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Teaching Multicultural Literature: A Workshop for the Middle Grades

Historical and Cultural Context: Christopher Paul Curtis Authors and Literary Works

Christopher Paul Curtis: Biography & Work

Biography

Christopher Paul Curtis was born in Flint, Michigan, in 1953, and spent the 13 years after he graduated from high school working on an assembly line at an automobile plant. During his days on the line, Curtis developed a love of reading. “Both my parents were active readers, but with me it didn’t come until I doubled-up in the factory, which means that I worked for half an hour and had half an hour to do whatever I wanted to do,” he says. “I’d fall into certain authors and read everything that they’d written, and I became addicted to reading that way.” Curtis also began keeping a journal while working at the factory. He enrolled at the University of Michigan and began to write more seriously.

In 1993 Curtis’s wife Kay agreed to support the family for a year so that he could write the book that became The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963. Originally it was entitled The Watsons Go to Florida, but Curtis says that “once I got the family in Florida, nothing happened. So I set it aside for a while, until my son brought home a poem by Dudley Randall called ‘Ballad of Birmingham,’ about the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. As soon as I heard it, I said, ‘Ah! The Watsons want to go to Birmingham!’ and I wrote the rest of the story.”

Curtis has won numerous awards for his two young adult novels. Bud, Not Buddy has won both the Newbery Medal and the Coretta Scott King Medal, while The Watsons Go to Birmingham has won the Newbery Honor and the Coretta Scott King Honor. Curtis visits schools regularly to talk to students and encourage them to read and to write. “One of the most valuable things that you can get out of reading is that you can actually get a tutorial from a writer,” Curtis says. “I think it’s really valuable that students do a lot of reading because they’ll see a lot of different styles. They’ll see some that they really don’t like or that aren’t accessible to them. But then they’ll find something that really grabs them and they can use that as a template for the way that they want to write.”

Curtis intends that his fiction present history not as a lecture, but as an inviting way for children to make a connection with the past through sympathizing with characters like 10-year-old Kenny. Both The Watsons and Bud, Not Buddy are richly detailed windows into time periods that students today might feel are in the distant past. Curtis hopes his books can make readers see these historical events as an important part of who we are today.

Because there are still so few black authors writing for this age group, Curtis is particularly proud to write young adult books about African Americans. He remembers that, as a child, “I read a lot of things, but I didn’t read books because there weren’t books by, for, or about me. I was a good reader, but no books made me think, ‘This really touches me. I understand this.'” But he hopes all kinds of young people, not just African Americans, find something in his books that touches them. And when readers tell him that his books present themes, characters, and conflicts that are universal, Curtis hears it as one of the highest compliments he could be given: “I hear from people — Asian or white — and they say, ‘Were you in my closet? That’s just like my family.’ That makes me feel really good when I hear something like that.”

 

Work

The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963

In a voice that is by turns comic and then tragic, Kenny, the 10-year-old African American narrator of The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963, tells the story of what happens to his family as they travel from their home in Flint, Michigan to Birmingham, Alabama. It is 1963, and the “weird Watsons” (as the neighbors call them) have had no experience with Southern racism and the Jim Crow laws — yet they unwittingly find themselves involved in one of the most horrific events in the history of the civil rights movement.

Kenny’s older brother Byron is constantly in trouble. He freezes his lips to the car mirror in the winter, lights things on fire, straightens his hair, and fights incessantly with Kenny. When his parents decide Byron needs to live with his famously strict grandmother in Birmingham for a while, the whole family — the parents, Kenny, Byron, and their younger sister Joetta — set out in their “Brown Bomber” to drive to Birmingham. Accompanied by the strains of “Yakety-Yak” played relentlessly on their father’s “Ultra-Glide” record player, the children innocently enjoy the trip with no inkling of how different race relations in the South are from what they have experienced in their hometown of Flint.

When they arrive in Birmingham, Joetta goes to church one Sunday — the fateful Sunday on which four little girls are killed in a bombing by racists opposed to desegregation. For a terrifying time, Kenny, searching the church, believes his sister has died. Even after she is found safe and the family returns to Flint, Kenny is not himself. It is not until his brother Byron finds him and asks him why he’s acting so strangely that Kenny finally breaks down and talks about what he saw. He asks his brother, “Why would they do that, Byron? Why would they hurt some little kids like that?” When his brother wisely tells him, “I think they just let hate eat them up and turn them into monsters… There ain’t nothing wrong with being sad or scared about that,” we know that Kenny will be fine.

Curtis says that the question he is asked most often about his book involves the “magic realism” of the scene in the church where Kenny sees the imaginary “Wool Pooh” from earlier in the story rather than the bodies of the little girls. It was a very hard scene to write, Curtis acknowledges, because he didn’t want to be too graphic. But in understanding his characters, he realized that Kenny’s mind might protect him from seeing things he couldn’t handle. “Your mind is wonderful,” Curtis says. “It won’t let you actually see what you think you’ve seen. Instead of seeing these little girls, Kenny saw the Wool Pooh, which just became a representation of death to him.”

Curtis says that he is asked regularly what the highlight of publishing this, his first novel, has been, and says that he doesn’t have to think at all before answering. It was the night of the reception for his book at the Flint Public Library, when his third-grade teacher, Ms. Suzanne Henry, came and surprised him. Says Curtis, “I’m thrilled that this book can be used in the classroom, as teachers have always been such an important and powerful part of my life.”

Talking with Christopher Paul Curtis

Talk about the historical context of The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963.

One of the things that I think makes The Watsons Go to Birmingham accessible is the fact that it’s not really a story about the civil rights movement. It’s also not a story about the ’60s, even though those are both aspects of it. Actually, it’s a story about family life. And what happens is that readers become attached to the family. They begin to feel as if they’re a part of the family. And then when the family moves into the South and we go into the bombing, hopefully they feel some attachment and have sympathy for the person who had to wonder, “Was my child in that church when it was bombed?”

I tried to look at it through the eyes of a 10-year-old boy. I looked at it the way he would see it and at the things that he would relate to in the bombing. Hopefully what happens is maybe the readers then have some interest in learning the historical aspects of what happened, and can use it as a springboard to get into history. And then once they start to talk about it with the teacher or react or get questions from the teacher, they’re not so much reciting facts. When I talk to kids about The Watsons Go to Birmingham, I really get the impression that they feel they knew these people and went through the story with them.

I think it’s really important that young people today have a better understanding of what happened 30, 40 years ago. They’re no different from my generation or the generation before: You always think things that happened before you were born happened a thousand years before. And you don’t think that they have any kind of relationship to your life. I know a lot of times in conversations with younger kids about the civil rights movement, they very often think that Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln were contemporaries. And I think that it’s important for them to understand what was actually going on and the struggles — this is one of the things that really amazes me — the struggles that people in the Southern United States went through to actually go to school: the fights, the fact that people laid their lives on the line, the fact that they would send their children into horrible, horrible situations just for the chance to have that child educated — and not even so much to have that child educated as to make education possible for the ones to come after them.

What was it like to write the church bombing scene?

It was difficult because I didn’t want it to be really, really graphic. The scene was already horrible enough with Kenny not knowing if Joetta was in the church. As a writer, you play things out in different ways. Of course I went through one scenario where Joetta was in the church and was killed, but it made the story way too horrible — there was no way to bring the story out of that happening. So instead I had to get Joetta out of the church. That’s where I use the device of her seeing somebody who she thinks is Kenny across the street and having her run after this person. And it’s probably the second-most frequent question I get: “Who is it that Joetta saw?” I tell children that reading is an active process. Just because I wrote the book doesn’t mean I have the answers. A lot of times I don’t know exactly what happened. I know what I think happened. And what you think happened is legitimate if it makes sense. A lot of times kids will say it’s an angel that she saw. I say, “That’s fine, it was an angel.” Then they ask me what I think it was, and I say, “I think it was the spirit of love of the family that pulled her out of the church.”

How do readers respond to this part of the book?

I think there are a lot of times when they don’t know what was real and what wasn’t real. Readers feel as if they’re a part of the story, and if something is happening to you, you’re much more interested in it. It’s almost a magical experience when you see how children react to a story. When I was writing it, I had no idea that, number one, it would be read, and, number two, it would affect children in the way it does and have them asking questions about the civil rights movement. One of the things people ask is, “Were the men who planted the bomb ever caught?” Children like to have closure to things, and they want justice. It was almost 30 years before the final person was convicted of the crime. That’s a shock to them.

What other parts of the book do students ask you about?

The scene that I get the most questions about from kids is the Wool Pooh. And it’s magic realism. It’s a magical event that’s described realistically, and they have a real tough time grasping that. What has happened is that Grandma Sands has told the boys not to go near the water because they’ll get pulled down into the whirlpool. She’s got a Southern accent; she says, “wool-pooh.” And Byron, the older brother, tells Kenny, the younger brother, that she says the “Wool Pooh” is Winnie the Pooh’s evil twin brother.

Also, there is the scene where Kenny at first almost drowned and he can’t understand, so his mind has brought up this character of the Wool Pooh: Winnie the Pooh’s evil twin brother that nobody ever writes about because he’s evil. And Kenny imagines this character is pulling him down, drowning him. And then there is the scene where, once he goes to the church, he sees the bombing and the bodies of the little girls. And your mind is wonderful about something. Some of the time it will really protect you. It won’t let you actually see what you think you’ve seen. Instead of seeing these little girls, Kenny saw the Wool Pooh, which just became a representation of death to him.

What do you like to read?

Some of my favorites include Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut, Mark Twain, Ralph Ellison — absolutely my favorite is Zora Neale Hurston. And then I like an author named Jim Thompson who was kind of a crime writer back in the ’50s — he’s one of the funniest writers I’ve ever run into.

One of the most valuable things that you can get out of reading — I tell students this all the time — is that you can actually get a tutorial from a writer. I can go to the library and pick up Beloved by Toni Morrison. I can start to read it. I can read it for enjoyment and then I can go back through and try to understand what it is that she did to make me have the feelings that I did in certain parts of the book — how she moved the characters around, how she developed the plot and the pacing that she had. All those things are available to you as the reader.

I think it’s really valuable for writers — including student writers — to do a lot of reading because they’ll see a lot of different styles. They’ll see some that they don’t like and some that aren’t accessible to them, but then they’ll find something that really grabs them and they can use that kind of as a template for the way that they want to write.

Key References

Montgomery Bus Boycott
In 1955, Rosa Parks, one of many activists involved in the civil rights movement in Alabama, protested the racial segregation on public transportation by refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. For this she was arrested, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott — a planned and organized response from the African American community — began. This boycott lasted nearly a year, until the Supreme Court determined that segregation on public transportation was unconstitutional. The boycott and the resulting court decision brought national attention to the struggle of African Americans and great impetus to the fledgling civil rights movement. It also encouraged the implementation of Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent resistance tactics.

Brown v. Board of Education
In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that the principle of “separate but equal,” established in the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson case in 1896, was no longer legitimate, and that racial segregation of schools was inherently unconstitutional. While this decision did lead to the integration of schools, African Americans in the South still did not have easy access to equal education. Deeply resistant to the change, many states went so far as to shut down their public schools rather than comply with the ruling. Nevertheless, the case of Brown v. Board of Education helped legitimize the idea of desegregation and was an important aspect of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) fight for equal rights for African Americans in all sectors of public life.

The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham
On a Sunday morning in 1963, members of the Ku Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church, a gathering place for civil rights activists, and murdered four young girls. The bombing was one of the most tragic events of the movement and brought national attention to the racial and social unrest in the South. Because of the work of civil rights leaders in its aftermath, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed to protect African Americans.

March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, 1963
The March on Washington was a massive public demonstration organized in Washington, D.C. in 1963 by civil and labor leaders A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King Jr., Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins, and James Farmer. Participants in this large, nonviolent protest demanded the end of discrimination against African Americans through the protection of their civil and fundamental rights. Although many people worried about a possible backlash and opposed the demonstration, it was largely successful and peaceful. Immortalized by Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I have a dream” speech, the march led to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Author Resources

Christopher Paul Curtis

Works by the Author
Listed below are selected works by the author.

Curtis, Christopher Paul. Bucking the Sarge. New York: Wendy Lamb Books, 2004.
Fifteen-year-old Luther is involved in running his mother’s shady business dealings in Flint, Michigan, but he keeps his sense of humor. Throughout, he dreams of going to college and becoming a philosopher.

—. Bud, Not Buddy. New York: Delacorte, 1999.
In this novel, a 10-year-old boy in Depression-era Michigan sets out to find the man he believes to be his father. (2000 Newbery Award Winner, 2000 Coretta Scott King Award Winner)

—. The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963. New York: Delacorte, 1995.

Further Readings About the Author

Books

Authors and Artists for Young Adults. Vol. 37. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2000.
An entry about Curtis looks at the events, inspirations, and challenges in Curtis’s life and examines what led him to write children’s books.

Contemporary Black Biography: Profiles from the International Black Community. Vol. 26. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2000.
This collection contains an extensive biography of Curtis.

Murphy, Barbara Thrash, and Barbara Black Pollock. Black Authors and Illustrators of Books for Children and Young Adults: A Biographical Dictionary. 3rd ed. New York: Garland, 1999.
This compendium offers an in-depth biography of Curtis, as well as a complete bibliography of his works.

St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers. 2nd ed. Detroit: St. James Press, 1999.
Curtis is one of many young adult authors included in this book, which contains biographical information and a critical essay on his work.

Web Sites

Christopher Paul Curtis Web site
http://www.randomhouse.com/features/christopherpaulcurtis/
This biographical site about Curtis contains summaries of his works, links to articles, and photographs.

Periodicals

Beck, Martha Davis. “An Interview With Christopher Paul Curtis.” Riverbank Review (Winter 1999-2000):12-15.
In this interview, Curtis talks about his own life experiences and how he incorporates them into his works. He also talks at length about techniques he uses to bring his stories alive.

Forman, Lillian. “Christopher Paul Curtis.” Instructor (September 2000):59.
This guide for teachers gives suggestions on how to present Curtis’s works to students.

George, Marshal, and Melissa Comer. “Bringing The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963 to the Middle School Classroom.” ALAN Review (Winter 1999):45-47.
This article suggests ways to teach The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963 in an interdisciplinary unit.

Lamb, Wendy. “Christopher Paul Curtis.” The Horn Book (July 2000):397.
This article, written by Curtis’s editor and friend, takes an intimate look at Curtis’s life and personality, and includes a piece of his early writing that describes an important event in his life.

Morgan, Peter E. “History for Our Children: An Interview With Christopher Paul Curtis, a Contemporary Voice in African American Young Adult Fiction.” MELUS (Summer 2002):197-215.
Curtis talks about the themes in his works as well as the personal experiences that contributed to his writing in this interview.

Paul, Daniel. “Appointment With History: The Plot of The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963 Seems to Wander, but Novelist Christopher Paul Curtis Knew Exactly What He Was Doing.” Writing! (February-March 2004):20-23.
This article includes some excerpts from The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963 and suggests activities for students.

Workshops