Here's a fact that many a librarian and teacher know, but keep hush-hush: Kids do not enjoy reading books about history. Those glossy covered history books? They look nice on the shelves, but they do not circulate in the library.
A fiction writer with a historical consciousness, heaps of creativity and a sense of humor can find ways around that, though.
Author Christopher Paul Curtis has penned seven novels for children and young adults, many of which have received the most prestigious awards for children's literature. "Bud, Not Buddy," "The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963" and "Elijah of Buxton" have been graced with awards such as the Newbery Medal and the Newbery Honor, the Coretta Scott King Award, and Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction.
Mr. Curtis' fiction balances humor with some of the most intense moments of African-American history. His characters possess a unique and often hilarious vision of the world. These charming youthful voices are juxtaposed with intense historical events, such as the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., and the Great Depression. "Elijah of Buxton" takes place in a 19th-century Canadian settlement for runaway slaves and is narrated from the perspective of the first freeborn child born to American ex-slaves.
There's so much to learn about history through Mr. Curtis' fiction. Readers usually are too busy enjoying the book to realize they're also soaking up tons of history in the process.
Kids in Mr. Curtis' fiction are survivors; it's humor that saves the day. Kids (and parents) who read his fiction will laugh so hard they'll likely fall off the couch. It's when you're wiping the tears of laughter away that Mr. Curtis hits you hard with the unvarnished truth about growing up poor and black, in a foster home, or with a neglectful parent. Then, you feel like crying those other kind of tears.
Mr. Curtis appears at 2:30 p.m. Sunday at the Elsie H. Hillman Auditorium at Hill House Kaufmann Center as part of the Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures series for children, Black, White & Read All Over. His appearance will be followed by refreshments and a book signing.
His most recent novel, "The Mighty Miss Malone," is about a spunky girl whose family's poverty and misfortune during the Great Depression are compounded by racial prejudice.
Mr. Curtis began his writing career after working hanging doors on cars at a General Motors assembly plant. Eventually, he and a co-worker decided that they would help each other out. Instead of two men hanging the door onto the body of the car, as was the usual, each would do the job solo for 30 minutes, which gave the other a half hour to do as he pleased. Mr. Curtis spent the time reading and writing; it was in those 30-minute segments that he began to sketch ideas for stories and characters that would eventually be developed into published work.
If you've read Mr. Curtis's 1999 novel, "Bud, Not Buddy," then you might remember that spirited girl at the Hooverville Camp, Deza Malone. The bookish Deza narrates Curtis' newest novel.
When "The Mighty Miss Malone" opens, the Malone family is poor and struggling. Deza is a rising star who will be taken under her kind teacher's tutelage to develop her obvious literary talents. But when Deza's father goes on a weekend fishing trip to Lake Michigan, everything changes.
Readers are taken on a rip-roaring ride through Depression-era Hoovervilles, illegal rail riding, and schools that don't give black students anything above a C plus, no matter how smart they are.
Deza is a bookworm; her promising intellect is a beacon of hope for her tired parents. Still, Deza feels that much of what she's assigned to read at school is about people who are not like her. When she finally discovers African-American writers, she experiences a transformation. "You can tell you're reading a really good book when you forget all about everything else and know you'll die if you don't get to at least the end of the chapter," Mr. Curtis writes in "The Mighty Miss Malone."
I'm sure that his readers feel the exact same way about his writing.
Julie Azzam teaches literature at the University of Pittsburgh and blogs about parenting and children's literature at www.instantlyinterruptible.com