Christopher Paul Curtis: “Humor Is a Survival Tactic.”

The guy hanging car doors at the GM plant in Flint, Michigan, for 13 years was taking home a decent wage, but he wanted much more out of life than that. There was another side to Christopher Paul Curtis—a creative side. On his job breaks, he kept a journal and wrote stories. The first of those, he said, were “just plain bad,”* but he got better. A lot better. His second wife encouraged him to keep writing, so he quit the job at the plant, moved the family just a little way to Canada, took other jobs that were less mind-numbing, as well as courses in creative writing. Ten years later, his first book, The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963, won the Newbery Honor, the Golden Kite Award, and the Coretta Scott King Award.  

The Watsons Go to Birmingham -- 1963As with many of the best novels, it was based somewhat on his own experiences. Christopher Paul Curtis, like Kenny, the 10-year-old hero in The Watsons, grew up in a strong family during hard times in Michigan. Although he had not experienced much in the way of racism himself, Birmingham, Alabama, in the year 1963 was ground zero for the Civil Rights Movement. The Watsons stresses humor, love, and the importance of family relationships in the midst of a very troubled time. Kenny is the brainiac who is sometimes beaten up at school for his nerdy ways, although he is occasionally defended by his older brother Byron—who has started down a dangerous path of his own. Baby sister Joetta (“Joey”) is a sweet handful of annoying perfection. Both parents are tough but fair.

Before they ever hit the road on a too-close-for-comfort, cross-country car trip, readers get to know this loving, feuding family well. There is a lot of joking around between them. “Humor is a survival tactic,” Curtis wrote. It’s something they will need when they find themselves affected by an infamous Civil Rights tragedy.

A gift for telling stories, humorous and otherwise, runs in Christopher Paul Curtis’ family.  Both his grandfathers had the knack and both had very interesting lives. One was a big band leader (Herman E. Curtis, Sr., of "Herman Curtis and the Dusky Devastators of the Depression") and the other, Earl “Lefty” Lewis, was a red cap (railroad porter) and a pitcher in the Negro Leagues baseball.  Their grandson took bits of their lives and personalities and wove them into a Newbery Medal-winning book, Bud, Not Buddy, about a young boy living in the 1930s who escapes from his latest abusive foster home to go look for his long, lost, maybe father.  About the abuse—hard things sometimes happen to people living through hard times, and the author doesn’t skirt that. And yet in each story he includes counters to the hurt: loving adults; stubborn, intelligent kids; and ultimately hope for a better way of doing things.

Fast Facts:

Born: May 10, 1953, in Flint, Michigan

Parents: Herman and Leslie Curtis

Occupations: Fisher Body Plant, Flint, MI, assembly line worker, 1972-85; assistant to Senator Don Reigle, Lansing, MI; Automatic Data Processing, Allen Park, MI; children’s writer

Family: first wife, Jessie Gurd Guest; with second wife, Kaysandra Sookram, children Steven and Cydney; with third wife Habon Aden, daughters Ayaan Leslie and Ebyaan Hothan.

Awards (selected): Newbery Honor, the Golden Kite Award, and the Coretta Scott King Award for The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963 and the Newbery Award for his novel Bud, Not Buddy (1999); Newbery Honor for Elijah of Buxton which also won the Coretta Scott King Award, the Scott O’Dell Award and the Canadian Children's Literature Award; Bucking the Sarge, received the Golden Kite Award and was named the ALA Best Book for Young Adults (2005).

Latest book: The Mighty Miss Malone (2012) which is a companion to Bud, Not Buddy

Education: University of Michigan-Flint, B.A., 1996.

Home: Detroit, Michigan

Facebook connection: https://www.facebook.com/christopher.paulcurtis

Fun Facts:

His parents bought the family copies of The World Book Encyclopedia and The Childcraft Encyclopedia, which included poetry and stories, to use at home.**  

He was bullied some as a kid for his reading habits until sixth grade when he got his growth spurt and a new nickname: “Sasquatch.”**

The Watsons were originally supposed to travel to Florida on a family vacation, but the story didn’t really go anywhere. Then Curtis’ son brought home a poem by Dudley Randall called “The Ballad of Birmingham,” and that changed everything.*

His straight-out humorous books include: Mr. Chickee's Funny Money and Mr. Chickee's Messy Mission.

Books and Databases for more research from the CRRL:

Bud, Not BuddyThese biographies may be reserved and checked out from the library:

Born to Write: The Remarkable Lives of Six Famous Authors**

Dear Author: Letters of Hope: Top Young Adult Authors Respond to Kids’ Toughest Questions

Funny Business: Conversations with Writers of Comedy*

Use your CRRL card to access these articles from our Research collection:

From Biography in Context

"Christopher Paul Curtis." Authors and Artists for Young Adults. Vol. 37. Detroit: Gale, 2001. Biography In Context. Web. 8 Apr. 2013.

"Christopher Paul Curtis." Contemporary Black Biography. Vol. 26. Detroit: Gale, 2000. Biography In Context. Web. 8 Apr. 2013.

Morgan, Peter E. "History for our children: an interview with Christopher Paul Curtis, a contemporary voice in African American Young Adult fiction." MELUS 27.2 (2002): 197+. Biography In Context. Web. 8 Apr. 2013.

From Books and Authors

"Christopher Paul Curtis." 2008. Books & Authors. Gale. Gale Internal User 8 Apr

From Literature Resource Center

Curtis, Christopher Paul, Cyndi Giorgis, and Nancy J. Johnson. "2000 Newbery Medal Winner: A Conversation with Christopher Paul Curtis." Reading Teacher 54.4 (2000): 424-428. Rpt. in Children's Literature Review. Ed. Jelena Krstovic. Vol. 172. Detroit: Gale, 2012. Literature Resource Center. Web. 8 Apr. 2013.

Curtis, Christopher Paul, and Dean Schneider. "Talking with Christopher Paul Curtis." Book Links 18.2 (Nov. 2008): 14-16. Rpt. in Children's Literature Review. Ed. Jelena Krstovic. Vol. 172. Detroit: Gale, 2012. Literature Resource Center. Web. 8 Apr. 2013.

Web Sites:

An Interview with Author Christopher Paul Curtis
http://www.bookbrowse.com/author_interviews/full/index.cfm/author_number/493/christopher-paul-curtis
In a warm, funny, informative interview, the author talks about why and how he writes.

Nobody but Curtis: Christopher Paul Curtis
http://www.nobodybutcurtis.com/
The author’s own site has a short biography, interviews, short writings, as well as teacher and student supplements.