From Half-Asleep to Wide-Awake: Little Charlie’s Journey
The 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.
Filed under: Book Discussion
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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