Yesterday I read Christopher Paul Curtis’s newest book, The Journey of Little Charlie. I’m a Curtis fan, and critics have already given the book rave reviews.
They were right. Curtis has done it again with an on point historical fiction adventure that captures a unique point of view through the main character, Charlie. Charlie is the twelve-year-old son of a white sharecropper who, through a series of mishaps, spends the greater part of the tale assisting a hateful overseer on a trip north to capture “thieves”. As it turns out, the property that the thieves stole was themselves and their future children.
This is a book that needs to be read. Curtis has illuminated a chunk of our American history that requires us to look in the mirror and face hard truths. A part of history that we cannot ignore or avoid because, without it, we cannot begin to try to understand the state of our nation as it exists today. And as always, when I read children’s literature, I read this book asking which of my students’ hands can I put this into right away?
This will be a difficult read for some of my fifth graders. There are several passages that are hard to read because they realistically describe certain horrific events of the time. Then again, few of my fifth graders are immune to knowledge of horrific events taking place in our own time. Additionally, Curtis captures the dialect of the characters so well that it may make it challenging for a ten year old native New Yorker to decipher some of it. But that’s something I can help my young readers work through.
What matters most to me is that I open doors to understanding by exposing my students to independent reading material that they might not encounter without my guidance. My students and I have talked together about Rudine Sims Bishop’s paradigm of mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. We’ve discussed how the books we choose for ourselves should be a sampling of each of those ideas, so we can identify with some characters and learn to empathize with others. Each of us needs to see ourselves in the books that we read, and each of us to needs to read books that open our minds to the unique experiences of others.
There is so much that my ten-year-old students don’t yet know. There is so much that I don’t yet know. As a teacher, it’s my job, no, it’s my sacred responsibility to give my students the tools and resources to help them best grow during the short time we are in each other’s lives. So I choose to provide them with something lasting. With a philosophy of learning that will carry them way beyond the time they spend in my classroom. With a tool that will enable them to be citizens of a socially just world that they will continually need to create.
To me, that tool is a love of reading. A taste for excellence in literature. An understanding that our understanding can be infinitely broadened if we choose well from the enormous number of books that are out there waiting for us.
So on Monday, I will place this new book in my classroom library. However, this will not be enough. I will also need to talk it, to sell it, to raffle it. I’ll start by holding it up in front of my students at the carpet, telling them about the afternoon I spent reading it. How I couldn’t put it down. How it took me a few chapters to adjust to the authentic voice of the narrator. How I thought of them the whole time I was reading because I couldn’t wait to be able to discuss it together. Then I’ll tell them how I’ll be ordering a few more copies, but I have one to raffle off today. One lucky student will win the opportunity to be the first reader, the one whose name will go on the First Read By sticker inside the cover of this copy. Finally, I’ll hand the book to that ten year old reader.
And then, at last, the magic will begin.