By Bobbi Booker
Photo Credit: James Keyser 2003
Winner of both the Newberry Award and the Coretta Scott King Medal, Christopher Paul Curtis has become one of the most important voices in children’s literature today. His new book, “Mr. Chickee’s Messy Mission” (Wendy Lamb Books, $15.99) continues to delight young readers with Curtis’ uniquely humorous brand of story telling.
Born in Flint, Michigan, Curtis spent his first 13 years after high school on the assembly line of Flint’s historic Fisher Body Plant #1. Although he resides in Windsor, Canada with his wife, Kaysandra, and their two children, his heart remains in Flint, the partial setting of many of his books. “I’m a Flintstone to the bone,” Curtis enthused. “You don’t think that’s something we say with pride, but we do anyway.”
With grandfathers like Earl “Lefty” Lewis, a Negro Baseball League pitcher, and 1930s bandleader Herman E. Curtis, Sr., of Herman Curtis and the Dusky Devastators of the Depression, Curtis felt he was destined to life beyond the factory. “Oh, I hated working in that factory, but like so many people I was trapped. I had to have a new car and I had to pay the bills and I couldn’t get out. It was soul crushing. It was a really tough job physically, mentally and emotionally. I had to quit finally because I wasn’t heading for anything good working in that factory.”
During breaks at the factory, Curtis honed his writing skills enough to convince his wife to suggest that he take a year off from the factory to see if he could make it as a writer. “We had a long distance relationship and he use to write me a lot of letters,” said Kay. “I know he is funny and a good writer and I just thought it was something that he wanted to do and if I could help him in anyway, then we would see how it goes for a year.”
Throughout that year Curtis crafted his outstanding debut in children’s literature with “The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963.” His second novel, “Bud, Not Buddy,” became the first book ever to receive both the Newbery Medal and the Coretta Scott King Author Award.
“I would tell you that even though I thought he was good,” reflected Kay. “But, I didn’t think he was that good.”
Since Flint is an automobile town, once you leave the factory, you also leave behind the social fabric of the area. Curtis, however, remains true to his hometown roots and frequently visits family or catches a pickup game of basketball with friends. Although he’s lived in Canada for nearly two decades, Flint continues to influence his writing today.
“Everyplace has stories and they don’t get told a lot,” explained Curtis. “And that’s what I tell kids, nothing happened in Flint, but I just told my story about Flint. I could write a thousand stories about things that have happened in Flint. Flint is a very important part of all of my stories so far.”
=Originally Published in The Philadelphia Tribune on February 20, 2007=