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Want Kids to Read? 'Get Them Laughing'

Writer's Visit Inspires Alexandria School

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 1, 2005; Page B01

In the early 1970s, Christopher Paul Curtis graduated from high school and decided there was no reason to go to college if he could work in a car factory and make enough to buy himself a cassette player with five-foot-high speakers and a pale lemon Camaro with a houndstooth interior.

Curtis doesn't like to brag, but he looked really good driving that Camaro.

Ebony Dixon, left, gets a coveted signature from Christopher Paul Curtis, as Darian Beamon and Charlene Hollins wait their turn. He signed books, casts and T-shirts, but no foreheads. (Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)

He hated the factory, however. "Any of you been to a car factory?" he asked an auditorium packed with seventh-graders at George Washington Middle School in Alexandria yesterday. "They're terrible. Sharp metal everywhere, sparks flying out."

Then he acted out his job attaching car doors on the assembly line in Flint, Mich. Lift this. Screw that. Screw the other thing. Then check to see if it fits -- it never does -- so you start it all again.

The kids were riveted.

Curtis, the author of three young-adult books, including the Newbery Medal-winning "Bud, Not Buddy," was guest of honor at George Washington after the school mounted a three-month effort to bring him down from Windsor, Ontario, for the day.

Businesses, the mayor and the school district contributed to the $9,000 cost of his visit, which included giving each seventh-grader a copy of "Bud, Not Buddy," Curtis's story of an orphan boy during the Depression, and sixth- and eighth-graders a copy of "The Watsons Go to Birmingham -- 1963," about the civil rights movement.

Together, the two books have sold 2 million copies. For the school's Literacy Month, the students read them and wrote out questions for their visitor.

With his chin-length dreadlocks, booming voice and engaging tales of his youth (when, he noted, he had a big Afro), Curtis, 51, seemed like a comedian or rock star. Stopping to quiz the students on vocabulary (and rewarding a few with "bookmarks" consisting of $20 bills), he described how he courted his future wife, who lived four hours away in Canada, and how, after burning out the Camaro and another car going to see her and after racking up so many phone calls to her that his service was disconnected, he finally started writing to her.

"She wrote back, 'I love you, and from the letters I've seen that you've written, I think you could be a writer,' " he recalled.

It wasn't until 1995, after years at the factory and then at a warehouse, that he got his first book contract. Curtis elicited gasps of indignation when he revealed that he makes only $1.70 from each $17 book. But there are other compensations.

"I never imagined that I'd be at George Washington Middle School talking about a book I had written," he said, "and I never imagined that someday I'd have a Whoopi doll under my bed at home." The doll was a present from actress Whoopi Goldberg, who once considered turning his Birmingham book into a movie.

Emna Nouri, a peer coach at the school, came up with the idea of hosting an author as a way to boost reading scores. "Despite . . . great strides in different areas, reading was a challenge," she said. "I gathered from talking to teachers that the problem was a lack of motivation and inspiration." So she set out to find an author the kids would like.

Curtis's visit was heralded with hand-painted posters. A custodian, Lynnetta Lipscomb, stopped him in the hall to shake his hand, two reporters interviewed him for the school paper and students lined up to get their books signed. He also signed T-shirts and casts but drew the line at foreheads.

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