a very rare disease and I worry very often about her dying and it helped me realise [sic] I don’t need things of hers to remember her. I always carry her in my hart [sic].