BHM ‘21: Christopher Paul Curtis

To kick off my first Black History Month post, I’m excited this week to honor Christopher Paul Curtis, an author whose stories showed me at a young age that I wanted to be a storyteller. Curtis was born in Flint, Michigan on May 10, 1953. His writing career began after graduating high school and beginning work at Fisher Body Plant No. 1, a general motor assembly factory based in Flint. In a Scholastic interview from 2011, Curtis recalls hating this job and spending his breaks writing. In these moments, writing became a refuge for him.

After realizing how much writing impacted his life, Curtis and his wife worked out an agreement that would allow him take time off from work and spend days in the public library, writing. Using tools like The Writer’s Market (an important resource still used by many writers today), Curtis decided to enter his first book into two contests. Unfortunately, he didn’t win either contest—however, working out completely in his favor, Random House was still interested in publishing it. In 1995, Curtis’ first children’s novel, The Watson’s Go to Birmingham – 1963, entered the world. In 2013, this novel was adapted into a film, starring notable actors like Anika Noni Rose, Wood Harris, and Skai Jackson.

Of the books I’ve read by Curtis, my absolute favorite is undisputedly his 1999 novel Bud, Not Buddy. This novel was remarkable for me for several reasons, but mainly because in reading Bud, Not Buddy, I began to understand the way words held the ability to move and teach. In just elementary school, this children’s novel took me on a journey through race relations, music of the early twentieth century, and a quest for one’s family during the Great Depression. Coolest of all was that the main character looked like me, and he had people around him who talked like my family did. I felt represented and seen. In his Scholastic interview, Curtis noted that when he writes, he always tries to catch the language and reflect how the characters spoke in the story’s given time period.

Curtis has a host of other books, like Elijah of Buxton and The Mighty Miss Malone. In every book, he showcases brilliant, Black youth and draws in incomparable historical contexts—a primary goal of my own writing. Of his most notable works, he’s several times received the Newbery Award, the Coretta Scott King Award, and the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction.

As I continue forward in my writing career, Curtis is an author I’ll always look to for skill and inspiration, but also as a reminder of why I wanted to be a writer and storyteller. Being able to work with children has allowed me to find some of my favorite books by Curtis in classrooms, and I hope that one day I am able to teach from them.

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