Bud, Not Buddy is the story of a ten-year-old African American boy named Bud Caldwell and his quest to find his father during the Great Depression. The novel begins in Flint, Michigan, at “the Home,” where Bud and other orphaned children wait to be placed into foster care. This will be Bud’s third foster family. His mother has died, and he believes that a flier she kept for a jazz band featuring a bass player named Herman E. Calloway is a clue to finding the father he never knew. He keeps the flier in his suitcase along with his other prized possessions. Apart from this flier, the most important thing Bud has is his mental list of life lessons, which he calls Bud Caldwell’s Rules and Things for Having a Funner Life and Making a Better Liar Out of Yourself.
Bud is unsurprised when Todd, the older boy at his new home, beats him up. Todd’s mother, Mrs. Amos, blames Bud for the fight and threatens to send him back to the Home, which sounds just fine to Bud. Mr. Amos then locks Bud in the family’s shed. In the middle of the night, Bud believes he sees a vampire bat Todd warned him about hanging from the ceiling. He takes a swing at it with a rake, but the bat turns out to be a hornets’ nest. After being stung multiple times, Bud escapes through the window. Then he sneaks back into the house, retrieves his suitcase, and enacts his revenge on Todd by pouring warm water on the older boy’s pajama pants, causing Todd to wet the bed. Todd had previously told Bud that his mother hates bed-wetters.
Now “on the lam,” Bud decides to seek help from Miss Hill, a librarian. He spends the rest of the night under a tree outside the library. Before sleeping, he takes stock of the items in his suitcase: the flier, a blanket, a collection of rocks, and a picture of his mother. Bud remembers his mother telling him that his name is not Buddy but Bud, like a flower waiting to open, and that when one door closes, another opens. There were many other things Bud’s mother told him she would explain to him one day, but now that she is gone, Bud supposes he will never have all the answers to his questions.
The next morning, Bud arrives late to the mission where free breakfast is served, but a couple beckon him over to join their family, pretending Bud is their son. They all eat breakfast together before Bud heads back to the library. When he gets there, however, the librarian on duty tells Bud that Miss Hill has married and moved to Chicago. Bud is deeply disappointed. Resolved not to return to the overcrowded Home, he returns to the tree to sleep.
Bud is awakened by the arrival of his friend Bugs, who has run away from the Home to “ride the rails,” or hitch rides on train cars. Bud agrees to come with him. When they ask at the mission about catching a train, the boys are directed to a nearby town called Hooverville, which they find by following the railroad tracks. Hooverville turns out to be one of many makeshift camps all across the country—and all named after President Hoover—where people stop to rest before hopping the next train. Bud and Bugs are welcomed and given food by a large group of people around a fire. Afterward, as the boys wash dishes in the river, Bud meets a girl named Deza Malone with whom he shares his first kiss. Deza tells Bud he is too young and innocent to ride the rails, and Bud himself has some doubts about the plan. In the morning, the train starts to leave early. Police try to prevent people from boarding, and the boys have to run. Bugs boards the train, but Bud is unable to catch up after pausing to retrieve his flier when it flies off his suitcase. More police then arrive to destroy Hooverville.
Bud returns to Flint, where he eats breakfast at the mission before returning to his tree. When the library opens, he borrows an atlas and calculates that it will take him a day and a night to walk to Grand Rapids, where he believes Herman E. Calloway lives. Bud is convinced that the jazz musician is his father....
(The entire section is 2,251 words.)