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Thursday, September 15, 2016

Bud, Not Buddy

"Most folks think you start to be a real adult when you’re fifteen or sixteen years old, but that’s not true, it really starts when you’re around six. It’s at six that grown folks don’t think you’re a cute little kid anymore, they talk to you and expect that you understand everything they mean." This is the statement of ten-year-old Bud Caldwell, one in a long line of orphans in young people's literature. He's the narrator of Bud, Not Buddy, by Christopher Paul Curtis.

The difference with Bud is that he's African American and the book is set in 1930s Michigan. When the book begins, Bud is in Flint in a "home," and clutches tight to a cardboard suitcase that contains his only possessions, including some things from his mother, who died when he was six. One of the items is a flyer for a jazz musician, Herbert Calloway, who performs in Grand Rapids. Bud is convinced that the man is his father.

After a disastrous stay at a foster home, where a boy terrorizes him by sticking a pencil up his nose to see how far the word "Ticonderoga" can go, Bud skedaddles. He finds a Hooverville, and tries to jump a freighter with his friend Bugs, but fails. So he hoofs it, and meets a kindly train porter who teaches him not be a young black man out alone in the middle of the night.

He then makes it to Grand Rapids and finds Calloway, who thinks he's up to something, though the other band members take to him, especially a Miss Thomas, the band's singer. There's a nice warm feeling through the book once Bud escapes from the mean family--this book's conflict is larger than Bud's problems, for he is actually pretty lucky the way things go, considering.

Bud is good company. He has many rules for how to avoid trouble, and has some plainspoken truths, like: "I knew a nervous-looking, stung-up kid with blood dripping from a fish-head bite and carrying a old raggedy suitcase didn’t look like he belonged around here." Or: "I can never get why grown folks will put a kid all alone in a bedroom at night. It’s just like they give the ghosts a treasure map and instead of there being a big pot of gold where X marks the spot, there’s some poor kid that’s sound asleep."

I had intended to teach this to my sixth-graders, but at the last second we were told we could only order two books, not five, so this one got sacrificed. Too bad, because I think they would have enjoyed it.

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