Christopher Paul Curtis has the rare gift of being to effortlessly render a youngster’s reality readily accessible to readers of all ages. He did it beautifully with the multiple award-winning Bud, Not Buddy, about a motherless boy in search of his father. He does it again with The Journey of Little Charlie (Scholastic Press), looking over the shoulder of a teenager consigned to help an unscrupulous slave catcher track down return-to-bondage fugitives who are living free.
Disregard that it’s recommended for ages 9-13. This fascinating, image-rich masterwork of storytelling is for everyone, younger or older, who enjoys having your attention fixed by a captivating adventure from word one throughout.
Little Charlie Bobo’s family — dirt-poor South Carolina sharecroppers — has two kinds of luck: bad and none at all. Proof of which, his dad Big Charlie accidentally kills himself in an even more freakish occurrence than being struck by lightning.
He’s left with no choice when Cap’n Buck, a mean-spirited, thoroughly despicable, not to mention backward and boorish, has the likable, easy going lad hire on to go north and supposedly reclaim stolen property.
When the youngster realizes the property is living, breathing human beings — escaped slaves living a new life — it gives him pause but grudgingly goes along.
Curtis prefaces The Journey of Little Charlie with an advisory. “As I began writing…I thought I’d be telling the story of a young man of African descent as he was captured in Canada…but the story had other ideas.”
When a writer’s material takes things out of his or her hands and makes up its own mind about how it’ll be written, that’s a good sign of someone gifted in the craft is at work. Sure enough, The Journey of Little Charlie is finely honed. Respecting the intelligence and comprehension of young readers, instead of dumbing down to their presumed level.
Not the least in the style, a narrative spoken in Charlie’s voice. In that way, this is reminiscent of Jump at de Sun, Twin Cities author A.P. Porter’s brilliant children’s biography of Zora Neale Hurston, which was also, it happens, written in dialect. Charlie reflects at one point, “Much as a surprise as it was to me, I was starting to get teary-eyed ’cause I was jealous of a darky! I couldn’t help but think, how’s this fair?
“How’s it fair that these folk, who was right ’round my age, spent their days reading out of books and laughing and joking and whispering in each other’s ears whilst all I done in Possum Moan was have my face looking at the backside of a mule or pulling weeds and working from sunrise to sunset?”
The tale moves along smoothly at a quick pace, immersing you in the mind and emotions of the youngster as he grapples and gradually comes to grips with what’s going on.
Most revealing of his humanity is his growing capacity to see the humanity in people Cap’n Buck considers nothing more or less than material objects the recovery of which means money in his pocket. “[When] I seent how my lies and tricks had worked so good on this colored boy, the only thing I felt was puny and low. Only other time I felt near this bad was when I’d come ‘crost of the older boys, Tug Smith, as he was setting a booby trap for Petey the dimwit.”
After that he is growing up faster than he’d ever planned on, coming to a life-changing decision that once it’s made, impacts everyone around him. Unalterably. Again to Curtis’ credit, remarkably so, Charlie’s adventure doesn’t come to a close by handing young readers an ending that wraps life up in a neat package with a bow. In fact, it’s fairly stark. Just like reality, leaving the protagonist somewhat at loose ends. His journey nonetheless proves rewardingly worthwhile.
The sole flaw of The Journey of Little Charlie is a presumptive, self-congratulatory author’s note by which Curtis, for the benefit of teachers who read the book, portends to be the definitive word on how to successfully put a story together — disregard that and simply have a fine experience enjoying the well-told tale.
For more author and book info, go to www.scholastic.com/kids/author/christopher-paul-curtis.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Minneapolis, MN 55403.