Issue 111

On The Cover: Danny Thomas from Precision Jewellers 50th Anniversary Celebration - Photo by Trevor Booth. Tuxedo provided by Monty Formal Wear, 519-258-3522.

Issue 10 - No Mamma, it’s Bud, Not Buddy

He has been to the White House three times and met with presidents Bush and Clinton.

He has been nominated as Goodwill Ambassador to Kenya.

His work has been translated into 11 international languages and he has appeared in People magazine.

Honoured by numerous awards, including the prestigious Newbery Medal (established in 1922, this is the oldest and most distinguished award given in recog-nition of children's books), and the Coretta Scott King Award (presented annually in recognition of distinguished books by authors of African descent), he has reached the pinnacle as one of the world's outstanding writers of children's literature. Not bad for a former autoworker currently living in Windsor.

Christopher Paul Curtis was born and raised in Flint Michigan.

He was the second of five children to parents Herman and Leslie.

Talent and inspiration ran deep through his family. His grandfather, Herman E. Curtis, was a jazz musician in a 1930s band called The Dusky Devestators of the Depression. His maternal grandfather, Earl "Lefty" Lewis, was a ball player in the Negro Baseball League. (Real life characters, Curtis ficti-tiously interjects into one of his stories.)

Curtis grew up in a family with strong traditional values which emphasized the importance of education and spirituality. He has always liked to read and write but when he was a young boy, school offered little in encouraging creative writing and there was not much to read that he could relate to. He liked "Mad" magazine.

Curtis would read news magazines his parents would buy, like Time and Newsweek. Picking out stories of interest, his awareness of the world and current events developed along with his satirical sense of humour.

In 1971 after graduating high school, before heading off to the University of Michigan in the fall, he took a summer job with a company that was also born in Flint - General Motors Company.

That summer job lasted thirteen years.

All the while, Curtis hated the grind of the assembly line but the money was good and the job was reasonably secure.

He fought off the monotony of production work with imagination and memories and using any time off the line, to write in his journals. Writing became a daily habit. It was an escape from the doldrums of factory life and Curtis eagerly looked forward to the time he could spend developing characters and stories. So much so, that working with his partner, they devised a method of working together to generate more time off the line. This gave them each an extra thirty minutes, time Curtis would spend writing.

He continually sets objectives and he is committed to accomplishing each goal.

His methodical approach to writing in many ways mirrored his approach to work-ing on a production line. Writing is like an assembly line of words and the production of thought. His job is to tell a story by building a book.

Looking back, he says these times served as an apprenticeship towards his writing career, and in a way, he was paying another kind of 'union dues'.

During this time he also enrolled in part time classes at the University of Michigan's Flint campus and steadily worked towards his Bachelors of Arts, determined to one day break the grasp of his factory job.

That grasp was considerably loosened when Curtis met Kaysandra Sookram during a basketball game in Hamilton, Ontario. Curtis played in a church league which had sponsored a trip to play in Hamilton, Flint's 'sister city.'

Kay was a nursing student from Trinidad living in Canada and from the time they first met, love began to blossom.

Curtis courted and charmed Kay through letters about himself and his life. Kay was impressed with his writing, she thought he was talented and good enough to become a writer.

She was also of course impressed with Curtis, as was he with her and soon, they were married. In 1993, Kay was working as a intensive-care nurse and helping to raise the couple's two children, Steven and Cydney. Still, she could see how unhappy Curti s was i n what he was doing, she knew he wanted more than a factory job and convinced him to pursue a writing career. She offered to continue to work and support the family while he took a year off to write.

This was the opportunity that ultimately changed their lives.

Curtis took that year and finished his first novel, "The Watson's Go To Birmingham - 1963".

Not sure what " literary category" his novel fit into, Curtis sub-mitted his story to a first novel contest sponsored by Delacorte Press in January, 1994.

After a review of the manuscript, he was told it did not meet the contest criteria, but the publisher loved it. Not only was it published, but Curtis was given a contract for three more novels. "The Watson's..." won him the Newbery and Coretta Scott King Honour Book Awards and it was listed among New York Times best 100 books of the year for 1996. Whoopi Goldberg, who has since become a friend of the Curtis family, has bought the rights to turn the novel into a motion picture.

Certainly the literary world had taken notice of Christopher Paul Curtis and with his next book, "Bud, Not Buddy", the acco-lades were coming even before it was published. Curtis did not disappoint his fans. Critically acclaimed "Bud not Buddy" won him the 2000 Newbery Medal and the 2000 Coretta Scott King Awards - the top prize in children's literature.

It did not take long for an undisclosed company in California to quickly buy the movie rights.

Coming to Windsor was a compromise between Hamilton and Flint. Kay wanted to stay in Canada while Curtis wanted to be closer to home. So they settled in a comfortable home on the "Drive" and continued to work.

Curtis spends his mornings working on his next two books, "Bucking the Sarge" and "Mr. Chickee's Funny Money" (the latter has been recently completed) at the Ouellette Avenue Branch of the Windsor Public Library or at the Leddy Library on the campus of the University of Windsor. He writes his notes in longhand. At night his son, Stephen, transcribes these notes on to the computer. He gets up at 5:30 each morning to edit his work of the previ-ous day. This early morning schedule and regimented routine harkens from his days at the Fisher Body Plant, keeping to a strin-gent work ethic is one of the keys to his success.

His growing recognition has created a demand of his time by schools and a variety of social and literary organizations. To balance the increase travel and speaking engagements across North America, with time for work, Kaysandra has since left the nursing profession and is working full time as Curtis' agent and manager.

Meeting with the public is something Curtis does not mind at all. He enjoys visiting with kids and giving readings at libraries and schools and, oh yes, the White House.

He welcomes the opportunity to share his success and talk about issues that kids can relate to because in many ways, Curtis has held on to that happy and sometimes silly spirit of a child, so it is easy for him to relate to kids.

A yearly trip to Africa, usually in June, is a priority for Curtis. It is the time he takes to "reconnect" with his roots and soothe his soul. More importantly, he is there to help. His gifts and donations to people and schools in impoverished areas and his inspiration and encour agement to the young, is as rewarding to him as it is for those he affects. His strong com-mitment to the people of Kenya and other African countries has led to a ground swell sup-port for his nomination as Canada's Goodwill Ambassador.

This past summer Curtis was honoured by his home, the city of Windsor. Receiving the 2001 award for Literature in the annual Mayor's Award for the Literary Arts.

Besides his many appearances, he has helped out with local organizations such as The Transition to Betterness, where, at a recent fundraising auction he offered an unusual item up for bid. The highest bidder would be the name of one of the characters in a Christopher Paul Curtis novel. The winning bid was over $1,500.

Another honour coming his way is a reflection of the continuing support and recognition Curtis and his family have brought to the City of Windsor's public libraries. By 2002 a newly renovated children's section of the Ouellette Avenue library will be dedicated and named after Kaysandra and Christopher Paul Curtis.

Writing children's novels was not what Curtis initially set out to do. In fact, he says he does not write for any 'intended audience' but he does have stories to tell. Stories that are a reflection of life seen through a child's eyes. Stories about ordinary people and families facing those day to day experiences we all grew up with. You don't have to be a kid to enjoy his work, any of us can relate to his characters. And he touches upon issues of race and morals in such a way that it is heartwarming and yet sometimes, subtly poignant. In "Bud not Buddy," for example, Curtis draws a distinction that at once gives the reader an insight into the depth of not only the story's character but the character of the author as well, "Buddy is a dog's name or a name that somebody's going to use on you if they are being false-friendly, whereas a bud is a flower-to-be ...a little fist of love waiting to unfold and be seen by the world."

Christopher Paul Curtis is much like the fictional character "Bud." Although he welcomes the recognition for his work, personally he wants to be recognized for who he really is - he is not just a former auto worker; an African American; a children's novelist - he is all those things and much, much more.

"No Mamma, it's Bud, not Buddy."

file icon pdf Download the PDF (Part 1)

file icon pdf Download the PDF (Part 2)


More Articles...

Page 96 of 97