Christopher Paul Curtis, author and Flint native, wins lifetime achievement award

By Canisha Bell

In late January, acclaimed novelist and Flint native Christopher Paul Curtis received the 2024 Coretta Scott King – Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement. 

The award is presented every even-numbered year to an African American author, illustrator, or author/illustrator who has made a significant contribution with their published books for children or young adults. 

Curtis has authored eight novels, and is perhaps best known for childhood staples like “The Watsons go to Birmingham – 1963” and “Bud, Not Buddy,” though he has also penned magazine and newspaper articles as well as introductions to several prominent books over his decades-long writing career.

In an interview with East Village Magazine (EVM) following his lifetime achievement win, Curtis, who grew up on Flint’s southside, shared his reflections on his life and literary accomplishments thus far.

“The person who most influenced my writing is my mother,” the two-time Parents’ Choice Award winner said. “She gave me the best review I’ll ever have of anything I’ve written.”

Curtis described a time he brought home an article he’d been working on at school for his mom to read.

“She said the most encouraging thing: ‘I wish you hadn’t brought this home. They’ll think an adult wrote it,’” he said. “My parents were always so proud.”

Curtis is the second oldest of five children, his parents both trailblazers in their own right. His father, Dr. Herman Elmer Curtis, was a chiropodist by trade and the first Black production foreman at the Fisher Body Plant. His mother, Leslie Jane Curtis, was one of the first African Americans to be a member of the board of directors at the Flint Institute of Arts.

(Photo courtesy Jeffrey Beall via Wikimedia Commons)

Though Curtis’ stories have since made him a widely taught author in elementary and middle schools, he was quick to share praise with the teachers he’d learned from in Flint.

“There is no other occupation that has as much of an influence on people’s life than teachers,” Curtis said. “I’ve always been a huge fan of teachers.” 

He recalled Ms. Henry, his third-grade teacher at Clark Elementary, and said she “…made me feel special, like I could do anything…she just had that special teacher magic.” And Ms. Harris, his eleventh-grade teacher at Flint Southwestern High School, was the first teacher who encouraged his writing. 

“Whenever I’d write something she’d be very enthusiastic about it and very encouraging,” he remembered.

After high school, Curtis spent 13 years working on the assembly line of Flint’s Fisher Body Plant No. 1. It was there he began writing on his breaks, finding that it made the time go by more quickly.

Eventually, he took time off from the factory to pursue writing in earnest.

“I’d go to the library every day and sit in the same spot, and I’d write for three or four hours,” Curtis explained. “I did that for about a year, and I had a manuscript called ‘The Watsons Go To Florida.’” 

But, when his son brought home Dudley Randall‘s poem “The Ballad of Birmingham,” Curtis said he realized that Birmingham would be a more meaningful destination for the Watsons and changed his story accordingly.

“The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963” was published in 1995 and soon named to the American Library Association’s list of Best Books for Young Adults. It won the Newbery Honor Book Award and the Coretta Scott King Honor Book Award alongside more than twenty-five other awards and honors. 

It also sold over 300,000 copies and was translated into 11 different languages, according to a 2002 Melus Journal article by Peter E. Morgan. Morgan also notes the novel’s movie rights were eventually bought by Whoopi Goldberg, and it has also been adapted for television and stage.

“You want to let the history lesson in on it. You want the story to be funny, you want it to be relatable, and you want it to mean something.”

Following the success of “The Watsons,” Curtis said he was inundated with queries on how he would repeat it.

“I’d go places to speak and people would say, ‘What are you going to do to top that?’” he told EVM. “And I said to myself: that’s a fool’s journey to try to top it. I’m just going to go back to the same place I was when I was writing [“The Watsons”] —physically, emotionally, mentally—and just do the same thing.” 

Curtis did, and he ended up writing another now-classic: “Bud, Not Buddy.”

Published in 1999, “Bud, Not Buddy” won both the Newbery Medal and the Coretta Scott King Award, among others. Like in “The Watsons,” the story centers around another 10-year-old boy, Bud Caldwell, a Flint kid who runs away from his foster home amid the Great Depression in search of his biological father. 

Curtis has said he based the story on his grandfather who, throughout the 1930s, traveled around Michigan with a band called “Herman Curtis and the Dusky Devastators of The Depression.” 

While perhaps best understood as a children’s author, Curtis said that role was not his early aim. Of writing “The Watsons Go To Birmingham,” he said, “I thought of it as a story narrated by a 10-year-old boy. I didn’t think of it as a child’s book or an adult book.”

Curtis added that people tend to think writing for young people is somehow “easier” than doing so for adults, but he disagrees.

“It’s actually harder because you want it to be realistic, [and] you’re limited to the kind of things a young person can say,” he explained. “I’ve read books narrated by a 15-year-old but have the heart and mind of a 60-year-old person, and, you know, that’s not realistic…you don’t want people to stop and say, ‘Wait a minute, no kid would say that.’”

Curtis also let EVM in on a bit of his process for achieving a childlike perspective while weaving in historical understanding.

“One thing they say to authors is ‘know your audience,’ but I write to myself. I write the kinds of things that I’d like to read as a kid,” he said. “Before I grab ahold of who the characters are, I write just in the voice of Christopher Curtis, adult author, and as I catch the voice of the main character I go back and readjust and put the lines in their mouths and learn from that character and go from there.”

Curtis said he enjoys writing historical fiction because it provides a sense of reality and allows him to explore important stories that haven’t been told or widely taught to young readers. 

“You want to let the history lesson in on it. You want the story to be funny, you want it to be relatable, and you want it to mean something,” he said. “You want young people to come away with questions about what really happened during the Civil Rights Movement, or during The Great Depression, or whatever it is that you’re writing about.”

As for what’s next, Curtis said he plans to take on a piece of Flint’s history: the demolition of the city’s minority neighborhoods to make way for Interstate-475.

“What I’m working on now is a story about urban renewal, and it takes place in Flint,” he said. “The neighborhood that I lived in was torn out to make the expressway, so it deals with that. Lo and behold it’s always the Black neighborhood that gets ripped out.”

This article also appeared in the March 2024 print issue of East Village Magazine.

Author: East Village Magazine

A Non-profit, Community News Magazine Since 1976

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