Author follows Newbery Honor with new novel for young readers
September 21, 1999
By Jamie Allen
(CNN) -- Christopher Paul Curtis used to work in a Flint, Michigan, factory for a living. That was before he penned his first book, the 1996 Newbery Honor-winning "The Watsons Go to Birmingham -- 1963."
That book is now in its 20th printing in hardcover and eighth printing in paperback. The success has allowed Curtis to quit assembly-line duty, and he works from home, getting up at 5 a.m. to work on his latest writing project. But apparently someone didn't tell his daughter what dad was doing home all day long.
"Someone asked Cydney, my daughter, 'What does your daddy do?'" Curtis, 46, says. "And she told them, 'Nothing.' I had to explain to her, 'No Cydney, I work very hard.'"
His hard work has paid off with another novel aiming for young readers. "Bud, Not Buddy," published this month by Delacorte Press Books, is the story of a 10-year-old orphan living in Depression-era Michigan.
"He has the idea on the shakiest of evidence that there is a man on the other side of the state who's his father," Curtis says. "And this book tells about his journey to find this man, and find out who he is, try to find his place in the world."
"Once you learn to read and love to read, then you can really conquer anything."
It's a heavy topic, but one that Curtis manages to transfer to young minds. His book "The Watsons" -- which was cited as a "Best Books for Young Adults" in 1996 by the American Library Association --also used a disturbing backdrop -- a dark period in civil rights history.
"It seems I'm kind of a depressing person," Curtis laughs. "Life's been rough. No really, I don't pick the stories that come to me. I'm not clever enough to decide where the story is going to go. The voice of the narrator comes to me and then the setting comes and then the time."
Curtis says the "Bud" voice came to him while he was at work on another book based in the 1930s. He attended a family reunion and someone brought up the topic of his grandfather and how he was a big band leader with his own band -- "Herman Curtis and the Dusky Devastators of the Depression."
The character of Bud blossomed with the idea that Bud's father -- whom he has never met -- might be the leader of a big band. The book took a year to write and went through another year and a half of editing, Curtis says.
"It's not autobiographical," Curtis says. "It is in the sense that anything you write in first person to some extent is autobiographical because you've got to put some of yourself into it. But most of the events in there are from imagination and research."
'A leap of faith'
Curtis says he's always been a good writer. In fact, in college at the Flint branch of University of Michigan he received prizes for essays he wrote, but he never took his writing seriously until his wife, encouraged by stories he had written, told him to take a year off to pen a book.
"It was a real leap of faith," he says now. "If we'd known the odds we probably wouldn't have taken the chance."
During that year Curtis wrote "The Watsons," published in 1995. Along with monetary success, there was the idea that Curtis was doing something that could change lives.
"Teachers will say that kids who haven't read before really enjoyed the book," Curtis says. "It can be a stepping stone to helping someone learn to love reading ... Once you learn to read and love to read, then you can really conquer anything."
In a review, "The New York Times" said "The Watsons" is "a fine first novel that is both comic and deeply moving" and "a marvelous debut, a fine novel about a solid and appealing family."
'For, by, or about African-Americans'
Curtis is obviously hoping the theme of "Bud, Not Buddy" strikes a similar chord.
"Once I started writing I tried to put myself back in the same place I was when I started with 'The Watsons,'" he says. "I'd go to the library and I'd sit and I'd write and I'd have fun. That's the same thing I did with 'Bud, Not Buddy.' I didn't look at it as the sophomore jinx, or beginner's luck with the first one. I just tried to get to the same frame of mind as the first time."
He also feels like he's filling a bookshelf -- the shelf labeled "African-American." It was relatively empty when he was a kid, and as a result he didn't read many books.
"The reason I think I wasn't a big book person is because there were no books for, by, or about African-Americans," he says. "Even today that's true. There are not a lot of books by us, about us, for us. And I hope 'Watsons' and now 'Bud, Not Buddy' can fill that niche."
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