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The Watsons Go to Birmingham and MJ vs. LeBron: A Conversation with Christopher Paul Curtis

It was an honor to talk with Christopher Paul Curtis on the 25th anniversary of his Newbery Honor winning book, The Watsons Go to Birmingham 1963.

Travis Jonker: Hello, Mr. Curtis! Congratulations on the 25th anniversary of The Watsons Go to Birmingham! Thank you for taking my questions.

The timing of this interview is perfect – my daughter’s class just finished reading the book. So these first two questions are from her 5th grade class in Holland, Michigan

Christopher Paul Curtis: Yeah! Go Holland!

TJ: Why did you want to write about this specific time in history?

CPC: There wasn’t any desire to write about a specific time, I just wanted to write something…anything!  This probably falls under the adage that first novels are often autobiographical and turn out to be examinations of the author’s past, in this case my youth.  So that’s where the story began for me.  From a strictly literary view the early sixties were a time that were made for fiction; plenty of action, plenty of emotion, plenty of important events.  I just lucked out being born when and where I was.

TJ: What is your favorite part of the book?

CPC: It varies. Some of the time it’s the interplay between the family, some of the time it’s the humorous parts and some of the time it’s the final scene where Byron reaches down and pulls Kenny out of his funk.

TJ: How did Watsons change your life?

CPC: The changes this book made in my life have been seismic.  Besides financial considerations there is the more satisfying fact that because of Kenny and the Watsons I am able to make a living doing something I love.  It happened relatively late for me and that has just served to make me more appreciative.  I was in my early forties when it was published and it was a life-preserver for me.   

TJ: Are there any recent authors or books you’d recommend?

CPC: Not real recent, but I loved The Sun Is Also A Star by Nicola Yoon.  She’s a very strong writer.

TJ: I’ve heard that basketball is one of your hobbies, so I have to ask since the NBA season ended recently – MJ or LeBron?

CPC: That depends on what you’re really asking.  If the question is whom do I admire more it has to be LeBron.  I remember first hearing about him when he was in high school and I couldn’t help having a flash of sorrow.  He was so insanely popular at such an insanely young age that I thought there was no way he’d not be a total jerk by the time he hit his early twenties.  As evidenced by so many great young athletic prodigies (and children of the ultra wealthy), being adored and worshipped as a child ain’t often a recipe for making a well-rounded human being.  But I have been so pleasantly surprised by Mr. James!

He seems to have matured into an unaffected and caring person.  And while I know he has public relation teams to make sure the public perception of him remains positive it appears he has grown beyond even that.  One of the marked differences between MJ and LBJ is that while MJ has consistently played his hand to protect his brand and not to offend anyone LBJ has gone public and spoken out in a way that shows courage.

Athletically James is far too big and strong for MJ and would dominate His Airness.  If they were to play one-on-one MJ might win one out of every hundred games.   

Now, if you are asking me who’s the greatest in the NBA of all times I’d have to say neither.  From the bottom of my heart I believe the greatest player the NBA has ever witnessed would have to be Muggsy Bogues.  Seriously, five-foot-three-inch tall Muggsy Bogues pound-for-pound is the greatest player in NBA history.  The quickness, speed and basketball intelligence of someone that size playing in a game of giants would have to be off the charts.  This was no circus act either, he legitimately competed in the league for fourteen years!  That’s an eternity.  An almost unbelievable accomplishment.   

TJ: Wow – I did not expect this answer, but I appreciate it. Thank you for taking my questions!

About Travis Jonker

Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian in Michigan. He writes reviews (and the occasional article or two) for School Library Journal and is a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee. You can email Travis at scopenotes@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.