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The Journey of Little Charlie

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Newbery Medalist Christopher Paul Curtis brings his trademark humor and heart to the story of a boy struggling to do right in the face of history's cruelest evils.
The National Book Award finalist by Christopher Paul Curtis!

Twelve-year-old Charlie is down on his luck: His sharecropper father just died and Cap'n Buck -- the most fearsome man in Possum Moan, South Carolina -- has come to collect a debt. Fearing for his life, Charlie strikes a deal with Cap'n Buck and agrees to track down some folks accused of stealing from the cap'n and his boss. It's not too bad of a bargain for Charlie... until he comes face-to-face with the fugitives and discovers their true identities. Torn between his guilty conscience and his survival instinct, Charlie needs to figure out his next move -- and soon. It's only a matter of time before Cap'n Buck catches on.

Newbery Medalist Christopher Paul Curtis brings his trademark humor and heart to this story of a boy struggling to do right in the face of history's cruelest evils.

First published January 30, 2018

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About the author

Christopher Paul Curtis

30 books1,105 followers
Curtis was born in Flint, Michigan on May 10, 1953 to Dr. Herman Elmer Curtis, a chiropodist, and Leslie Jane Curtis, an educator. The city of Flint plays an important role in many of Curtis's books. One such example is Bucking the Sarge, which is about a fifteen year old boy named Luther T. Ferrel, who is in a running battle with his slum-lord mother. Curtis is an alumnus of the University of Michigan-Flint.

Curtis is the father of two children, Steven, an ensign in the United States Navy, and Cydney, a college student and accomplished pianist. His third child is expected to make an appearance in 2011. Christopher modeled characters in Bud, Not Buddy after his two grandfathers—Earl “Lefty” Lewis, a Negro league baseball pitcher, and 1930s bandleader Herman E. Curtis, Sr., of Herman Curtis and the Dusky Devastators of the Depression.

Curtis moved to Detroit, Michigan in January, 2009

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 445 reviews
Profile Image for Hannah Greendale.
703 reviews3,281 followers
February 18, 2019
It is, and will ever remain, a great mystery why this book didn’t win the 2018 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. The Journey of Little Charlie reads like a middle-grade version of The Underground Railroad, as told from the perspective of a twelve-year-old boy forced to accompany a brutish slave catcher.

Due to advanced diction and an authentic first-person voice, would recommend this for book advanced readers or upper middle-graders (ages 10 to 14).
“You needs to be more like a bumbly bee, Charlie. Ain’t you never seent how them bees’ll burrow theyself into so many flowers that they very color change? They go from being yellow and black and common-looking to wearing balls of gold all o’er every square inch of theyselves. And there ain’t no mistaking neither that once them bees is wearing those robes of gold, they’s close to Jesus as they can get, they’s happy as anything living can be. They’ll sit on the edge of that flower just soaking it all in afore they starts buzzing their wings and celebrating that sound they makes. That’s where you need to be if you gonna learn how to work these fields; you need to quit thinking so much and listen to that buzz.”
Profile Image for Betsy.
Author 8 books2,753 followers
March 8, 2018
I don’t know Christopher Paul Curtis personally, but if I had to harbor a guess I’d say he’s the type of author that doesn’t like to make things too easy for himself. That’s one of my theories. Another is that he’s a writer that, as a rule, listens to his creations. Folks say that when you write, your characters have a tendency to take on a life of their own. You might try to get them to go one way and they’ll just peel off and go another without so much as a bye-your-leave. A character, a good character, has a strong personality that will not be denied. And in the case of The Journey of Little Charlie by Christopher Paul Curtis, a hijacking was clearly involved. As Mr. Curtis says in his Author’s Note, he was going to alternate the text of this book between two boys. Little Charlie (white) and Sylvanus Demarest (black). Only problem is, he started writing for Little Charlie first and, as he says, “the story had other plans.” So it is that Mr. Curtis has written his first middle grade novel starring a white kid with a mouth full of Southern dialect. None of this book feels like it could have been easy to write. But reading it? Easiest thing in the world, and downright pleasant to boot.

Things look bad for our hero. Little Charlie is kind of having an unfortunate run at the moment. First his dad just up and dies on him while chopping down a tree. Then he’s almost arrested for killing his dad (the old “a tree did it" excuse isn’t panning out for him). And now, worst of all, a horrifying overseer from a rich neighbor is claiming Little Charlie’s dad owed him money and, as repayment, he’s taking Little Charlie to the North on a job. According to “the cap’n”, as the man is called, they’re just going to collect on a longstanding debt. Problems arise, however, when it becomes clear that the “debt” consists of runaway slaves. Suddenly Little Charlie doesn’t want anything to do with this business, but the cap’n has other plans. Particularly when he discovers that the slaves he’s catching have a son up in Canada by the name of Sylvanus. The cap’n is convinced he can get the full family back to the South. What he doesn’t realize is that when Little Charlie is set on doing the right thing, not a man in the world should stand in his way.

So let’s sit down and examine the very first sentence in this book. Not the James Baldwin quote, though that is noteworthy. Not the place setting that puts it, “Just outside of Possum Moan, South Carolina – August 1858”, though that doesn’t hurt, and I suspect Mr. Curtis should be given extra points for coming up with “Possum Moan” as a place name anyway. The real first sentence reads, “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.” Okay then. Curtis isn’t going halfsies to ease you into this. That’s dialect, pure and simple. Southern dialect, and written on the page. Pulling from the Mark Twain School of spelling and grammar, the first official written page of this book doesn’t make it easy for the reader so you’d better grab on from the get-go and get on board with his style, or let go and find yourself another book because he is NOT going to slow down for you. The upside of dialect is that it’s a shortcut into a specific place and culture. The downside is that some readers will give up on it instantly. I’m including adults in that assessment. This is a true pity since Mr. Curtis, ever the wordsmith, knows how to get a good line out of Little Charlie’s particular way of seeing the world. For example, consider the following sentences:

“But I seent it, and unseeing something’s the same as unringing a bell; it ain’t never been done. I don’t care how much you want to get rid of the remembering, you might as well not fight it, you might as well jus’ go ‘head and make yourself a holster, ‘cause that memory is yourn and you gonna be toting it ‘round for the rest of your life.”

"If the chance come up, go sneak a look at the backs of Alda Daponte’s hands and arms. She wasn’t but four when it happened and there’s still dirt that got blowed into her so hard that it went under her skin and ain’t coming out till the worms chaw through and reclaim it.”

“You can learn from anybody. Even dimwits can teach you if you listen careful and pick out the kernels of corn from the horse crap they’s dishing out.”

“… even a twenty-year-old, half-dead porch mutt with a snout full of snot wouldn’t have no problems pointing out which direction the cap’n come from and which way he was heading, not even in a hurricane.”

Honestly, it does remind me of Pogo from time to time, but that’s hardly a problem for me. And to be completely honest here, I was hooked on the voice by page three. Colloquialisms. They slay me.

Of course, Christopher Paul Curtis is perhaps best known for his characters. He brings them to life in all sorts of subtle ways. Gets deep into their heads and then, through their eyes, is somehow capable of rendering the people around his protagonists three-dimensional as well. Darned if I know how he does it. Little Charlie himself is a good example of this, particularly since he’s a flawed character. There’s been a lot of talk recently about whether or not kids are capable of understanding a historical character who grows and changes through the course of a book, particularly if part of their journey involves how they see race. Honestly, the book this reminded me the most of was The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz. In both cases you have a rural, ignorant white character that grows and changes slowly. Charlie’s journey, however, is a bit faster than you might expect. He uses the term “darky” and he is allowed some resentment when he realizes that Sylvanus and his friends dress better than he does. Otherwise, he’s a pretty forward thinking individual. Now we can go back and forth and debate the degree to which this feels real, but for my part I felt that Mr. Curtis kept Charlie within the confines of his times pretty securely. Compared to his countrymen he makes huge mental strides, but in terms of today he would still have quite a far ways to go. Makes for a good talk with kids when they read this book, that’s for sure.

You know how I can judge whether or not a villain in a book is any good? It’s easy. If, at a certain point in the book, I can read no further without knowing for certain if the baddie will get their just desserts I will (oh horror of horrors) be compelled to skip to the end of the story. And in the cap’n Mr. Curtis has created a magnum opus of scum and villainy. I haven’t felt this wrapped up in a soul this shriveled since I read Lauren Wolk’s Wolf Hollow a couple years ago. The cap’n belongs to a longstanding tradition of giggling sociopaths. You know the kind I mean. You see them crop up on television shows and in movies all the time. Their power derives not so much from their evil acts (which, in the case of this book, are far more horrifying than you usually see in middle grade fiction) but the sheer pleasure they take in causing pain. The cap’n is the strongest bad guy Curtis has ever conjured up. He’s like an escapee from Django Unchained. A bonified sadist lurking in the pages of a children’s book, and it all comes down to his perverse sense of humor. If you fear for Little Charlie and Sylvanus, and you do, you have very good reason for it.

I read a review of this book that said that in terms of heart, characters, thematic elements, and sheer literary quality, Mr. Curtis is the one to beat, but that the area where he falls short more often than not is in his plotting. In his Author’s Note Mr. Curtis does mention that when he writes, “Even though there is no outline, most times when I start a novel I do have an idea where I want the story to go, but (and I’ve learned this through time and pain and struggle) if the story is a good one, it has a mind of its own and eventually it goes where it wants to go.” The critic said that in the case of this book the ending could have had more punch and pizzazz. I’ve been chewing this over in my mind for a while, Certainly I recognize that I don’t generally pick up a Curtis book with plot in mind. He’s not a plot-forward kind of guy. Compare this book, for example, to The Mad Wolf’s Daughter by Diane Magras, coming out around the same time. That book runs helter skelter on the plot, working characters and motivations in as it scurries towards the finish. Curtis, by and large, is a slice of life kind of guy. He doesn’t immerse you in the time period as much as he immerses you in the brains of his heroes. There’s a reason he remains glued to first person narratives. But even as I say this, I’d also argue that while some of his books do meander a bit, I felt that this one had a definite end goal in mind. Yes, Charlie and Sylvanus are saved in a kind of deus ex machina fashion. No question. But not since Elijah of Buxton was I gripping my seat for quite this long a period of time. And that’s got a lot to do with the plot too, you know. A lot.

I’ll confess to you that due to the state of the world today, I’ve a weird inclination to take any children’s novel I see and to examine it closely, just in case it’s saying something about . . . well . . . the state of the world today. Since this is a book starring a poor, ignorant white boy I wondered if there was some underlying theme about privilege. In the end, though, I think Mr. Curtis is going for something bigger. One passage from his Author’s Note that really stuck with me (particularly in the past few weeks) is when he wrote, “We’re all heroes in our dreams. When looking back at some grand historical injustice I’m sure you’ve probably done as I have and said, ‘If I had been around at that time I would’ve…’ Then you fill in the blank with whatever courageous, life-endangering action you would have taken to right this wrong. Which is fine, except chances are good that that’s pretty much a self-delusional lie.” But all is not lost. In Little Charlie, Mr. Curtis wanted to show that once in a while you find someone in this life that carries with them that “great courage to which we all could aspire.” As an author, he puts that courage down on the page. He then puts us in the head of our hero so that we can see his doubts and feel his fear, just as we would fear. Then he does the right thing and, through him, we have done the right thing too. For just a moment, we are heroes in another man’s story. That’s why we dream of what we might do if we faced the impossible. And maybe, with the help of stories like this one, readers will have just that much more courage when their call comes. A great grand book that stands taller than its slight packaging would lead you to believe.

For ages 9-12.
Profile Image for Monica Edinger.
Author 10 books336 followers
March 22, 2018
I am on the record as being a huge fan of Curtis's Buxton books --from Elijah of Buxton (was on the Newbery Committee that gave it an honor) to Madman of Piney Woods (my starred Horn Book review). This one is as terrific as the others.

While the other two books featured black male protagonists in this one Curtis is featuring a young white male, the child of poor white pre-Civil War sharecroppers. After horrific events that leave him without family, Little Charlie Bobo (actually a twelve-year-old the size of an adult man) is forced to go with the local plantation's overseer to capture some runaway enslaved people. Little Charlie's voice and dialect is spot-on for a person of his class and situation; he has never been to school and can't read. That is, spot-on, as much as I can tell --- I'm certainly no expert on what it would sound like. Some have referenced Twain which makes sense as he certainly did use such dialog himself in his writing. Some have complained that it was challenging to read -- I found it quite easy. Curtis is able to give you such a great sense of his boy protagonists -- they are always a tad "fragile", pensive, and so so good at heart.

From the start Little Charlie is good, everything that happens early on makes that very clear. What he is also is racist, prejudiced, and extremely ignorant. His journey with the evil slave catcher is one of learning, growing, and changing --- what we would wish for all who are as limited in early experience as Charlie is.

There are some very dark moments in this book, extraordinary cruelty and brutality, yet all presented in a way that older children can definitely manage --- this is very much a middle grade book. I noticed someone writing that she planned to read it aloud to her 5th graders. I would be cautious with this, be mindful of the listeners --- who they are, their own lives, and how this could make them feel. I see it as for those ready for this harsh history lesson, say 6th, 7th, and 8th graders.

There are also some warm moments, Curtis's trademark humor, and description. I feel that I can recognize his style when he describes the slave catcher's rankness, a train ride for a boy who has never been on one, and the pain of enslaved people being retaken and separated. Most of all, there is the strength and power of the Canadians --- whites and blacks together.

This feels like a book of the moment, a #blacklivesmatter for the 19th century and today. Outstanding.
Profile Image for Karina.
824 reviews
October 19, 2021
"I 'membered thinking at the time 'tis too bad this can't be a reg'lar part of living, where we all gets a chance to walk away from whatever train wreck we's made of our lives and run off to start up building something new."
He looked off to the side and spit.
"Only trouble with that is all you end up doing is building that same old life back again. You ju' a actor moving on to another performance. You might get a different group of characters, a different set, but in the end you's starring in the same old stinking play." (PG. 79)

I enjoy having a set of diverse authors that I can come back to over and over again and Christopher Paul Curtis is one of them. He explores Black history and culture in a way that YA would not be bored and give them something to think about by the end of it. His written humor is sometimes funny or sad or hurtful to the main character.

"Slaves were the single most valuable asset in the American economy; the value of one individual ranged, in today's dollars, from $12,000 for a very young or very old field hand, to a staggering $176,000 for a skilled laborer." (Author's Notes)

This is a story about a poor white boy from the South named Charlie Bobo. This is a story of a boy who was capable of seeing the lie of what he'd been taught all his life. He is the one-tenth-of-one-percent of a person who initiated something brave instead of clenching his teeth, furrowing his brow, and saying with indignation, "Isn't that terrible?" He is what we imagine ourselves to be in a life-endangering situation.

Great Author.
Profile Image for Darla.
3,359 reviews529 followers
December 10, 2018
Charlie Bobo does indeed go on quite a journey. All the way from South Carolina and into Canada physically, but so much more emotionally. He is drafted to retrieve "treasure" that was "stolen" from a plantation owner. With both of his parents dead and their debts left unpaid, he has very few options. In this book we witness through Charlie's eyes the disdain shown to sharecroppers and the inhumane treatment of the enslaved darkies. Can Charlie rise above his circumstances and redeem himself despite the determined efforts of Cap'n Buck. The audio version is very well done. This book would also make a wonderful classroom read-aloud; especially appropriate if the mid-19th century is being studied in history at the time.
Profile Image for Brenda Kahn.
3,668 reviews53 followers
March 17, 2019
Yeah, yeah, yeah, dialect. Get over it! It's Christopher Paul Curtis! You can't miss this one. It might be his best yet. Challenge yourself as a reader and encourage your students to do so as well. This is a hard read with some hard truths and one that needs telling. So read it, share it, discuss it. If you absolutely can't take struggling with the dialect, find the audiobook. I cannot wait to reread this with my ears. It's narrated by one of my favorite narrators.

3/17/19 ETA: Just finished the audio as a reread and highly recommend it, especially if the dialect causes you reading difficulties.
Profile Image for Clarissa.
1,234 reviews30 followers
May 5, 2018
This was an amazing book. Little Charlie travels from South Carolina to Detroit and into Canada with a slave catcher, and learns to reject that part of his heritage, and realize that slaves and former slaves are as human as he is. Despite the serious topic, and the tense and exciting scenes, the book is very funny! Written in dialect I found myself thinking in dialect after I had been reading for a while.
428 reviews14 followers
February 25, 2018
If Curtis, a great writer, could be said to have a flaw, I would say it is plotting. It is ironic that it is in this book that he admits in his author’s note that he doesn’t outline his novels ahead of time, even though he recommends it as good practice. Knowing that explains some of the structural quirks of his previous books. The reason I say it’s ironic is because after the first chapter, this book does have a strong, straightforward plot, and combining that with his usual gifts, I think it may objectively be his best novel yet, though perhaps with less raw emotional impact than something like Watsons.
Profile Image for Emma.
277 reviews14 followers
April 7, 2018
Oh Christopher Paul Curtis, can you do no wrong? Perhaps, but I didn't find any in this book! I was gripped right from the beginning by Charlie's voice. In my uneducated opinion, Curtis nails the dialect from the first sentence. What would this book be without Charlie's narration in his dialect? It would still be good, but the dialect develops the character even more than his actions do, and is one of the best things about the book. It is gives the reader a fuller picture of Charlie's way of viewing and interpreting the world. I did not find the dialect difficult to read, but I can imagine that some readers (both young and old) would find it a challenge. But it is worth it!

My only reservation about this book is that Curtis does not sugarcoat or glide past the horrors of slave catching. He certainly doesn't glorify it or go into more detail than is necessary, but it can be difficult to stomach at times. Yet, I think that is part of what made this book so gripping. Not that I was enthralled with the violence, but it creates a weight to the story that makes you take it more seriously than just another middle grade historical fiction book.

This review really doesn't the book justice because I can't figure out how to say all the good things I want to say about it!
Profile Image for Destinee.
1,587 reviews143 followers
April 14, 2018
You can use this book to teach kids the meaning of irony. There is nothing little about Little Charlie. He is literally a very big kid at 12 years old and over six feet tall. He is very intelligent even though he doesn't know how to read. He is brave and defiant even though for most of this story he follows orders. He may not know a lot about the world (he's hardly been outisde Possum Moan, South Carolina) but he seems to carry more wisdom than many of the adults around him. There's some classic dramatic irony, too:

As a poor white child of the South in the 1850s Little Charlie Bobo is the unlikely narrator of a book about slavery and Buxton, Ontario. What does Little Charlie really know about slavery? Why did the author choose to tell this story through Little Charlie? In the afterward, CPC says he originally intended to tell the story by alternating between Little Charlie and another character, Sylvanus Demarest, but somehow Little Charlie Bobo took over.

If readers can get the hang of the Southern dialect with phonetic spelling (e.g. apocky-lips) it will be worth the effort. This is a great yarn with a truly horrible villain, high stakes, and an unlikely hero. Be warned there's a lot of violence mentioned in the pages. Be warned that this is historical fiction that doesn't much sugarcoat the racist language and ideas of the time.

I really liked the anecdote about the Hamburg bridge collapsing and some of the crew using the opportunity to fake their deaths and start over -- a second chance.

Only trouble with that is all you end up doing is building that same old life back again. You jus' a actor moving on to another performance. You might get a different group of characters, a different set, but in the end you's starring in the same old stinking play.

One morning you gonna wake up and wonder who was the lucky ones, them that went down with the train and was snuffed out quick, or them that lived on and was having to get their train wreck played out slow over years and years.

It sounds bleak, but it effectively makes its point. The story certainly has an impact on Little Charlie Bobo.
Profile Image for Laura Harrison.
999 reviews111 followers
March 22, 2018
I was so sure I would love this book. I am a huge Christopher Paul Curtis fan. The Journey of Little Charlie was disappointing to say the least. Even the cover art is misleading. It gives you the impression that it is about two boys who are traveling together. They do at the very end. Maybe 4 pages worth. Traveling is an overstatement. Mostly they are on a train together. The book was not a fun read. I doubt children will enjoy it. There is sadness and abuse or at least the threat of it throughout. In animal and human form. Some of the abuse is actually explained so you know exactly what it is and how it is done. No thanks. I could have done without the details. I can't think of a joyous moment or any feeling of real happiness. In the beginning you think it may be a boy and his loyal dog story. That sweet premise ends rather abruptly. Or a story about a boy and his parents. Same deal. Or a boy and his widowed mom. Nope. The dialect didn't add anything to the story. Just because you are poor doesn't mean you can't speak well. Or at least better than was portrayed in the book. Maybe one or two Southern dialects could have been used that weren't so demeaning. I wonder how Southern readers will feel about it. I will say it was a pretty quick read. Mostly because you want some relief for Charlie. Relief that never really comes. Even when he decides to do the right thing at the end, he is horribly beaten and nearly killed. Worse yet, the author "tells" the ending instead of "shows". One of the worst crimes in writing. Instead of a surprise or happy freeing of the husband and wife escaped slaves, every step of the way is spelled out. Little Charlie even requests they don't kill him because he is bringing them to a blacksmith to take off their chains. Then he tells them they are going to get into a boat and go to Canada...and that is it. I sure miss the editors of old. By old I mean like ten years ago. I bet they could have made something wonderful out of The Journey of Little Charlie.

Profile Image for Joanne Kelleher.
652 reviews4 followers
May 11, 2018
Cap'n Buck, the antagonist of this story, was the most despicable, amoral, ignorant character that I have ever come across in a middle grade book. The saddest part is that he is representative of real slave-catchers who were just as brutal, if not more so.
I listened to the audio book (which helped with the dialect) and at times I had to stop listening because the events were so upsetting.
The second half of the book was a bit easier to handle than the first half, especially as Charlie begins to think for himself and to question his role in the Cap'n's mission.
Part of the book takes place in Canada and I enjoyed learning how progressive Canada was in the pre-Civil War period. Little Charlie's innocent reactions to the Canadian way of life were endearing.
This was a very tough read, but rewarding.
Profile Image for Erica Deb.
Author 2 books7 followers
March 18, 2019
2.5. There’s a lot I really didn’t like about this book, mainly that it was written in southern speak, which I can’t stand and as a child, of the reading age this book is geared towards, I found impossible to get through. I know there is a point to this style and it is a learning experience for kids, but it is one that I disagree with. I think kids should have a better handle on reading before struggling through this type of writing.
The book was also graphic and disturbing, which does a good job of driving home how horrible slavery was. That being said, the round about way that the main character came to understand what was happening was frustrating to say the least. He was basically a blank slate with very little personality and connection to what was happening around him. At the end he started to wisen up, but if the events of the near ending hadn’t happened, I think he would have just followed the captain and kept on going. I wouldn’t recommend this book.
Profile Image for Kirsten.
979 reviews
April 22, 2019
Off the charts. Amazing. Read in one sitting. Deserving of every starred review and accolade. Second reading for our Mother/Daughter Book Group. I didn't remember the violence but it was an integral part of the story. This is why we read. To learn about times and places that we could never imagine. A triumphant story of growth for Little Charlie.
Profile Image for Richie Partington.
1,084 reviews128 followers
August 3, 2018
Richie’s Picks: THE JOURNEY OF LITTLE CHARLIE by Christopher Paul Curtis, Scholastic Press, January 2018, 256p., ISBN: 978-0-545-15666-0

“Oligarch…(especially in Russia) a very rich business leader with a great deal of political influence”

“Time moves different when something you ain’t ‘specting to happen goes ‘head on and happens anyhow. I seent where time goes from moving at the reg’lar schedule to when it slides ‘long on grease locomotive rails. I also seent where it slows right on down, like it’s fighting its way through a big invisible jug of molasses.
Trouble is I can’t figure what it is that makes one thing move fast and the other slow.
For a sample, if you was to ax me afore I seent what happened to Pap, I never would’ve thought time could slow down in the way it done. It was something so turrible that I’d-a give anything to make it go by faster, or better still, make it so I didn’t never see it at all.
As ‘shamed as it make me feel and coldheart as it sound, I wish I’d-a jus’ run ‘crost Pap laying at the foot of that old maple with that big gash setting like a extra smile ‘crost his forehead.
If I hadn’t been cursed to see what happened with my own eyes, it probably would’ve been nigh on useless to try and figger how my pap come to be laying there, but I’d trade being ignorant ‘bout it in a hop, skip, and a jump if that meant the sight of him wouldn’t be barging into my dreams no more.
But I seent it, and unseeing something’s the same as unringing a bell; it ain’t never been done. I don’t care how much you want to get rid of the remembering, you might as well not fight it, you might as well jus’ go ahead and make yourself a holster, ‘cause that memory is yourn and you gonna be toting it ‘round for the rest of your life.”

Only a small portion of Americans living in the Antebellum South benefited from slavery. The scarcity of public education in the South and an omnipresent propaganda campaign about the inferiority of blacks caused ignorant, poor, whites to support the institution of slavery, despite the fact that it was contrary to their own economic interests.

If it were not for slavery, working class whites would have been able to demand higher wages, as they could in the North.

In THE JOURNEY OF LITTLE CHARLIE, a coming-of-age story set in 1858, Christopher Paul Curtis creates a pair of unforgettable characters whose ignorance and exploitation represents the white people victimized by the Southern Oligarchy. A few years after the story takes place, so many of these same whites would lose their lives in the oligarchy’s last desperate gasp attempt to maintain low labor costs.

Little Charlie is a huge, uneducated, twelve year-old son of sharecroppers, and Cap’n Buck is the overseer for Mr. Tanner, who owns the property that Little Charlie’s parents used to own but now rent.

When a shocking bad break leads to the accidental death of Big Charlie, Little Charlie’s dad, Cap’n Buck exploits the situation by falsely claiming that he’d fronted Big Charlie a chunk of money. Little Charlie is forced to participate in a scheme to go north to Detroit with Cap’n Buck to help kidnap a family of escaped slaves. Despite his dire situation, Little Charlie’s liberation from the farm broadens his horizons and helps him overcome many of his ignorant assumptions. Through Little Charlie’s journey, we come to understand the misinformed thinking of poor white, Southerners, and how unfortunate their lot was.

“The conquest of [rickets], once the most common affliction of childhood, ranks with the prevention of diarrheal diseases of infancy and diphtheria as triumphs of combined medical research and public health administration. Even as late as 1940 rickets was deemed ‘still probably the most common disease of early childhood.’”
-- Harold E. Harrison, M.D., “A Tribute to the First Lady of Public Health (Martha M. Eliot) (1966)

An incident in the story brings up an incredibly interesting piece of medical history: rickets. I now understand why my physician tells me to take a daily Vitamin D supplement to make up for what I don’t get nutritionally through my vegan diet.

THE JOURNEY OF LITTLE CHARLIE is the most powerful story that Christopher Paul Curtis has written to date. Curtis’s award-winning stories for young people have now spanned more than two decades, a career longevity that puts him in a league with Roberto Clemente, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Wayne Gretzky. I hope there’s a Children’s Literature Legacy Award coming his way sometime soon!

Richie Partington, MLIS
Richie's Picks http://richiespicks.pbworks.com
Profile Image for Jordan Henrichs.
285 reviews7 followers
March 2, 2018
The seemingly authentic dialect is thick and tough to slog through at times. As usual with Curtis, the period details feel spot on. For the most part, the story moves along at a swift pace although the subject matter was difficult to stomach for me.
Profile Image for Barb Middleton.
1,693 reviews124 followers
May 5, 2018
I listened to the audiobook and didn't realize this was written in a southern dialect. No problems here understanding Little Charlie's southern accent by an excellent narrator. Little Charlie is from a poor white sharecropper family in the 1800s and at 6 feet two inches he is anything but little. The nuanced characters come alive making this tale hard to put down. Little Charlie is a flawed character that changes from his experience into a better person. The exploration of prejudice, racism, violence, and heroic behavior guarantees spirited discussions.

Twelve-year-old Charlie Bobo's father dies in a freak accident, leaving Charlie and his mother vulnerable to being taken advantage of by those that want their land. Sure enough, they become victims of the evil Capt'n Buck, an overseer of the landowner who is notorious for his violence against slaves and tenants. Charlie is conscripted by Capt'n Buck to find a family of runaway slaves in Canada claiming he has to pay off his father's debt. Capt'n Buck is a nasty piece of work whose claims at borrowing money to their father sounds fishy from the get-go. Little Charlie's mother is so frightened by Capt'n Buck that she tries to shoot him when he comes to collect the money. As Capt'n Buck and Little Charlie journey north, Little Charlie has new experiences that lead him to make moral decisions regarding following the crowd or listening to his conscience.

Charlie is a flawed character. He's racist at the beginning and less so by the end and he represents a white Southern upbringing, but as his mom says, he has a good heart and the reader is left with the hope he'll grow into a decent human being. He makes mistakes along the way, refers to blacks as "darkies", and is jealous of the educated and more polished runaway black boy going to school that he's been sent to catch. Little Charlie's jealousy leads to errors in judgment and the reader is able to really get inside his head thanks to some great writing. The history of Canada and protection certain towns provided for runaway slaves is fascinating. Make sure to read or listen to the author's notes.
Profile Image for Phil J.
701 reviews54 followers
January 4, 2019
Christopher Paul Curtis has lost his mind.

Time moves different when something you ain't 'specting to happen goes 'head on and happens anyhow. I seent where time goes from moving at the reg'lar pace to when it slides 'long on greased locomotive rails. I also seent where it slows right on down, like it's fighting its way through a big invisible jug of molasses. (p. 11)

How many children are prepared for this mix of dialect, figurative language and unreliable narration? I'm guessing about 50% of eighth graders would be able to follow this book. For them and for me, it is a rich, rewarding experience.

It helps if you've already read Elijah of Buxton, although this book is noticeably more difficult. The material is also pushing the limits of Newbery territory. Curtis is an expert on slavery, and he is unwilling to sugarcoat blood, violence and torture for his audience. Frankly, though, if you can crack the text level, then you can probably handle the content.
Profile Image for The Reading Countess.
1,737 reviews57 followers
March 11, 2018
Five stars. Three words. Christopher Paul Curtis.

I've read aloud Bud, Not Buddy too many times to count to too many fourth and fifth graders throughout my career, and I am always amazed at the nuanced writing-the humor, the mirror held up to the social injustices suffered and the humanity he is able to paint in such broad strokes. I've also read his The Mighty Miss Malone and The Watsons Go to Birmingham, the latter being a required novel in the grade above my level at my school. Curtis is good. He's really good.

But The Journey of Little Charlie just may well be his shining piece of literature. The southern accents take awhile to get used to and slow you down as you first get into the book, but then you're off. And what an adventure this one is. If you want to know what bravery is, read Charlie's story. I loved the tale from beginning to end, and only wish I knew what happened to Charlie's ma.

Make sure to read the author's note (though, according to my youngest son, "no one reads that part of the book, Mama.")
Profile Image for Czechgirl.
368 reviews14 followers
May 14, 2018
This was an easy read as far as interest level goes. This story drew me in immediately. However, the content was not as easy to read. It tells the true horror of slave-catching and the dangers that lurk with them. It brought in some history I was not quite aware of, but makes sense. If you were an escaped slaves, the northern states didn't necessarily support your freedom. You had to carry documents showing you were a freed slave, which made the escape to Canada so much more important to escaped slave. I was not aware of the laws in Canada protecting escaped slaves. Good for Canada. The dialect in the story shows Curtis' writing talent, but is hard to read at times. Very thick dialect.
Profile Image for Janice.
75 reviews3 followers
January 2, 2019
Wonderful audio rendition of Curtis's newest historical fiction.
I reread this in order to facilitate a 5th grade Newbery discussion group. The cruelty of slavery and slave catchers is heavy stuff for 10-year-olds, but the kids were fascinated and appalled. Curtis's dialect dialog was as challenging as the subject matter, but they persevered and liked it. I can't wait to see how the second group of kids to read it will respond.
Profile Image for Katie Fitzgerald.
Author 4 books202 followers
Shelved as 'did-not-finish'
January 28, 2018
I have always said I would gladly read anything by Christopher Paul Curtis, but the dialect in this book is just too much of a stumbling block for me and I decided to abandon the ARC after the first chapter. Reading dialect feels very tedious to me, and trying to read it aloud just made me sound foolish. I will consider revisiting the story as an audiobook in the future.
Profile Image for Dan.
493 reviews11 followers
August 8, 2018
A wonderful novel. Highly recommended if you enjoy historical fiction. I recommend the audiobook because of the southern dialect. This will probably win some awards. Thanks for the recommendation Kirsten!
Profile Image for Annalise Nakoneczny.
628 reviews11 followers
October 29, 2020
This book dives deep into the statement that so many white Americans tell themselves: "if I had lived during the period where slavery was legal in our country, I would've done something about it!" It's based on true events (read the Author's Note). Little Charlie is a character that, in Curtis's own words, "even though he was raised awash in racism, ignorance, and all-encompassing poverty . . . was someone who was capable of seeing the lie of what he'd been taught." The brilliance of this book is the historical accuracy and the reality with which Little Charlie comes to this realization. He is no white savior and he doesn't have a modern mindset. He's a bumbling, clumsy boy, trapped in the views of his time and staggering to the truth of the cruelty of slavery. The black characters in this book are strong, wise, kind, and they shine so brightly. They exude hope and strength and steal the scenes that they are in. Also I think this book connects with Elijah of Buxton, which I have not read yet.
Profile Image for Brandy Painter.
1,607 reviews229 followers
July 8, 2018
3.5 stars

This book is about a share cropper's son who must travel with a slave catcher to Michigan in order to pay of a debt his father incurred before his tragic death. Charlie doesn't like the overseer he is indebted to and finds everything about their journey distasteful. I enjoyed this mostly because it is a glimpse into a part of this country's history we don't see much in children's books. There are many books that cover slavery, but not from the point of view of slave catchers. I was sort of disappointed because I went in with the expectation that this was more about a friendship between Charlie and the son of the family he is being forced to retrieve. This was not the book's fault, but I would have liked to have seen a bit more character development all around.
Profile Image for Sue.
782 reviews1 follower
April 25, 2018
Christopher Paul Curtis is among the best of the best.. I wonder if kids will take to the 'slang' or language that is used... but once you get going in the story it doesn't matter.. another look into the cruelty and journey of slavery..
Profile Image for Kari.
720 reviews27 followers
December 22, 2018
I struggle to evaluate books like this . . . it was of course excellent but I don’t know how I would be able to get a kid to read it. And I can’t really see a class using it because of the dialect.
Profile Image for Abby Turner.
1,282 reviews53 followers
October 24, 2019
I fell in love with little Charlie. He was trapped and then he was brave. The language was perfect. I’d like to listen to an audiobook. Really great read.
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