History for Our Children: An Interview with Christopher Paul Curtis, a Contemporary Voice in African American Young Adult Fiction

Article excerpt

Christopher Paul Curtis's first book The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963 (Delacorte 1995) took the world of Young Adult fiction by storm. Named to the American Library Association's list of Best Books for Young Adults, The Watsons swept more than twenty-five major awards and honors, including the prestigious Newberry Honor Book Award and the Coretta Scott King Honor Book Award for African American Writers. His second novel Bud, Not Buddy (Delacorte 1999) seems set to follow the same path. Having also won the Newberry Medal and the Coretta Scott King Award, it continues to receive widespread critical and popular acclaim.

Peter E. Morgan: Christopher, your second book, Bud, Not Buddy, has achieved considerable success since its publication. Like The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963, it has won almost every award a young adult book can win, and it has been widely reviewed not only by The Horn Book Magazine and professional publications that one would expect but also in the mainstream adult media like U.S. News and World Report. What does it mean to you to receive this kind of recognition?

Christopher Paul Curtis: It's absolutely wonderful, and it's wonderful for a lot of reasons. It's wonderful to get recognition. It's a sort of validation, too, because people figure that if a book wins the Newberry or Coretta Scott King honors, then it's a good book. Writing is such a solitary pursuit--you do it by yourself, and you sometimes think in the back of your mind, Maybe I'm crazy. Sometimes I think, This is a really good story, and other times I read what I have written and think, Oh my God, how could I send this out to anybody? So, you're battling back and forth. And then, when you get recognition like that, it really validates your work. It's a really good feeling. It's great.

PEM: It must be good for sales, too. Do you have any idea how many copies of The Watsons have been sold?

CPC: Actually, The Watsons has sold over three hundred thousand copies--one-eighty in hardback and one-twenty in paperback. It's been translated into eleven different languages now. The real surprise for me was that the last language of the eleven was Spanish--I would have thought Spanish would have been one of the first.

PEM: Do you get international fan mail?

CPC: No. I've never gotten a letter from overseas. Most of my letters come from America. It's funny, too, that in Canada, where I live, the book has sold no more than about a thousand copies. It does much better in Germany than in Canada--more than twenty-five hundred copies so far. The translation was up for an award in Germany, the equivalent of the Newberry, and I think that helped it a lot.

PEM: Are most of your letters from young readers?

CPC: Yes. Young readers and teachers.

PEM: How do you respond to them?

CPC: You know, at first you are so grateful that somebody is writing to you, that you write long letters back, but after a while there are just so many letters. You want to respond to every single one of them, but, you know, it's impossible. Once I got a letter from a girl who put her picture in with it, and I thought, Oh, that's so sweet, so I wrote back a long letter, and I sent a picture of my family. Well, two days later, letters and pictures from her whole class arrived--for some reason, hers had just arrived first. I couldn't write to every single one of them and send them all pictures, so, I wrote a letter to the teacher and asked her to share that letter with all the other kids.

PEM: The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963 was the book which allowed you to say good-bye forever to your job as an auto worker at Body Plant No. 1 in Flint, Michigan. Would you say briefly what the story is about?

CPC: It's the story of a family in Michigan in 1963. The narrator is Kenny Watson, who is ten years old, and he's got a thirteen-year-old brother who's really hard to live with. …