One of the things about being an educator that has always and continues to amaze me is the resilience of children. That they still come to school every day after what they may have suffered or continue to endure, makes them, every single one, heroes in my eyes. Their strength fills me with overwhelming compassion and a desire to never falter in giving them my very best.
Christopher Paul Curtis has consistently given readers strong characters in his historical fiction, The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963 (1996 Newbery Honor winner, Coretta Scott King Author Honor winner) and Bud, Not Buddy (2000 Newbery Award Medal winner, Coretta Scott King Author Award winner). His protagonist, Deza, in The Mighty Miss Malone (Wendy Lamb Books, January 10, 2012) is no exception; to have her as a friend would be an honor.
"Once upon a time..."
If I could get away with it, that's how I'd begin every essay I write.
The date is May, 1936. The place is Gary, Indiana. For almost seven years the Great Depression has gone through the lives of the American people like a scythe through a field of grain.
Twelve-year-old Deza Malone, working on a final essay requirement for her beloved teacher, Mrs. Needham, introduces readers to each member in her family, her mother, father, and older brother, Jimmie, and herself. Their respect and love for one another is clearly evident in this first chapter. She concludes the essay with the family motto: We are a family on a journey to a place called Wonderful.
Their journey chronicled in Deza's voice shows a strong family severely tested over the course of a year. Beginning with smaller ups and downs; her brother's theft of a pie but meeting Dr. Bracy, her disappointment in not getting a "A" on the paper but finding Mrs. Needham to be a huge ally, the friendship of Clarice Anne Johnson and their daily visits to the library, abject poverty as evidenced by them eating buggy oatmeal, school bullies, Jimmie's beautiful voice but his not growing for more than three years, and the burden of her father not being able to find work. Then their few ups are overshadowed by a terrible tragedy; a failed fishing trip on Lake Michigan.
After weeks of worry the pall cast by those events becomes even darker when Deza's physically and mentally damaged father leaves Gary returning to his home town of Flint, Michigan to look for work. When Deza's mother loses her job, it leaves the family no choice but to try to find her father, who seems to have vanished into thin air. They have no form of transportation, no home, no prospects for work, just determined hope
Riding the rails, Hooverville living, dealing with the ugliness and horror of prejudice leaves the trio shaken. Jimmie's singing offers opportunities, her mother works two jobs and although school for Deza is fraught with unfairness, she finds solace in the public library, in her spunk and intelligence. Poverty continually haunts them and life still has blows for this family's shoulders to bear but their love for one another is a thing of beauty, very powerful.
Few can bring history to life through vivid characterizations better than Christopher Paul Curtis. The dialogue between his characters rings true regardless of the historical setting because Curtis knows and understands the human condition, he knows people. He clothes them in a historical setting and a specific series of events as vivid as if it happened yesterday through his careful research.
With a single sentence he can create a shift in mood, an air of mystery or paint a more detailed understanding of a person's depth of character. We readers become a part of his stories, turning the pages as quickly as we can. We need to know, we have to know regardless of the final outcome. It's the pull of great storytelling at work. Here are some examples of his writing from this title.
My dearest friend, Clarice Anne Johnson, has a horrible and completely un-understandable crush on Jimmie. She says she bets you could pour cornflakes in his dimple and eat then out with a spoon.
"Time? What am I supposed to do? Should I tell Jimmie, 'Son, hold on, we just need a little time before we can get you to a doctor who'll tell us why you haven't grown in three years'? And what about Deza? Am I going to tell her, 'Hold on, darling, in another year or two we'll get those teeth taken care of. In the meantime just snap the bad ones off at the roots'?"
His pacing stopped.
"Roscoe, stop and listen to yourself. All we need is a little more time and---"
"We don't have any more time, Peg, we've run out."
Mother's tone changed. "Oh, so since time's run out, your answer is for you to run out too?"
There was silence, then, "I'm sorry. I have to go. I'll write soon's I get settled. I love you."
It's horrible what one tiny word can do to you. You can talk yourself into believing that you're tough, then one tiny three-letter word gets said and smashes everything apart.
By reading The Mighty Miss Malone written by Christopher Paul Curtis readers see the Great Depression's effect through the eyes of a young African American girl. As her family struggles with poverty and prejudice the pictures we see are gritty, life-changing and life-affirming. Historical fiction should alter a reader's views, expanding what they may or may not know or understand. This book, these characters; they will not leave you. You will be different, better.
Be sure to follow the link embedded in Christoper Paul Curtis's name to go to his website at Random House. Here is a link to an Educator's Guide for The Mighty Miss Malone. PBS has created a simple timeline of the Great Depression which can be found here.
This video is Christopher Paul Curtis speaking about his books, about The Mighty Miss Malone.