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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Heavy Medal Finalist: THE JOURNEY OF LITTLE CHARLIE by Christopher Paul Curtis

journeyoflittlecharlieI’d seent plenty of animals by the time I was old ’nough to start talking, but only one kind worked me up so much that it pult the first real word I said out of my mouth … Long ’nough for Ma and Pap to wonder if I banged my head on something and got tetched. Long ’nough for ’em to start looking ‘round for something to tie ’crost my mouth to hesh me up.

This is the voice of Little Charlie, springing from the first page of Christopher Paul Curtis’ tour-de-force, THE JOURNEY OF LITTLE CHARLIE, a novel richly told in Charlie’s own distinctive backwater South Carolinian dialect. Though one could never consider Curtis a slouch, THE JOURNEY OF LITTLE CHARLIE is his finest piece of writing in a decade. This is a book that excels in all Newbery criteria, but is especially brilliant in its delineation of character, setting, and style.

Charlie’s snappy first person narration is the driving force of the book, propelling both the plot and the mood. Whether he’s describing a statue (“… it ’peared every bird in Dee-troit had a job of stopping by each day and doo-dooing on him” p. 97) or reckoning with the consequences of his own actions (“Their shoulders was already chafed raw and bloody. I was right ’shamed at how only three or four hours in chains had done so much damage” p. 229), Charlie is so fully realized a character, that much of the book feels like the boy is sitting next to the reader, sharing his story. Though Charlie is central to the story, it’s Curtis’ masterful characterization of Cap’n Buck, the merciless slave hunter, that imbues the book with urgency. Effortlessly drawn as a character through his words and actions, Cap’n Buck’s villainy raises the stakes of Charlie’s journey – and eventually, when it is subtly revealed that Buck has murdered the boy’s mother, the pathos of Charlie’s situation.

Setting plays a crucial role in the novel, particularly because it is a “journey narrative” – the principal character undergoes a physical journey that sparks his own internal and emotional journey. From the perfectly named Possum Moan, South Carolina, whose oppressive heat nearly soaks the pages to the campfire sequences in which Cap’n Buck’s motives are gradually revealed to Charlie, Curtis’ rendering of each location through Charlie’s eyes, is never anything less than evocative. Even the briefest of descriptions, like the riverbanks outside Detroit in the book’s final pages, are effectively rendered, often solely through dialogue.

Curtis offers a veritable Master’s class in style, though. Were it not for Charlie’s voice, the book wouldn’t be half of what it is. Though the language might initially seem impenetrable, it imbues the book with depth and emotion. Cap’n Buck’s viciousness is more terrifying when delivered by Charlie’s matter-of-fact recounting. Like a Tarantino film that builds tension purely through what characters say rather than do, Curtis’ deliberate word choice sets the heart racing: “I gotta say, you gone and hurt my feelings, Miss Bobo. How’s I s’pose to let you live after you done sullied my rep-a-tation?” – p.57-8. This is certainly Curtis’ most brutal book, in terms of both theme and outright violence. Cognizant, though, of his intended audience, Curtis occasionally provides levity to lessen some of the tensest moments. Cap’n Buck’s baldness is hilariously brought to life in a barber shop on page 140 and Charlie uses the word “boodle” to describe the size of a crowd that’s prepared to take revenge on Buck. These moments of humor never feel out of place or incongruent with the narrative. Rather, they allow just enough breathing space before the relentless dread returns.

There’s very little doubt that THE JOURNEY OF LITTLE CHARLIE is anything less than a masterstroke of one of the most talented writers of our time, and it will undoubtedly be deeply considered for the Newbery Medal.

Introduction by Joe

Now’s the time for Heavy Medal Committee members and other readers to share positive comments about THE JOURNEY OF LITTLE CHARLIE.  We’ll open the discussion up to all sides later today.

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Steven Engelfried About Steven Engelfried

Steven Engelfried is the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at sengelfried@yahoo.com.

Comments

  1. Truly fantastic book. Curtis is on my short-list of authors for whom I would line up at midnight to get their next book. Joe is correct about the grimness of some of the content. But having the stakes so high propels the action. This year, in my quest to read all Newbery winners by the 100th anniversary, I stumbled across an introduction Curtis did for THE SLAVE DANCER, in which he states that as a parent he could never write from the perceptive of a child in slavery. With CHARLIE he found a way to show the brutality of the institution without being in that POV. Not sure it lessened the trauma. The honesty of this historical blight came through, not just through the vile overseer but in Charlie’s observation and change of perspective.

    Joe, well done with the engaging write up.

  2. Cherylynn5691 says:

    Character development is where this author excels. There is not another book on the list where I felt the character was so well portrayed. Little Charlie was very vivid. The dialogue, the thoughts, and the actions were all consistent. The changes in character in the story were gradual and understandable. Despite the difficulty of the accent, I thought it helped me picture him as someone who lived in the hills of South Carolina in a way that just saying it once would not have done.

    • Well said. I also think this book is full of rich characters and their development is truly what moves the book forward. I found myself fully engaged in every character Curtis introduced, always wondering what another was thinking, even when they weren’t on the page.

  3. Deborah Ford says:

    Having grown up in South Carolina, it may have been easier for me (than others) to adjust to the dialect. I did, however, have to almost read it aloud before I could speed it up a bit. (And just so you know, not everyone speaks that way.) It is clearly the work of a master writer who keeps up that dialect through the entire book. He adjusts it for Cap’n, as there is clearly a class difference in the two characters. Even the sheriff in Detroit who is “from the South” has softened his speech patterns, but quickly picks it up when he hears it again.

    • Mary Zdrojewski says:

      When I first started the book I worried the dialect would either slip into cliches, lessen, or make the book difficult to read. It did none of those things.
      I thought that it was distinctive but readable and consistent through the book.

    • Courtney Hague says:

      This was my worry also. I listened to this as an audio book (which was fabulous) and then went back and re-read the physical book as well to see how it worked with the dialect written out. I think Curtis’s consistency in writing the different characters differing dialects really makes this work well.

  4. One of the things I was most impressed with was the skill with which Curtis was about to show how little Charlie knows about the world without ever leaving Charlie’s head. His unexamined assumptions were on display, allowing us to recognize how much Charlie gets wrong or doesn’t understand, yet never straying from a tight focus on Charlie’s thoughts.

  5. Agreed on all of this.
    Curtis’s balance of humor/sadness/terror is masterful. He weaves comic relief into Charlie Bobo’s character rather than having one designated funny person show up and take on that work. He keeps Charlie completely realistic and delightfully fresh. Charlie’s first ride on a train was possibly the most hilarious thing I’ve read this year.– “I didn’t even blush: a train was ‘nough to make anyone get excited.”

  6. Tarantino was a perfect name drop… This was brutal. Viciously brutal, to be honest. From the murders to the cat-haulin’… a lot to take in.

    But…

    For some weird reason, I think it would have been showing a disrespect for his audience to tone this down. It would have made it less distinguished. Meaning, I was ok with it all. Not ok. That’s a terrible way of putting it. I am not ok with the violence depicted in these pages. I was ok with his inclusion of the violence because the story needed it for its impact. Its authenticity.

    Nice write up Joe. Well done.

    • Mary Zdrojewski says:

      I agree. I think that a lot of the historical fiction books I read growing up were less upsetting but didn’t paint an authentic picture of what enslavement was like. Though this was more authentic and presented in a way that didn’t lessen its impact, I don’t think it’s overwhelming for young readers.

    • Courtney Hague says:

      Agreed. This novel definitely respects the young readers who will pick it up. He gives the gruesome reality in a way that is not overwhelming but still shows a more authentic picture of what would have actually been happening during that time period.

      I also really appreciate the Tarantino name drop.

  7. samuel leopold says:

    Wow…some marvelous comments to begin this discussion. The strength that makes this novel distinguished to me is how the author stays consistent with the dialect of Charlie—whether he is talking or thinking. A simple but also very brilliant strategy to have the main character’s thoughts look just like the way he talks. I know of many books that do not do this….or try but do not do it well. Curtis does it extremely well.
    Also, as has been stated eloquently by Steven, the careful placement of bits of humor throughout the story allows the reader to pause and take a deep breath before turning the page to another difficult event. This is hard to pull off without disrupting the flow and rhythm of the plot. Lines like ‘ “soon’s I opened the door, Ma got more ‘thusiastic with the loudness of her snoring.” [p.39.], are delivered perfectly within the story.
    My first read of this did not win my favor….but now my literary heart belongs to Little Charlie.

    • I also had to read this twice to get the full impact and truly enjoy it. I read the physical copy first and just didn’t connect. Once I listened to the audio, I embraced what Curtis was doing and ended up loving it.

  8. Deborah Ford says:

    Charlie’s character is truly and believably naive. When his mother goes away, you’re shouting “don’t go! You can’t trust him.” And it’s not until the resolution that Charlie even considers that he is an orphan. He (likely) has no idea that his father never owed the overseer any money. He never suspects Sherriff Jackson thinks Charlie killed his dad or had help to carry him into town. He never considered that the Detroit sheriff will try to take his prisoners–and the money. Maybe Charlie just looks for the good in people and never sees the potential evil?

    Curtis uses past incidences of bullying to move Charlie towards empathy for Sylvanus. A good storyteller doesn’t have to tell a take in chronological sequence. He can say, “now you know…” and then tell something that happened long along. That’s exactly what he does in CHARLIE.

    [p174] “I swore to myself that I wasn’t never gonna do nothing that low-down ever again. But that same ‘zact felling come creeping up…” (that also leads me to questions I will later talk about when we get to criticism) Then he “knowed for sure” he was going to get “figger a way” to get Syl away from the Cap’n.

  9. Hi, happy Saturday! I’m opening further discussion on Little Charlie for concerns and critique — both from HMAC members and our spectators.

  10. I would like to ask a question about context. I, and others I’ve spoken with, did not realize Charlie was a white kid until a good chunk into the book. I know I entered with a bias, knowing Curtis had only written from an African-American/Canadian POV in the past. Should it have been made clearer from the beginning or was this just a failing on the readers part. Would younger readers who have not been with Curtis since the Watsons not have made that assumption?

    • DaNae, I will also admit to this. I did not realize that Charlie was white until well into the book. At the time, I didn’t know if this was intentional on Curtis’ part for some reason or if I had missed character details early. With Charlie doing the narrating, any details about his appearance would have undoubtedly been subtle. I thought of this too, and wondered if you’d bring it up. And if it’d have any implication on our discussion.

      I think the cover illustration impacted my bias just as much as Curtis’ previous fare.

      • sarahbtlibrarian says:

        Chiming in to add that my assumption too made me miss that Charlie was white. I even started this one on audiobook and I wondered why a white male narrator was narrating it, until I actually picked up the book and got a few pages in. I knew it was part of the Buxton

        Also, it’s been mentioned before, but I had a hard time with the dialect. I struggled a lot and it took me awhile to get into a rhythm each time I picked the book up. I know this is intentional and I really appreciate how it’s consistent-someone mentioned how even Charlie’s thoughts are written in dialect, not just his spoken words, which is very well done. But it was hard for me as a reader at times and I wonder if kids will struggle with it as well. At the same time, I could see where it might be helpful to some kids who may be able to work out phonetic spellings, so maybe it’s just my adult view?

    • (trying to reply under Sarah)
      Could the dialect be a good invitation to try and read this story out loud to one’s self? I always find that even mouthing along with books in a dialect that is not my own helps me get the rhythm down.

  11. Jessica Lee says:

    I agree with the strong character development, depiction of setting, plotting that balances humor and tragedy, and masterful presentation of dialect that all worked together to support an important theme. But I did not enjoy reading this book. THE BALLAD OF LITTLE CHARLIE is a great example of a book that clearly has literary merit while still not being a personal favorite. The depictions of human cruelty, so appropriate for this story, were uncomfortable to read, a further example of Curtis’s strength as a writer.

  12. I have struggled with what to say about this one! It was excellent in many ways. Charlie’s emotional and literal journey is a story that I think many (especially white) children should read.

    However, I do think the dialect is off-putting to readers. Anecdotally, my husband eagerly bought the book right when it came out and then never made it past the first chapter. As an NC native I found the rhythm of the language very quickly. I am fascinated by the idea of what it would look like to teach this book – I feel like I could easily read it out loud and be pretty accurate with my accent/voices but I imagine that is not universally true.

    This year there are some great books that take on heavy topics with a lot of honesty and accuracy instead of sanitizing them for children, and LITTLE CHARLIE is one of the finest examples for sure. The brutality in the book is definitely appropriate for the subject matter and I would much rather have a historical story for students that takes the reality of slavery seriously as this one does.

    The biggest challenge for me as a Heavy Medal committee member is to take off my “librarian” hat. I know that I shouldn’t care about who the audience of a book is supposed to be, but it is hard for me to feel quite as passionate about a book when I have such a hard time getting students (and, TBH, teachers) to read it. I felt this way about LITTLE CHARLIE – I can’t see my teachers embracing it as a novel to teach and because of that I am not sure that I have students who would be interested in reading it at all. No matter how much I talk them up, the Christopher Paul Curtis novels on my shelf barely circulate unless a teacher assigns them for a literature circle. I feel that way to a lesser extent about JACKIE because of the baseball. I cannot get my students to read books where baseball is a major theme. I know this is particular to my (very small) school and my school’s population in many ways. I know there were similar concerns about THE BOOK OF BOY but I have found that to be a much easier sell to my students.

    Anyway, I know that I am always a little bit more interested in the sweet spot of books that are distinguished AND a little bit more appealing to my students. I found a lot to admire in LITTLE CHARLIE but, like Jessica, it was tough to enjoy. It’s a wonderful story and I’m glad it was written. I personally would prefer that it had not been written in dialect in order to reduce that barrier to entry.

    • I ended up loving this book, but it took reading it twice — once being the audio version. It’s an incredibly worthy book, but I also am wary of the appeal. I love how Curtis has created the characters and kept them true to where they’re from and the way they speak, however I do believe this lowers the appeal to readers and why we can’t get readers to take his books. I fear Charlie will be another shelf-sitter.

    • Curtis’s books are a dream on audio. So many tough dialects are made crystal clear this way and the comic aspects get their due by professional actors/readers (Ruby Dee reading Zora Neale Hurston, Shakespeare) I tend to get the audio to circulate more than the print books for Curtis. I also recommend the audiobooks for classroom read aloud time consumption. His books are just too excellent to go unheard.

  13. Charlie is likeable and it’s a pretty exciting book and definitely affecting and disturbing. It’s well-written, but there are parts where Charlie gets way too lyrical for his character. (This is somewhat hidden by the dialect.) I think the dialect is a significant weakness. This is a really good example of why you’re only supposed to use a sprinkling! I found it hard going, particularly at the beginning, and it seems like kids especially will have a hard time with it. The one place it’s really effective is when we finally get to Syl and get the contrast between his educated speech and Charlie’s dialect. But that’s a long way to go for just that! In the author’s note, it says that originally this was going to be a dual POV with the two of them and I can see that in that structure having the contrast on an on-going basis would have made sense. (It also makes the cover make a lot more sense!)

    Curtis does a good job of showing how lousy being a white sharecropper was (working the fields, Dad bringing home food from the plantation that was going to go to the slaves, etc.). But still shows the brutality of slavery and why that was obviously worse. It shows a wide range of black life at the time, which seems useful.

    Even though it’s first person, Charlie doesn’t tell us what he’s thinking/feeling/planning a lot of the time, so there was a weird distancing thing happening. And it meant I didn’t understand what evolution he was having, much less why.

    His character arc just doesn’t make sense to me. I think what is supposed to be happening is that he learns to see black people as real people. But Charlie doesn’t start out particularly racist. I mean, many of us thought he was black at first! Everything about the neighboring plantation is about how terrible the cruel overseer is, so there is no love for slavery from Charlie or his family. When his Dad works at the plantation once when they really need money, he is so traumatized he has nightmares and never goes back. And the Sheriff tells Charlie not to try to find work there no matter what. So everyone in the area seems against at least the excesses of this particular plantation.
    Charlie doesn’t set off because he wants to bring back escaped slaves—the whole point of the first half of the book is that he doesn’t understand that’s what they’re doing! When he finally does find out, he feels really bad for them, but it doesn’t change his behavior. I didn’t understand why he was still helping the Cap’n, especially after he found out his mother is dead. Even after he figures out that the “thieves” stole themselves, sometimes he acts like he still thinks they stole money. Maybe he decided stealing yourself is still stealing, but if so, he really needed to tell us that! He just seems all over the place, going back and forth between being biased and not (although never particularly pro-slavery I don’t think) for no apparent reason. It’s supposed to be that he changes his mind when he finds out Syl is in love, but he feels both ways both before and, even weirder, after that.

    The ending particularly didn’t make any sense to me. I think Curtis may have written himself into a corner since the afterword said the idea for the book came from a true story about a rescue off of a train. So since Curtis wants to get to that, Charlie keeps skipping opportunities to warn and then help Syl, even though he’s decided he wants to. But he finally manages to (although he’s not really that instrumental to the rescue—needing to include the mob took a lot of agency away from him). This has to be the climax, but then after that, he’s still deciding whether or not to help Syl’s parents. When Charlie’s talking to the sheriff, I thought for sure that was a cover story and that he was definitely going to go help them. But then that didn’t seem to be the case. I’m still not totally clear which way the author meant it. But Charlie seemed to have to come to the decision to help them all over again, which really doesn’t make any sense.

    • Thanks for these points, Katrina. They are definitely getting me thinking!

    • Deborah Ford says:

      I was wondering if I was the only one. We see Charlie have his epiphany– he can’t turn Syl in. So when he goes by himself to take the parents back, I’m thinking it’s a ruse. But Charlie still is not smart enough to not think that the sheriff will try to take his prisoners. I don’t think he has completely been changed. I think he wants to take the parents back to the South.

      So on this latest reading, I’m thinking I was wrong. Only I still feel that way. If feels like a last minute decision to help them escape. I keep thinking I’m missing a chapter. What happened between Canada and Detriot? Why didn’t he extend his feelings about Syl to the parents? It’s unclear to me.

    • Your insight that part of the plot arc was being driven by the “need” to have a dramatic train rescue is making me rethink a lot of aspects, so thank you for that!

      I did have doubts when I read the book about Charlie’s change of heart at the end. It didn’t feel quite as if we had all of the pieces in his thinking, as Deborah pointed out.

    • samuel leopold says:

      I have done a re-read of the story…and I can understand what is being said about the plot arc and the ending. Excellent points.

      The apparent wavering back and forth from Charlie concerning his biases and intentions do not bother me that much——I find that to resemble what we sometimes see in society—-people who do not show a consistency of conviction.

      But……the ending does feel a bit “forced” in parts as if Curtis was rushing to get all the puzzle pieces put together before time ran out….even though a couple pieces do not seem to fit that well.

  14. Did anyone read this as a white savior narrative? That was overwhelmingly my take on the book, but seeing the reviews and the comments here, I’m wondering if I missed something. However, I do agree with Katrina, particularly about the second to last paragraph.

    • Can a Black man who has done so much in the literary world, writing books for and about Black children, be accused of writing a white savior narrative? I wonder what Curtis’ response to that would be.

      I’m no expert in white savior narratives, so forgive me if I’m overstepping bounds, but I think the theme of the book is that we free ourselves by freeing others – both in the literal and figurative sense. Charlie holds the power at the end of the book, and he chooses compassion and a moral high ground. He physically frees people he has power over, and therefore frees himself.

      This, to me, is different than, say, Dr. Doolittle where the principal character is just in awe of how much the Native people are so impressed with him and can’t wait to teach them not to be “savages” – a far more appalling premise, and a theme that appears to be the opposite of Charlie.

  15. samuel leopold says:

    Katrina makes an excellent point about the ending that I had not seen until now. I went back and looked at the ending one more time and I can see what she is talking about.
    Interesting.
    Not yet sure if that decreases my positive feelings for this title.

    But it is something to definitely consider when trying to navigate through all the fantastic contenders being discussed here.

  16. I think I am going to be snowed in this weekend in Ohio…..so one thing I am going to do is take a closer look at the ending of this beautiful book.

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