“One day I’m going to write a book and make a lot of money.”
Those prophetic words came out of the mouth of a young Christopher Paul Curtis, but it was over thirty years later before he debuted his award-winning novel The Watsons Go to Birmingham -1963. And, yes, he has made a lot of money. As a child Curtis was an excellent reader, but there weren’t many books that reflected the lives of young Black children growing up in the 1950s and 60s; so, he mostly read comics and other magazines.
Curtis was born in Flint, Michigan, and like many other Flint residents, began working for General Motors after high school. It was there, at Flint’s Fisher Body Plant No. 1, that Curtis began writing stories during his breaks from attaching 80 pound doors to Buicks. Although the pay and perks of the job were wonderful, Curtis described the work as “unpleasant” and physically and psychologically demanding: “I hated being in the factory, and writing was an escape. As long as I was writing, I was in a different world. So I knew then that writing was something very special for me.” After 13 years at the plant, Curtis quit. He credited his wife for being supportive of his writing and allowing him to walk away from the plant. Curtis admits that his first stories were “terrible,” but he didn’t give up. His persistence led to the publication of his 1995 debut novel, The Watsons Go to Birmingham. He was 41 years-old. The book received Newbery and Coretta Scott King Honor Awards as well as numerous other awards.
His sophomore book, Bud, Not Buddy, did even better; it won the 2000 Newbery Medal and Coretta Scott King Author Award. Curtis was the first Black American man to win the Newbery Medal. He says that “writing fiction is something that takes a lot of time, a lot of living. You can write beautifully, but if you don’t have anything to say, you’re just spinning your wheels. So I think that it just took me 40 years of living to reach the point where I could tell a good story.”
Despite sincere efforts on many fronts to make the publishing world more inclusive and a better reflection of our world, there is a dearth of novels for, by, or about anyone other than the white mainstream. But that’s not something that is exclusive to publishing; it’s the great Gordian knot of American history.