It's Black History Month, and the phone in Itah Sadu's store, A Different Booklist, is jumping off the hook. At least 25 times a day, another
desperate schoolteacher tries to schedule this magnetic performer, with the lilting Barbadian accent that she can switch on and off, for a
spine-tingling, uproarious story-telling session.
Too late! She leaps to answer the phone, dreadlocks flying, and purrs her regrets politely into the receiver. She's been fully booked for ages.
Maybe, one of these days, Black History Month will be more appropriately re-named White Catch-Up Month, a time of the year when we non-African
Canadians ruefully recognize just how ethnocentrically most of us learn, play, teach and read.
Our is the loss, of course. One of the richest veins of gold in our culture is the lore and literature by writers of African descent. But chin
up ---Itah (pronounced Eye-tah), together with the wizards at the Toronto Public Library, are about to help us levitate right out of our
monocultural February doldrums.
The idea is that all the school children, parents and teachers in Toronto will, this month, read Bud, Not Buddy, by Christopher Paul Curtis, a young
people's novel (count me young) that two years ago won the Newbery Medal, highest honour for children's in North America, as well as the Coretta
Scott King Award for black authors of distinction.
In the solitude of the reader's imagination, but together with thousands of others, we'll enter the adventurous, poignant and spunkily funny world
of 10 year old Bud (not Buddy). Bud has been orphaned from the age of six, surviving Depression-era foster homes and orphanages, breadlines and hobo
"Hoovervilles". Driven too far by a cruel foster family, the scared but undaunted Bud lights out for Grand Rapids, a skinny kid armed only with his
own resourcefulness, bravado and his private (and hilariously insightful) "Rules to Have a Funner Life and Make a Better Liar Out of Yourself".
All he has is a battered suitcase containing a few mysterious mementoes from his dead mother. He is sure those remnants ---a handful of rocks
inked with mysterious codes, some flyers for a jazz band --- hold the clue to finding his unknown father.
The writing is brilliantly alive and rhythmic with Bud's African-American cadences. We see the world through his wide-open but wary eyes, laugh in
empathy with his innocent misunderstandings of a baffling world, and hold our breath at his narrow escapes. The pain, struggle and gifts of African
Americans, battling both racism and the Depression, bounce off the page in characters so immediate we could swear they're real. And, in a sense, they
are ---two of the men, Lefty Lewis, a railroad porter union organizer, and Herman E. Calloway, band-leader of the jazz group wonderfully named the
Dusky Devastators of the Depression, are based on Curtis's remarkable grandfathers.
The book's most moving scene comes when the radiant Miss Thomas, the band's jazz singer (modelled on Betty Carter) takes the hungry, scared,
exhausted kid on her lap and soothes him with a hum ---a hum so powerful, like a train "shake-a-shake-shaking from somewhere far off", made Bud feel
"like something big and strong was passing right by you and everything on you was getting rattly and shaky and about to get shook loose."
Dare you not to cry when Bud, sensing he is home at last, in the midst of "smiling and laughing and busting a gut" after a restaurant meal with his
new friends, breaks down into sudden, helpless sobs.
The author, Christopher Paul Curtis, sets his story in Flint, Michigan, where he grew up, worked for years on the automobile assembly-lines and
haunted the libraries in the evenings. He, his Canadian wife Kaysandra and their daughter have lived in Windsor since '88, so we can proudly claim
Curtis as a Canadian writer.
And here's Itah's treat for us: on February 22, after Christopher Paul Curtis has read to 800 students gathered at Ursula Franklin School, he'll
come to A Different Booklist (746 Bathurst below Bloor) at 4 P.M. and read and rap with as many kids and parents as can squeeze in.. He's a wonderful
presence --- huge and beefy, a fanatic basketball player, radiating unpretentious warmth, with a laugh that comes rolling up from somewhere as
deep as Miss Thomas's hum.
If you can't make the afternoon at the bookstore, try to get to the Toronto Public Library at Bloor and Gladstone at 7 P.M., where Curtis will
read and sign books. For maximum pleasure, read Bud, Not Buddy first, and join the invisible republic of Toronto readers whose world is being
enriched in this Black History month.
Thank you for reading this story…
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