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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

From Half-Asleep to Wide-Awake: Little Charlie’s Journey

journeyoflittlecharlieThe moment I opened this book and started reading, I knew it would be a book that divides readers’ reactions.  The southern dialect spelled as spoken could throw some readers off, even though I appreciate it quite a bit: being able to “hear” Little Charlie’s and other characters’ voices more vividly due to spellings such as “seent,” “cap’n,” “axed her,” and “rep-a-tation.”  How is this for young readers unfamiliar with dialect spelling?  And how is it for those whose accent is reflected by the authorial choice?

Curtis also writes outside of his race, penning a protagonist/first person narrator who is southern and white.  In the age of #OwnVoice, how do readers react to this reversal of writing practice?  The understanding is that those from marginalized groups are skilled at observing and assimilating into the power groups and thus are able to capture and present the specifics with accuracy.  Does Curtis portrays Charlie, Cap’n, Ma, and other white characters authentically?

And then there is the Curtis’s leisure pacing.  The first episode of Charlie’s story involving his father’s death and his being suspected of causing the death takes 40 pages is all a setup to introduce the readers to Charlie, his poor living condition, and the reason behind Cap’n Buck’s hold over Ma and Charlie.  I find the scenes truly informative — of the times and place, of Charlie’s mind, and of the situation.   I also admire Curtis’s skills in character revelations through thoughts and scenes: like the attempted bathing of Cap’n Buck:

… the cap’n’s skin was white as the belly of something dead, but what really drawed my eyes was his chest.  There was a whole set of bumps and knobs all along his ribs….’Twas easy to see he hadn’t had much practice at this washing stuff…His head rolled back on his neck and his mouth come open, making a quiet moan./’Twas easy to se he was toting a harsh burden./’Twas almost ‘nough to make you feel sorry for him./Almost.

and Little Charlie’s description of himself after they have finally captured the runaway slaves:

When we got back to our boardinghouse, I felt as dirty as if I’d been riding behind the cap’n for a month.  No ‘mount of soap was making me feel better.  I had to bite down hard on a washrag so’s the cap’n wouldn’t hear me crying.”

A turning point, this above end of chapter 10, close to half way through this tale — we suspect by then that the second half of the book would be how Little Charlie’s conscience and decency would win out over his fear and confusion.  But there is indeed the slow burn of the shift — through events, often emotionally charged, but never at a break-neck pace.

Beside the aptly presented theme of Little Charlie’s social justices awakening, Curtis’s sporadic gentle humor is another aspect of the book that I find distinguished.  It comes organically from the Little Charlie’s natural personality and innocence. Like when Charlie says to Cap’n, “‘…I’m just thinking some water might loosen up your clothes a bit.  You might be more com-fitted if they wasn’t so stiff and would bend easy in the places where most folks’ clothes bend.'”

This title is one of the five National Book Awards finalist, had the highest March-August suggestion count (along with Front Desk and Book of Boy), and received the third most nominations (after Front Desk and Book of Boy).

The Journey of Little Charle remains on the top of my award contenders list — eager to hear others’ views.

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Roxanne Hsu Feldman About Roxanne Hsu Feldman

Roxanne Hsu Feldman is the Middle School (4th to 8th grade) Librarian at the Dalton School in New York City. She served on the 2002 and 2013 Newbery Committees. Roxanne was also a member of 2008-2009 Notable Books for Children, 2015 Best Fiction for Young Adults, and the 2017 Odyssey Award Committees. In 2016 Roxanne was one of the three judges for the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards. You can reach her at at roxannefeldman@gmail.com.

Comments

  1. This is absolutely one of my frontrunners for the Newbery, and I hope it nabs the National Book Award, too.

    The greatest strength in Charlie is indeed his voice. Like Mason Buttle and Louisiana Elefante, both distinctive voices in this year’s slate of possibilities, it felt very much like Charlie was sitting next to me and telling me his story. And what a story it is. The momentum of the plot combined with the crisp historic details really sets this one apart as gripping historical fiction (ooh! I hope it wins the Scott O’Dell!). There was never a moment that I doubted the authenticity of the characters.

    Despite the shifting tides of Who Tells Whose Stories, I’ve always been in the camp that people outside a culture can write about a culture if it is done so with accuracy, clarity, and authenticity. I prefer Own Voices, but I am not alarmed or distraught by outsiders telling a tale. I’ve brought this up before (occasionally being @ed about it) and I’ll bring it up again because it’s germane: as a gay man, I’ve read books about gay men written by straight people that accurately reflect my experiences (and, of course some that were godawful and insulting). Similarly, I have read books by gay men AND women who have accurately reflected the gay experience. There have also been LGBTQ books written by LGBTQ folks that are godawful and insulting to me. But this is my experience. I don’t represent all gay voices. I represent my gay voice. So even if I think something is problematic, it’s just my interpretation of it. Other gay people may totally dig it, and I’m fine with that. I know this is a hot topic right now, but my hope is that we move beyond it as more own voices are represented in literature.

    All this is to say, Christopher Paul Curtis writing as a white boy didn’t bother me at all. Nothing felt historically inaccurate, and he didn’t try to imprint modern sensibilities into an historical fiction book, which I really, truly appreciated. This is a brutal book about a brutal topic and the writing is appropriately brutal. The unflinching style really worked for me, every gut-churning moment of it.

    The only thing that didn’t work for me was the final chapter of the book. I’ve chewed on it over and over again, but the moment of reflection that Charlie experiences felt a little bit rushed. It’s a very, very minor quibble and doesn’t negate anything that precedes it. I’d love to see CPC win his second Newbery medal, becoming the first author of color to do so. Truly deserving.

  2. Thinking out loud here…

    The only question I had regarding LITTLE CHARLIE initially, was its “excellence of presentation for a child audience.” For me, the dialect was awfully thick and made for a very clunky reading experience. And the cat-hauling was a bit grotesque. So these things definitely pushed it into the higher end of the Newbery age range, in my opinion.

    But… it clearly resides WITHIN that Newbery age range. So then I go to the expanded definitions of the criteria where it states: “If a book is challenging, and suitable for 13-14-year-olds but not for younger readers, is it eligible? Yes; but it can be given an award only if it does what it sets out to do as well as or better than other, younger books that are also eligible.” Is this a book that is so distinguished at what it does, that it rises to the top? Is Curtis actually showing a child audience respect by writing with such a thick dialect or is this evidence that he is NOT understanding the audience? I think an argument can be made there, that this is a book so good that everyone of its readership should read it… but I still come back to the “does-what-it-sets-out-to-do-as-well-as-or-better-than” other suitable books AND the “excellence of presentation for a child audience.”

    If Curtis knew any of the students I’ve taught in the last few years, he surely didn’t have them in mind when writing this. I can’t think of a student currently in my school that I could hand this book to. That doesn’t mean they aren’t out there, but it should be proof that the readership for this book is limited and unique. Therefore, the Newbery arguments for it, per the criteria, need to be solid and air tight.

    I think the plotting is good (as Roxanne points out) and the period details are exceptional. The characters, especially the villain, are fantastic. Although I did have a little issue with Charlie’s naivety not being consistently portrayed, but I don’t have any specific examples on hand. I just remember thinking he was clumsy and naive when the story needed him to be (comic relief in a way), but keen and insightful at other times.

    A lot of talking in circles. I’m sorry. Maybe there’s something there worth thinking about. FWIW, I liked this a lot. I’m not saying I want Curtis to dumb down his text because kids can’t handle it, because authors like him push kids’ thinking and reading experiences. But I do think the age conversation regarding this title is valid.

    • I want to push back a little on something, Mr. H, and it’s purely because I was a school librarian for almost a decade and encountered pretty much every reader known to man.

      In my opinion, it is nearly impossible to define by standard a “child audience”. There is literally a book for everyone, and even if one child is the audience, that’s still an audience. When we have books like CHARLIE, it’s seductive to compare them to past winners like THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN, which, at least in my experience, seemed to be loved by every child who touched it. Seriously, I can’t think of a single kid who poo-pooed that book.

      Let me be clear, too, that I agree with you: niche books are a hard sell – sometimes damn near impossible and that might make those books seem un-Newbery-worthy. What always comes to mind for me is CRISS CROSS. When students were required by their teachers to read a Newbery book from the library, most of the students who read CRISS CROSS either wanted to fling it across the room in disgust or they were merely “meh” about it. That was the range: one to three stars, if we want to use a Goodreads-esque rating scale. However – I am *certain* that there are children in my school who loved it and perhaps didn’t share their opinions with me. The detractors of the book, in this case, were louder than the champions of the book. THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON was similar – a lot of my students found the language too rich, too impenetrable to get through the first three chapters. Its champions, however, held it to their hearts and waxed poetic its merits.

      I wonder if LITTLE CHARLIE is similar to CRISS CROSS (and MOON) in that regard. It will have its audience, for sure, but they might be a quieter minority. In fact, in reminiscing on the kids I taught over the years, one in particular jumped into my head as a child who would’ve *loved* this book.

      • I think my comments were a little misconstrued. That’s what I get for being too long winded!

        I understand that Newbery worthiness shouldn’t come down to whether or not I’ve personally had a student who I could hand a particular book to. I was more or less trying to draw attention to particular definitions within the expanded sections of the Newbery manual that seemed to apply to books with limited readership and on the upper end of the age range. As well-written as I thought LITTLE CHARLIE was, I do think it’s readership is rather limited, and I was only using my current and former students as potential evidence of that.

      • I guess, despite what I’m able to articulate, I do understand that the age debate is gray and that children of all different shapes and sizes and ages will read all different kinds of different. I just always get hung up on the fact that the Newbery criteria seems to go to fairly specific lengths to keep the child audience defined and specified.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      I question whether the test of “excellence of presentation for a child audience” is thinking of the children “I could hand this book to.” When I read something, I do think whether I will hand it to one of my kids afterwards. But when my kids were younger, I’ve also thought, maybe I wouldn’t hand it to them, but I would read it aloud to them (Girl Who Drank the Moon). And I’ve wished of yet other books that my kids’ teachers knew of them and would teach them. Jordan, I’m sure you’ve thought all of these things of books too, and I think all are evidence of “excellence of presentation for a child audience” not just the first. Could you imagine teaching LITTLE CHARLIE (imagining your students were 2 years older) and might it not be as good as or better than other books for its purpose?

      The Newbery is an award for “literature” and reading literature has to be taught. I don’t know that anybody would “hand” a child Shakespeare or Twain, and yet many children get their first real exposure to such works at school while in the Newbery age range. When I went to my kids’ “Back to School Night” last month, I remember a Language Arts teacher saying that students would find one of the books on the syllabus challenging because of the dialect, similar to LITTLE CHARLIE. But clearly the teacher felt that students could and would come to appreciate the book, and arguably its place on a syllabus is evidence that the book is excellent for children.

      On the other hand, the Newbery is an ALA award, and one imagines that librarians, more than teachers and parents, have to assume that a book they are giving a child will likely be read without guidance. But I still think there’s an argument for not limiting “excellence of presentation for a child audience” to the independent reading scenario. Experiencing children’s books can be communal – I would say that’s one of its hallmarks — and I think a great “communal” book for children (be it family or classroom or library story time) could get serious consideration, even if a book is otherwise a hard sell.

      • steven engelfried says:

        I definitely agree with Leonard’s broad interpretation of “presentation for a child audience.” Committee members need to look beyond their most common first-hand experiences with books and children. Teachers can’t just think about classroom uses and librarians can’t just think about reader’s advisory or booktalk potential. They can draw on their knowledge and experiences with those interactions if it helps them identify and articulate strengths or weaknesses, but strength in those areas aren’t enough without bringing in the literary criteria. GOOD MASTERS AND SWEET LADIES is example of a medal winner which seems ideally suited for certain types of presentation (classroom, readaloud) and not so much with others (public library general reader’s advisory), but excels overall in meeting the Newbery criteria.

      • Ok… I guess I was focusing a bit too much on independent readership and not factoring in read aloud and teaching potential. Those are good points.

  3. The voice is distinguished, and I enjoyed the book. I liked Charlie, and thought Curtis was skilled in his ability to show how little Charlie knows about the world without ever leaving Charlie’s head. His unexamined assumptions were on display. I’d love to hear from teachers and parents about how much the intended audience picked up on those hints and clues about how wrong Charlie is about so many things.

    I was disappointed by how physically foul the Cap’n is. On the one hand we got to have a revealing moment of vulnerability and a very subtle understanding of how hard the Cap’n’s early childhood must have been which might help us to understand how he became the person he is. But on the other hand, going on and on about how smelly he is, how ugly, how rotten his teeth are, played up the “racists are thoroughly awful people” trope. It’s one of those things that if had happened in isolation, I wouldn’t think about it much, but we see it in book after book, and it becomes part of a larger cultural message. You can tell if someone’s a racist because they’re completely horrible all of the time in all of the ways, rather than someone’s otherwise very sweet grandmother who is wonderful and kind and also a racist.

    I’m still not sure if I fully understand Charlie’s change of heart. On the one hand, it’s clear that he didn’t entirely understand what it was he was agreeing to do when he went with the Cap’n, and fully realizing it was a shock. On the other hand, I never got the impression that he understood what it meant to be a slave. As a modern reader I have an visceral horror of the idea, but would Charlie? He doesn’t seem to really understand what it means, even towards the end. He keeps comparing it to playing a “mean trick” on a disabled man, and while that was pretty awful, he doesn’t seem to fully realize the magnitude of awfulness between a mean trick and selling someone into slavery and what is clearly going to be torture upon their return.

    • In a way, Charlie’s heart never “changed” — his father, whom he refers to time and time again, found the cruelty against the slaves appalling and already instilled in Charlie a sense of decency. That conscience was merely “half asleep” and needs awakening through a series of events that Little Charlie observes to strengthen his natural detest of people treating others poorly. Alys, does my view ring true?

      • I guess I wanted some sense that there is an order of magnitude difference between treating someone poorly and denying them basic human rights, or even the status of being fully human. But I suppose everyone starts somewhere. I also realize that I had earlier praised the book for the way that it’s obvious that Charlie’s naive and doesn’t understand a lot of things, so I suppose it could be deliberate, that the child reader (who, one would hope, does understand that slavery is more than just being “mean”) is supposed to realize the larger context.

  4. Kate Todd says:

    I am wondering how adults that read books aloud to children would handle the dialect of THE JOURNEY OF LITTLE CHARLIE. Would you try to replicate the pronunciation (certainly this would be beyond my skill set)? Or would you use contemporary pronunciation which might dilute the impact of the story?
    I don’t mean to imply that a book that is difficult to read aloud is not Newbery worthy. But the combination of brutality and language means that young readers may need more support to interpret the text.

  5. I am in the camp of those who think this work outstanding. Curtis’s worldbuilding (evoking the sharecropping situation and then the later paces), characters, and plot were all terrific I thought. The way he developed Charlie, had readers go with him as he puzzled and considered and moved along in understanding, was superb. It is real and raw and not always easy reading, but a work where young readers are trusted and respected. The Committee won’t be able to consider his earlier work, but I was on the 2008 Committee that gave Elijah of Buxton an honor and there too Curtis is adapt at writing brutal and hard stuff for a child audience.

    I have been thinking about the dialect aspect. While I did not find it a hindrance to get into the book, bI’m a very very experienced reader. I unconsciously drew on skills and previous reading to easily engage with the voice, the book, and the dialect. Barely noticed it a few pages in. But I am wondering about young readers — to what degree is such experience something they might need to get into the book? I’d love to hear from those who have given it to young readers. Are they finding the dialect easy, not a challenge?

    • I’m interested in the dialect question from the opposite perspective, too, which was brought up briefly in the post (“And how is it for those whose accent is reflected by the authorial choice?”) but doesn’t seem to have gained traction in the comments.

      If a reader speaks in such a way that, e.g., “axed” is their typical pronunciation of the word “asked,” what does it mean to be presented with a text that very specifically and directly reminds them that their way of talking is presumed to be nonstandard and wrong? I have a different accent that is commonly poked fun at and handled mock-phonetically in text, and while I trust that Curtis is doing this with respect and good intentions*, it is a constant reminder that the author assumes that the reader is not someone like me, and would not otherwise use those pronunciations. (I don’t have this qualm about sentence structure, just spelling/pronunciation.)

      *this is not a concern unique to this book, and I’m also interested in the question of what it means for a Black author to render white speech as foreign and nonstandard given the long history of white authors trying to mimic Black speech

      • Thank you for spotlighting this aspect — I was hoping someone would! I do not feel that the speech as spelled makes it “wrong” in any way. I don’t know the intent of the author but as a reader, I merely hear the speech pattern without value judgment. In a way, it seems to me some readers could even positively find these spellings reflective of their lived experiences.

  6. This is certainly in my top three, perhaps by default as there has been very little so far to push it aside. From the moment I first read THE WATSONS aloud to my children way back in the day, Curtis has had my undying devotion.

    There were two failings I had as a reader. The first one is embarrassing. I didn’t realize until fairly far into the story that Charlie was white. Don’t know how I missed it, but there you go. I just assumed CPC = black protagonist. I’ve run across at least one other reader who had the same experience. The second issue is, with my dyslexia, I really struggle with dialect. I actually figured this out while reading Elijah years ago, My solution is exclusively do Curtis books by audio and allow someone else to navigate the unconventional spellings. I do a lot of audio anyhow, but he is one I don’t even try in print. Not sure if either issues are relevant to Newbery. There may have been clues to Charlie’s race that I missed. Or perhaps, i shouldn’t be so quick to assume an author will write exclusively OwnVoice.

    • This makes me feel so relieved, you have no idea DaNae! I too, read Charlie as black for an embarrassingly long amount of time. I don’t remember when it actually dawned on me that he was white, but I felt incredibly stupid. I just assumed, given Curtis’s other books (I had heard this was a companion book to the Buxton books…) I remember staring at the cover realizing, “That’s why there’s a white kid on there! That’s Charlie!”

  7. Julie Corsaro says:

    Like DaNae, I initially thought that Charlie was white. At the same time, I kept thinking things didn’t make sense until I realized that he wasn’t. Dialect in historical fiction is a challenge, but I didn’t find it off-putting. In fact, I found this to be one of the most entertaining middle grade novels of the year, particularly impressive given the hard realities of the story. I had no problem with Curtis having a white protagonist, either; I think the job of readers and writers is to imagine the lives of others – but it is, arguably, a bold move. I’ve had several librarian friends that I love to pieces try to put me off my favorable opinion of the book. But I think of it as being big and broad like Charlie. For me, the exaggeration coupled with realism works to tell an accessible and resonant story of slavery, as well as our continuing racial strife (On a personal note, my mother grew up in St. Catherine’s, Ontario. I spent a lot of time there as a child, so I have some home-girl pride in this one).

  8. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    I also made the same assumption about Charlie’s race (I always skip the book jacket blurbs). As you mention, our experience with the author’s other books must have played a part in that. I wonder if CPC is possibly playing with our assumptions to make us reflect on them? Or is he just staying strictly to Charlie’s point of view, where identifying his own race wouldn’t make sense. Either way, I think it’s an interesting and effective author’s choice. I think the first chance we have to figure it out may be when Charlie talks about white farmers and slaves:

    “Papa said as harsh as Cap’n Black was on the white farmers near the Tanner plantation, he was even worst on the slaves that dared cross him.” (19)

    That pretty much identifies Charlie’s family as “white farmers”…Charlie would already know that Cap’n Black was hard on his family, while Papa telling him about slave treatment would be new information. But it’s not overtly spelled out, and I think it was later in the book when I realized. The author could have written: “white farmer like us…” but didn’t, which seems right. I don’t think that’s how Charlie would have said it.

    • I agree it is a strength of the book. Although pretty funny too, as the assumptions has usually been to default to white unless told otherwise. Younger reading reading Curtis for the first time may not be confused.

      Steven, the passage you choose may have been a clue, but I wasn’t reading carefully enough.

  9. I read this with much admiration as an ARC in 2017. I was in the middle of researching and writing something in an adjacent era and I was very impressed with Curtis’s research. It’s a HUGE amount of work to chase down every single thing in a story for historical accuracy. I didn’t see a single misplaced detail and I was reading with that specifically in mind.
    I did find the dialect difficult–even off putting. But I’m a north-westerner who almost never hears a southern accent of any kind. What is a challenge for me might be familiar and easy to a southern child. As to Kate B.s dialect question: is this “other-ing of white southern speech insulting? I think if you asked 50 people you’d get 50 opinions. Some people will probably be offended. Perhaps just as many will find it comforting and validating.
    The thing that I thought was particularly distinguished about the book was exactly the skill that had some of us missing Charlie’s race at the beginning. Curtis shows through patient compilation of details that a poor white southerner though not directly a slave is a pawn to the slave system no more able to escape it than a slave is. Charlie is not free to turn down the Captain’s offer of a job hunting escaped slaves. He is not free to attend school, or move to a more economically favorable situation. I think it is precisely his lack of options that made him seem like a black person to so many of us as we read. The Captain is not free to leave the situation either. Disfigured as he is, what other employment might he find. The slaves, escaped and not, clearly have the worse end of the deal; I am not saying that Charlie’s situation or the Captain’s is equivalent to theirs, but seldom have I seen a book for any age of reader so clearly point out how the institution of slavery enslaves us all. That is a Newbery-worthy theme. It’s a Pulitzer-worthy theme in my opinion.

  10. Mary Lou White says:

    Some more thoughts on dialect. I am not a native of Kentucky but I have lived here for over 25 years now, and the region is full of strong dialect. I had trouble understanding some of the speech at first, but have grown to love the beautiful rhythms and pronunciations. Somehow, this type of dialect seems to have taken on a negative connotation, maybe implying a lack of education or exposure to the bigger world. Maybe if we talk about dialect, how it reflects region and culture and history, in a positive way, it can help the readers approach it with a more open attitude. These dialects are not just historical – they are still alive and well and we are better for it! I had no trouble with the dialect in Little Charlie, and the middle school students where I book talked it, grabbed it out of my hands.

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