This post is part four of our four-part series on this year’s finalists for the annual Children’s History Book Prize. Join us here on our History Detectives blog over the next few weeks as we interview the authors to learn more about their amazing books. Read all four finalists, then help us choose the prizewinner by voting for your favorite! Our online polls are open now, and the winning author will receive a $10,000 prize.
This week we are chatting with author Christopher Paul Curtis about The Journey of Little Charlie. In this gripping tale, 12-year-old Charlie Bobo finds himself on a disturbing road trip with the menacing Cap’n Buck, a trip that takes him far, far away from home and forces him to search his conscience about what is right and what is wrong.
DiMenna Children’s History Museum (DCHM): The Journey of Little Charlie is a deeply engrossing read. Readers are swiftly brought into the mind of Little Charlie and are right there with him when he makes devastating discoveries and searches his conscious to decide for himself what is right and what is wrong. As an author for middle grade readers, why do you think it’s important to not shy away from writing about difficult history or for your characters to grapple with moral dilemmas?
Christopher Paul Curtis: I think it all boils down to the fact that when I write, I usually violate one of the “essential” rules of being an author: I never have my audience in mind, and instead I write to myself. I think back to the times when, as a young reader, I’d be in the middle of a story or a novel, and I’d reach a point where I could almost hear the author say, “Hmm, I’m not sure this would be appropriate for X, Y, or Z. Maybe instead I can pull back a bit and put it this way.” When I was younger, that was inevitably the moment when the author would lose me.
I divide my writing into a creative side and an editorial side. During the creative side, which is in the early morning, I let the story go where it wants to. I’ve learned to never reign it in. If the novel takes place in 1864, and the protagonist hops out of their wagon and jumps into a Tesla, oh well. I’ve discovered that even though the overpriced electric car will never make it into the final story, there must be some reason it popped up. It’s a lead I’ll follow for a while, and it may help me learn something about a character or a situation.
It’s the same thing with shying away from describing difficult situations. I write as if an adult were going to read it. As best I can, I initially write in my own truthful, older voice. I, of course, know during the editorial portion of my writing, there are certain things that I’ll have to find a way to phrase differently, but it is crucial that the spirit of what I first describe stays. I think this is where the skill in being a writer for young people comes into play. It’s tricky, but it can, and—for the sake of keeping the story genuine—must be done. The best young readers have great radar for being spoken down to. I want to avoid triggering any of their alarms.
DCHM: In your author’s note, you mention that your initial intention was to write this story in alternating chapters in order to share the perspectives of both Little Charlie Bobo (who is white) and Sylvanus Demarest (who is black). What advice would you give to aspiring young writers about trusting their instincts and maybe straying from their initial story outlines?
CPC: Once again, I’m guilty of violating the essential rules. I have never outlined my novels. There is a danger in this, but also the possibility of real joy. When you are hitting on all cylinders and have a very deep and intimate knowledge of your characters, there’s a great feeling when you, as the author, are overruled by one of the people in your book, usually the protagonist, who tells you, “Uh, ‘fraid not. This is how it really went down,” and the story goes off in a direction you hadn’t imagined.
I’ve seen the look of horror those words strike in English teachers whenever I say that to their students, so I feel compelled to add this whole no-outlining bit is something you should attempt only after you’ve been writing for many years. It’s like doing a high-speed maneuver in a car: Don’t try it until you’ve had some time behind the wheel. Otherwise your story will lose focus and wander. This will lead to a ticked-off teacher who will have to read your writing. Not a wise move. Outline now. Trust your instincts, too.
DCHM: What kind of research did you do for this novel? Were there primary sources that inspired you?
CPC: Since this was the third novel of a trilogy relating to Buxton, Ontario, I was already loaded with information about the times. Most of my research is an attempt to catch the language of the characters: Language changes rapidly and reflects the mind-set of those characters and their times. I’ll read the books and papers my characters would have read and, if I’m writing about relatively recent events, I’ll listen to contemporaneous recordings of both speech and music. For The Journey of Little Charlie, I had all of these in place so the research was short and ready to go.
DCHM: Why should young people read historical fiction?
CPC: The reason that immediately comes to mind is insight. Good historical fiction is able to provide the reader with a different perspective on an event we may have historical knowledge of, but when we see how a character is affected by the event, the focus is sharpened. There’s something about imagining ourselves facing the same problems as a character in a book that makes the experience more enjoyable and indelible.
Another often overlooked, more personal, reason I feel young people should read historical fiction is because Christopher Curtis has three young children and no matter how much he feeds them, in four or five hours they’re always back for more. Every single day.
DCHM: What three words would you use to describe The Journey of Little Charlie?
CPC: Bliss to write.