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Teaching Multicultural Literature : A Workshop for the Middle Grades
Workshop 1 Workshop 2 Workshop 3 Workshop 4 Workshop 5 Workshop 6 Workshop 7 Workshop 8
Workshop 5: Historical and Cultural Context
Authors and Literary Works
Christopher Paul Curtis
Key References
Video Summary
Teaching Strategies
Student Work
Interactive Workbook -- Explore two poems using strategies from these workshops. Go.
Channel-Talk -- Share your views on the discussion board. Go.

Authors and Literary Works

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."

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