Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

  • Title: Bud, Not Buddy
  • Author: Christopher Paul Curtis
  • Publisher: Delacorte
  • Year Published: 1999
  • ISBN: 0385323069
  • List Price: $16.99
  • Page Count: 256
  • Age Range: 8-12
  • Genre: historical fiction
  • Award(s): Newbery Medal Winner; Coretta Scott King Medal Winner; more here.

Author information: Christopher Paul Curtis has written many books for young readers, including many award winning historical novels focusing on the African American experience in America. His website includes a brief biography, a list of the books he’s written, contact information, a list of news and events (including current projects to turn one of his novels, The Watsons Go to Birmingham into a TV movie as well as The Mighty Miss Malone‘s nomination for an NAACP image award), and a list of resources that includes teacher supplements, book guides, and author interviews. One of the interviews his website links to is one that Curtis gave to the ALA, in which he talks about the importance of the library to him. He says that he visited the Flint, Michigan library a lot when he was growing up, and he believes that libraries are unparalleled when it comes to librarian knowledge of books as well as the resources that libraries have to offer.

Reviews: Bud, Not Buddy received positive reviews from the major publications, including Booklist, School Library Journal, and Publisher’s Weekly. All of them highlight the humor and optimism with which Curtis tells Bud’s story, and the adventurous plot that keeps the readers engrossed until the last page. School Library Journal does mention that while Buddy is a fully developed character, some of the others are “exaggerations: the good ones (the librarian and Pullman car porter who help him on his journey and the band members who embrace him) are totally open and supportive, while the villainous foster family finds particularly imaginative ways to torture their charge”, but SLJ says this is an easily forgivable fault due to the charming nature of the book as a whole.

Readers annotation: Bud may be an orphan with no money to his name, but he doesn’t let that stop him on his adventure to find his father.

Summary: Bud’s mother died when he was six years old, and since that time he’s spent his life in orphanages and in and out of various foster homes. He’s sent to live with the Amos family and does not even last one night before he’s beaten up and thrown into a shed to sleep, so he decides to run away. Initially he decides to hop on a train going west with a friend, but he misses the train. He then decides to walk to a nearby town where the man he is convinced is his father lives. He believes this man is his father because of some flyers his mother had with his face on them, which he keeps with all of his treasured possessions in his suitcase. During his walk, an older man sees him and gives him a ride and shows him kindness, and then he meets the man he believes is his father and his bandmates. His “dad” is rough and suspicious, but his bandmates take a liking to Bud and let him stay. Eventually, it is revealed that Bud is actually the man’s grandson, and his mother was his beloved daughter who ran away. This discovery cements for Bud that this is the place he belongs.

Evaluation: Bud’s voice is extraordinary. His observations about the world around him feel authentic and reflect what a ten year old boy who is alone in the world might be thinking, complete with endearing naivety. For example, when Bud tries to walk from Flint to find his father, the reader is filled with anxiety when Lefty tries to explain why it isn’t safe for a young black boy to be out in that particular town at night, but Bud clearly does not understand the danger he is in and is instead concerned that Lefty may be a vampire out to suck his blood. These observations simultaneously amuse the reader and break her heart. Bud is a fully developed character who the reader sympathizes with and whose concerns and hopes transcend the time period the book is set in and resonate with young readers today. The characters that Bud meets on his journey, while they may not shine as brightly as Bud himself, are entertaining and good foils for Bud’s antics and adventures. The plot is well-paced and keeps the readers invested in the outcome of Bud’s journey, and the backdrop of the Great Depression adds texture and historical depth to Bud’s story. Although this book does address the issue of race and racism, that is not the primary message or theme of the book; rather, this book examines the life and dreams of a young orphaned boy and his determination to find a place in the world where he belongs. The book mentions the Pullman porters and their poor treatment and difficulty unionizing as well as the danger of being black and in the wrong town after dark, but these ideas play in the background rather than at the forefront, which contrasts sharply with other books of this genre that make race the defining purpose of the novel. Children of all races and ages will find much to love in this charming book, and the happy ending is sure to warm even the toughest reader’s heart.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 5/5 This may be the best historical novel of this time period for a young age group. It brilliantly uses the historical context to provide details and conflict for the story, but this detail does not overwhelm or bog down the narrative. Bud’s voice is authentic and unique and will appeal to a variety of readers.
  • Popularity: 4/5 Some readers may not want to check out this book because it seems, upon first glance, to be “historical”, which young readers often conflate with “boring”. If a reader does give this book a chance, he will not be disappointed. Bud’s humor will keep the reader laughing and his positive attitude, intelligence, and bravery will give the reader much to identify with.
  • Appeal factors: African-American protagonist, historical setting, funny narrator, happy ending.

Read-alikes: 

  1. Readers who enjoyed learning about the impact of the Great Depression might enjoy Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan. Esperanza is a Mexican girl whose family moves to California during the Depression, and like Bud, she has to adjust to difficult circumstances and injustice and use her intelligence and courage to make a better life for herself.
  2. Crow by Barbara Wright may be a good fit for readers who enjoyed reading about a young African American boy’s experience in historical America. This book is set in 1898 and follows Moses, a young black boy who struggles with quintessential childhood issues, such as growing apart from his best friend, as well as those unique to his time period, like dealing with racism in an era when older generations still remember being slaves.

Book talk ideas: The most endearing thing about this book is Bud’s voice, so let that do the talking. Explain that Bud is an orphan during the Great Depression and that he is on a quest to find his father and make a better life for himself. Say that he has a list of rules that he lives by, and list some of Bud’s rules. Ask the potential readers if they think these are good rules, and what rules they would add if they were making this list. Talk about how Bud deals with many difficult and scary situations, such as getting attacked by a swarm of hornets, having to sleep outside under a tree, and trying to jump on a moving train. 

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Although race isn’t at the forefront of this novel, name some instances in which the narrative reveals how people of different races are treated. What does this suggest about race and racism during the Depression?
  2. What do you think about all of Bud’s rules? Which one is your favorite? Which ones don’t you agree with?
  3. Did you like the ending? Why or why not? Pretend you had to write an epilogue to the book–what would happen to Bud and the other characters?

Reason for reading: This is another title that was recommended to me by a library co-worker and fellow MLIS student. She said that the book has a horrible cover but is actually wonderful, and that every time she recommends it to a kid they enjoy it. I had seen this book on a few lists of Newbery winners worth checking out, but the title and cover made the book seem boring, so I ignored it. After reading it, I looked online and saw that the paperback cover is significantly better, so hopefully more kids are drawn to read it now.

Additional relevant information: Christopher Paul Curtis released The Mighty Miss Malone in 2013. This book follows the life of Deza Malone, a girl that Bud met in a Hooverville in Flint.

Walter Dean Myers wrote an article in the New York Times about the lack of representation of people of color in children’s literature. It came out around the same time as I finished reading this novel, and I think the book and the article complement each other well, and that Curtis is an author who stands out for creating strong black protagonists and is one that librarians should recommend often and wholeheartedly.

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