When I was asked to write an essay for the 25th Anniversary Edition of “The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963,” I jumped at the chance. I had met Christoper Paul Curtis in 2014 in Las Vegas at the Newbery Awards presented by the American Library Association. Here is my essay, which is included in the anniversary edition that has just been released:
In my videotaped acceptance of the 2014 Newbery Honor at the American Library Association ceremonies, I remarked how The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis gave me confidence that my first novel, Paperboy, would find an audience.
When I taped my short message weeks ahead of the ceremonies, I had no idea Chris would be in the audience and that I would have a chance to meet him. The warmth of his writing came to life in his smile and gentle countenance. A fan of his books, I quickly became a fan of the writer and the man.
I went on to comment in my pre-taped message that Chris seemed to follow the three guidelines that I mandated of myself in writing a book for young people:
- Don’t write JUST for young people. Write a book for everyone that young people will be able to read and enjoy.
- Write a book that has never been written.
- Write a book that has a reason to exist.
In my view, Curtis excelled at all three of my self-ascribed mantras.
What, you ask, could the 10-year-old Kenny Watson of frigid Flint, Michigan, have in common with an 11-year-old paperboy growing up in a privileged home in the summer heat of Memphis? In truth, they share the most common bond of all. They are brothers of bias: Kenny with his lazy eye and the color of his skin; the Paperboy with his life-defining stutter.
The Watsons Go to Birminghamwas Curtis’s first novel. I don’t know how old Chris was when he wrote it, but I was 60 when I began writing Paperboy, my first. Now, more than a decade later, I’m declaring I have earned the right to add a fourth and urgent mantra to my guidelines.
4. Write to understand.
I see now that I wrote to understand how a debilitating speech impediment can shape a young person’s world. Chris wrote to understand a murderous and senseless bombing in Birmingham.
Can either be understood? I’m not sure, but I know our society is doomed if we stop trying.