Christopher Paul Curtis. Wendy Lamb Books, 2012. (Library copy). If you are as much a fan of Christopher Paul Curtis as I am, you are going to enjoy this book. Deza, the main character in this book, is a 12 year old girl. She had a cameo appearance in Bud, Not Buddy, Curtis' 2000 award winner, when she met Bud in a hobo camp and struck up a brief friendship. In this volume she is the storyteller as her family goes through a roller coaster of changes in fortune and luck. One of the things I like about this book is the way readers follow her changes and maturity over the course of the tale. She starts out very naive, arrogant and over-confident in her intellect. Everyone tells her she is the smartest student in the school. All the adults tell her their hope is in her. Fortunately her teacher challenges her to reach higher and grow better. She is thunderstruck when she receives her first A minus on a school . She expects to always get the BEST grade in the class because she believes she is the best writer imaginable. She can't believe her friend got a higher grade that one time. I have to admit I didn't like her very much the first couple chapters.
After life gives her a few lessons in the school of hard knocks I started to like her better, because even when she and her family got knocked down a bunch of times she always rallied and found a way to look on the bright side and keep on going. It's the Depression and in Gary, IN her dad can't find a job. Her mom works as a maid in a rich white woman's house. Dad gets hurt in a boating accident that traumatizes him and he struggles to regain his spirit. He insists he must leave to find work elsewhere after admitting to his wife that he can't stand watching his children hungry and suffering for lack of his income. Deza's teeth are rotting in her mouth because they can't go to the dentist. Her brother Jimmy has stopped growing for an unknown reason. After dad disappears mom loses her job and the landlord kicks them out of the apartment for a higher paying tenant. Mom decided to take them to Flint MI where her mother-in-law lives. Living this life through the eyes of Deza, who can't bear the thought of eating oatmeal with bugs in it even when her father tries to joke about it, brings home the stark reality of what it was like in the Depression. Riding in boxcars with other families, finding a community made out of cardboard boxes and other folks' struggling to survive, and walking across country to find family members desperate to hang onto each other are all part of Deza's heart-wrenching experiences. Along the way she finds teachers, librarians, and neighbors who cheer her on and offer aid in any little way they can.
Readers who enjoy historical fiction will find this a fascinating and illuminating. It really is amazing to put yourself in Deza and Jimmy's place and live through such a difficult time in our nation's history. This would be a great book for reading groups & clubs in fourth and fifth grades. It's nominated on the Cybils Middle Grade fiction list.