From the Mouths of Babes
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GWEN IFILL: Christopher Curtis pulled off a literary two-fer this year, winning both the prestigious John Newbury Award for children’s books, and the Coretta Scott King award for excellence by an African American in writing for children. The novel that has earned him such acclaim is “Bud, not Buddy.” Set in the segregated Depression-era Midwest, the book introduces us to a ten- year-old orphan. The distinctive and instantly recognizable child’s voice tells the story of the ten-year-old’s search for a famous jazz musician whom he thinks is his father. A native of Flint, Michigan, Curtis is the first person to win both awards at once, and the first African American man ever to win the Newbury. Christopher Curtis, welcome.
CHRISTOPHER CURTIS: Thank you, Gwen.
GWEN IFILL: This book is a novel, it’s a work of fiction, but it’s drawn, in some ways, from your own experiences, isn’t it?
CHRISTOPHER CURTIS: Right. Two of the main characters are based on my grandfathers. My father’s father, Hermanique Curtis was a big bandleader back in the 1930′s and had a band called Hermanique Curtis and the Dusky Devastators of the Depression.
GWEN IFILL: Love that name.
CHRISTOPHER CURTIS: Yeah, it’s a great name. I even put six exclamation points after it in the book because I thought it was such a good name. And my mother’s father, Earl Lewis, was a pitcher in the Negro baseball league. So I was able to bring both of them into the story.
GWEN IFILL: So you managed to do all this, but the ten-year-old himself wasn’t you.
CHRISTOPHER CURTIS: No, not at all.
GWEN IFILL: Not in any way. Your life was entirely different.
CHRISTOPHER CURTIS: Yes.
GWEN IFILL: Tell us about it.
CHRISTOPHER CURTIS: The ten-year-old, I don’t really know where he came from. Originally I wanted him to write a story from my grandfather’s point of view when he was ten, but then when I started to write, this other voice came to me, the voice of bud, of a ten- year-old orphan who was in a search for his father. And my grandfather remained an old man in the story, so I really don’t know exactly where they came from.
GWEN IFILL: Did you set out to write a children’s book?
CHRISTOPHER CURTIS: No. I think that it’s important to tell a good story. I think that that would transcend age, really. And if you write a good story, everybody will read it. So I really want to tell a story, that’s my main thing. And if the children enjoy it, I think that’s great.
GWEN IFILL: But your background isn’t in writing, at least it wasn’t always in writing. What other things did you do?
CHRISTOPHER CURTIS: My background was far away from writing. I worked in a factory for 13 years in Flint, putting doors on cars, which is really where I started writing.
GWEN IFILL: An honorable profession.
CHRISTOPHER CURTIS: Yes, a very honorable profession. During the breaks I would write. And I found out that when I was writing, it made time go by very quickly for me. So I kind of served an apprenticeship of writing while I was in the factory. Then after that, I had jobs as maintenance man, campaign worker, I worked as a customer service representative, and finally worked in a warehouse.
GWEN IFILL: So you worked in all these jobs, and all the time you thought you could be a writer?
CHRISTOPHER CURTIS: I never really thought of myself as a writer or thought that I could write. I’d always been told that writing was a profession that didn’t make much money, that the average writer in the United States made $5,000 a year. So that didn’t seem too interesting to me. But my wife thought that I was a writer, and she one day said to me, “I know you hate your job, why don’t you take a year off work and see if you can write a book?”
GWEN IFILL: How did your wife know so much about your writing?
CHRISTOPHER CURTIS: Well, we had long-distance relationship and I used to write letters to her, and apparently, they were very impressive because…
GWEN IFILL: She married you.
CHRISTOPHER CURTIS: She married me and gave me the year off work. (Laughter)
GWEN IFILL: How did you pick this language? You tell the story through an interesting kind of child-speak, through the voice of a ten-year- old. And even when you’re talking about very sobering things in the book, you tell it in this kind of innocent, wide-eyed way, the way children do. They don’t over-interpret, they just state it. How did you develop that, including making up words as you went along?
CHRISTOPHER CURTIS: That’s really the most difficult part. I write and I don’t know where my story’s going to go. I don’t know who the main character’s going to be. But then a voice comes to me eventually, and I got through and write it in that person’s voice. And then afterwards… Since I write like that, I have to do a lot of editing and a lot of rewriting. So I spend a lot of time trying to corral the voice into that of a ten-year-old in changing things around. And I’m very fortunate to have the editor that I have. Wendy Lamb, is an excellent editor. So we work together on it to try to keep the ten-year-old voice real.
GWEN IFILL: You have in the book– I’m going to ask you to read a little bit about it– a section which explained how you basically settled on this title, “Bud, not Buddy.”
CHRISTOPHER CURTIS: Right.
GWEN IFILL: His mother, this young child’s mother, told him, you know, “this is your name, and don’t let anybody else call you anything.” Could you just read that section for us?
CHRISTOPHER CURTIS: Sure. “She’d tell me, ‘especially don’t ever let anyone call you “Buddy.” I may have some problems, but being stupid isn’t one of them. I would have added that d-y onto the end of your name if I’d intended for it to be there. I knew what I was doing. Buddy is a dog’s name or a name someone that’s going to use on you if they’re being false- friendly. Your name is Bud, period.’ I’d say, ‘okay, mama,’ and she’d say, every single time, ‘and do you know what a bud is?’ I always answered, ‘yes, mama,’ but it was like she didn’t hear me. She’d tell me anyway, ‘a bud is a flower to be, a flower in waiting, waiting for just the right warmth and care to open up. It’s a little fist of love waiting to unfold and be seen by the world. And that’s you.’ I’d say, ‘yes, mama.’ I know she didn’t mean anything by naming me after a flower, but it’s sure not something I wouldn’t tell anybody about.” (Laughter)
GWEN IFILL: Truly spoken like a ten-year- old boy. That leads us to one of the wonderful things you have running through the book is Bud Caldwell’s rules– his full name, Bud Caldwell– “rules and things to have a funner life and make a better liar out of yourself.” Number 83 is, “if an adult tells you not to worry and you weren’t worried before…”
CHRISTOPHER CURTIS: “You better start, because you’re running late.” (Laughter)
GWEN IFILL: Now this is a child who… To listen to something like that, you would think this child is fraught with worry, but that’s not really what you come away with in this book at all.
CHRISTOPHER CURTIS: No, and I think Bud uses the rules really, too. He has no structure to his life, and I think he’s craving structure. And so the rules kind of are what he uses to deal with the world. He’s found that when he deals with adults that it’s best not to have much… Not to spend much time with them, so he… All the rules, really, lead him to keeping away from adults.
GWEN IFILL: You have a segment in the book in which bud– not buddy– goes to the library, in which he spends a lot of time there, right after he’s run away from this orphanage, which sounds grim, but for some reason, it doesn’t come across as grim. I identified with that, because I spent a lot of time in a library growing up. You as well?
CHRISTOPHER CURTIS: Oh, yeah. That was kind of my refuge, going to the library, and it always has been. I wrote this book and my first book in the library. For some reason, the energy seems to be right in there, and it’s always been a place that I felt very comfortable.
GWEN IFILL: Now here’s another interesting thing. This is a book about a little black boy, but it’s not really about race. In fact, race seems to be mentioned only in a descriptive way, not at all as an engine that drives the book. Did you do that at purpose?
CHRISTOPHER CURTIS: Yeah, because I think that there’s a real misunderstanding of how black people see race in a lot of ways. And Bud was not… didn’t think of people in racial terms, really. He was in a pretty much segregated area, so he saw mostly black people. And it’s the story of a ten- year-old boy, it’s not the story of a ten-year-old boy and how he relates to the white world or how he relates to anybody. It’s just his story, and his way of trying to get along in the world.
GWEN IFILL: It’s also… but it’s kind of full of lots of references to African American heritage, to the Pullman porters on the train, the Negro baseball leagues, the jazz…
CHRISTOPHER CURTIS: Right.
GWEN IFILL: All of this, if I were a child reading it, I would want to know more about jazz, for instance.
CHRISTOPHER CURTIS: I hope so. I hope that when I write things that have historical context, I think that best thing that can happen with children is if they read it and then want to say, “well, what really was that all about?” And will go back and check up on the Depression and find out why there were thousands of children on the road and find out about jazz and find out about the Pullman porters. It’s a big hope, and I hope that it reaches somebody.
GWEN IFILL: These hopes are important hopes. You have two children.
CHRISTOPHER CURTIS: Yes.
GWEN IFILL: Did they inform you in any way in your ability to tell this story?
CHRISTOPHER CURTIS: My oldest son, Steven, was a great help for me in the first book. He was my best reader, and he also…
GWEN IFILL: And the title of your first book.
CHRISTOPHER CURTIS: “The Watsons go to Birmingham, 1963.” He typed it for me. If I’d have any kind of problems, I’d go to him and he’d help me with it. My daughter, Sidney, is eight years old, and her main contribution is there’s a song in the book that Sidney actually wrote, so…
GWEN IFILL: And she has the copyright for it.
CHRISTOPHER CURTIS: She has the copyright, and it says, “used by permission of author.”
GWEN IFILL: (Laughs)
CHRISTOPHER CURTIS: so she was really impressed when she saw that.
GWEN IFILL: So you won two big literary awards, kind of blown you away, I imagine. How did you react to that?
CHRISTOPHER CURTIS: It was overwhelming. It still hasn’t sunk in. I’ve been doing a lot of traveling and a lot of interviews since then, so I really haven’t had a chance to go back and just kind of sit down and let it sink in. Every once in a while, I realize… Like, I’ll see a list of Newbury winners and Coretta Scott King winners, and I’ll see my name on there, and that’s… It makes you kind of stop and say, “wow.”
GWEN IFILL: Do children ask you questions after having read your book?
CHRISTOPHER CURTIS: Lots of questions. I get the standard questions, “how old are you,” “how much money do you make.”
GWEN IFILL: (Laughs) “How much money do you make?”
CHRISTOPHER CURTIS: Oh, yeah, they always ask that. And questions about the book. Things that… They want to know things about the civil rights movement, the Watsons are set in the 1960′s and then some of the time they’ll ask questions about the Depression.
GWEN IFILL: So you feel like the kids are taking away from these books what you intend?
CHRISTOPHER CURTIS: I hope… Yeah. I do, I get that feeling, and it makes me feel very good.
GWEN IFILL: Well, Christopher Paul Curtis, thanks for sharing it with us.
CHRISTOPHER CURTIS: Thank you, Gwen.