I usually run from Depression stories, but since this is a new book from Newbery-winning author Christopher Paul Curtis, and a companion novel to his wonderful Bud, Not Buddy, I had to give it a whirl. After all, we’re getting close to the end of the year, and I have to read everything that’s a “contenda” for the Newbery Medal this year.
Twelve-year-old Deza Malone has everything it takes to become a great writer, including an overused thesaurus that her older brother, Jimmie, gave her for her birthday. She loves school, and her favorite teacher has offered to tutor her next year so that she can go on to be famous some day. She is sure that Jimmie will be famous because of his beautiful singing voice, a gift that assures his acceptance wherever he goes, even though he stopped growing when he was twelve years old. But the Depression is biting ever more deeply into her family’s finances, and after her father is in a boating accident, everything about their lives changes forever. After a long time of recovery, her father leaves their home in Gary, Indiana, to find work, but when they don’t hear from him after a while, Deza, Jimmie, and their mother have to leave home to try to find him in Flint, Michigan. They ride the rails and have to spend some time in a homeless camp, and then one day, Jimmie runs away. There is so much confusion and struggle, but Deza and her mother continue to push through their circumstances, working toward a better life. Eventually, they begin to receive letters from her father saying that he has finally found work, but something is wrong. The letters don’t sound like her father at all. That’s when Deza runs away, too. She has to find the truth.
Curtis has written a moving and powerful story about the strength of the human spirit in a young girl who has no real reason for hope. Deza has a warm and supportive family, and her parents have taught her well the value of hard work, family love, and honesty. Curtis shows us a beautiful model of a strong African-American family, very different from many of the children’s and teens’ books of black families today. If I had a quibble with the book at all, it would be that Deza is a bit too good to be true. I looked at the picture of Christopher Paul Curtis on the end flap and thought that he must have some very sweet granddaughters, and he can’t imagine that little girls could be anything but sugar with no spice. Of course, I was just like that, but I hear that it’s unusual.
This story would be a great way to introduce children to the Depression era and to spark discussion about greed, poverty, hard work, and the many other issues that our children don’t consider very often. With strong characters and an exciting plot, I would highly recommend this book to kids from nine to fourteen.