Curtis, Christopher Paul

▪ 2001

      In 2000 author Christopher Paul Curtis was still basking in the limelight after having received the highest form of recognition of his profession, and he did it after publishing only his second book. The 46-year-old author of young people's literature won the 1999 Newbery Medal, awarded by the American Library Association (ALA) to the author of the outstanding children's book published in the U.S., for Bud, Not Buddy. Curtis also was the winner of the Coretta Scott King Award, the ALA's prize for outstanding contribution by an African American writer. The honours were special milestones on a long journey for Curtis, a late starter who had always loved to write but did not become an author until he received some prodding from his wife and a little help from his children.

      Curtis was born in Flint, Mich., on May 10, 1954. His father, a chiropodist, was eventually forced to take a job in an auto assembly plant for a better salary. After high school Curtis followed his father into the auto plant, earning money to pay for his part-time enrollment at the University of Michigan's Flint campus. Curtis married Kaysandra Sookram, a nurse from Trinidad, who, recalling the letters she received during their courtship, was convinced that he could be a writer. She encouraged him in 1993 to take a year off to concentrate on writing while she supported the family. Curtis spent his days at a children's library writing and editing in longhand. In the evenings his son, Steven, would type the manuscript into a computer. It was during that year that Curtis wrote his first book, The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963. An early draft of the book won a Jules Hopwood Prize from the University of Michigan. Published by Delacorte Press in 1995, the book merited a Newbery Honor Award in 1996.

      The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 is the story of an African American family from Flint that travels to the South during the days of the civil rights movement. Told from the perspective of a 10-year-old boy, the book starts out as a comic adventure but turns darker and more tragic as the family is exposed to, and changed by, the ugliness of racial tensions in Birmingham, Ala. Bud, Not Buddy is also narrated by a 10-year-old boy, a motherless boy in search of his unknown father. Curtis did not intend to write specifically for children, but he felt that his stories were best told from a child's perspective. The characters' experiences were often coloured by events from Curtis's own life, and the tales were told in a fresh, original voice that appealed to young readers. The Newbery Medal made Curtis's work even more popular, as was evidenced by the ascent of Bud, Not Buddy in sales. Although the book ranked well over 5,000 on the sales chart of a popular on-line bookseller before the award was announced, the following day it jumped to the top 10.

Anthony G. Craine

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Universalium. 2010.

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