Heavy Medal Finalist: THE JOURNEY OF LITTLE CHARLIE by Christopher Paul Curtis
I’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.
Filed under: Book Discussion
About Steven Engelfried
Steven Engelfried was the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon until he retired in 2022 after 35 years as a full-time librarian. 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 email@example.com.
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