Christopher Paul Curtis Biography

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Biography

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

In 1954, Christopher Paul Curtis, son of Herman and Leslie Curtis, was born in Flint, Michigan, and like the characters in The Watsons Go to Birmingham1963, Curtis grew up there. Delaying his pursuit of a college education, he went to work on the assembly line at the Fisher Body Automobile Plant in Flint from 1972-85. Curtis also worked at Automatic Data Processing in Allen Park, Michigan, and as an assistant to Senator Don Riegle in Lansing, Michigan, before becoming a full-time author of young adult books.

He finally started college at the University of Michigan on a part-time basis, graduating in 1996. During that time, he started writing stories and won the University's Hopwood prize for a rough draft of The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963. Confident of his ability, Curtis's wife and family encouraged him to take a year off work and see what he could do with his writing. Unlike many writers who write from an office at home, Curtis wrote the entire manuscript for The Watsons Go to Birmingham1963 in longhand at a table in the children's room at his local library. His son, Steven, typed his handwritten notes into the computer each evening. By the end of 1993, Curtis had completed his story and entered it in a national writing contest where it caught the attention of Delacorte editors. They enjoyed his story and wanted to publish it. The success of The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, Curtis's first book, helped him establish a career as a full-time writer.

Biography

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Award-winning author Christopher Paul Curtis, the second of five children, was born to Herman and Leslie Curtis in the blue collar, automobile-manufacturing town of Flint, Michigan. After graduating from high school, Curtis was accepted at the University of Michigan-Flint, but chose to join his father on the assembly line at the local Fisher Body Plant. What was to be a summer job extended, by his own account, into thirteen long and unhappy years.

To relieve the monotony of the assembly line, Curtis and his partner arranged to give each other periodic, half-hour breaks from hanging fifty to eighty-pound doors on new Buicks. Curtis spent his time off journal writing. Many of these creative efforts resulted in critiques of co-workers, or letters to Kaysandra Sookram, his Trinidad-born wife-to-be, whom he met at a basketball game in Hamilton, Ontario. Kay, a nursing student, encouraged Curtis's creativity. After leaving Fisher, he enrolled in classes at the University of Michigan, working his way through in other equally unrewarding jobs.

Kay soon became Kaysandra Sookram Curtis and the couple had two children, Stephen and Cydney. In 1983, Kay, determined that her husband should have a chance to realize his dream of becoming a writer, offered to support the family for a year and give Curtis that essential element in a writer's life, time. Day after day, for a year, Curtis sat at a table in the children's room of his local public library writing longhand drafts of The Watson's Go to Birmingham—1963. In the evening Stephen typed the drafts into their home computer and served as a first reader. Kay's faith in her husband paid off. In 1995, The Watson's was published to critical acclaim and won the Coretta Scott King Award for African- American Writers for Children. With this achievement, Curtis became a full-time writer.

In an interview with Dave Weich of Powells.com, Curtis says that though he did not deliberately set out to write for a young adult audience, he had a story to tell and it was best told through a child's eyes.

I really don't think about writing to kids. I know you're supposed to think of your audience, but when I wrote The Watson's Go to Birmingham—1963, I didn't really write it as a children's book. I thought of it as a story, and the narrator happened to be ten years old. It ended up as a children's book because I didn't know where to send it—most publishers won't accept unsolicited manuscripts—so I sent it to a literature contest at Delacourt Press just to have a professional editor read it. It didn't win the contest because the narrator, Kenny, was too young for the contest and 1963, the year the story takes place, is considered 'Historical Fiction,' but they published it anyway. When I wrote Bud, Not Buddy I just had a story to tell and wanted to tell it. I didn't think of it as a children's book per se. There are things in Bud, Not Buddy that kids won't get, but that doesn't detract from the story. Some things adults won't think are funny, kids will think are hilarious. I don't think that takes away from your enjoyment.

Nevertheless, Curtis believes that his stories fill a void in African-American literature for young adults. Walter Dean Myers is the only other African-American man writing for this age group, Curtis says, and he thinks this is one reason his stories are so well received. On the other hand, Curtis combines the pathos of family life, a sense of humor, convincing plot, historical settings and incidents, and an interpretation of the dark side of life that give each of his stories a special freshness all their own.

Bud, Not Buddy, Curtis's Newbery Prizewinning second book, placed him solidly in the ranks of writers for children. It was the first book by an African-American writer to win this prestigious award since Mildred Taylor's Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, which took the prize in 1977.

Curtis prefers to work on multiple writing projects simultaneously, so that if one grows "stale," he has another project to turn to. When not writing in the library or playing basketball at the YMCA, Christopher Paul Curtis lives with his wife and daughter in Windsor, Ontario. His son, Stephen, resides in Virginia, where he serves in the U.S. Navy.