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Lift Every Voice: The Greatest Review I’ll Ever Get

Memory is a very inexact and unreliable process, and it’s tricky to try to point to one event in our past and say it was somehow life-changing. That said, if the question is: what set me on the road to becoming an author? I have a memory that is as clear and singular as if it happened yesterday.

I was in third grade, and Miss Henry had given our class a homework assignment of writing a newspaper article as if we were a reporter during the Roman Empire. Most of the time, these assignments would send me into a real funk; I could never come up with anything to write about. But this one couldn’t have come at a more propitious time — my parents had just taken my siblings and me to a drive-in to see Ben-Hur, and we had also recently gone to a “petting zoo.” (In reality, a pen where a local farmer had let loose a few of his animals and charged parents fifty cents per kid to allow them to interact with near-feral farm life.) It was at this zoo where I was butted, trampled, and bitten by an insane goat, which might not seem like a good thing, but it led to something that left me thrilled: as a form of apology and an attempt to forestall any legal action, the farmer who ran the zoo let me ride a Shetland pony!

Miss Henry’s homework assignment allowed me to combine these two events into one article, and I was stoked! My article was headlined, “Banky, the Only Shetland Pony Ever Allowed to Enter the Roman Chariot Races.” I don’t remember many of the particulars of the article, just that Banky was justifiably nervous about racing against armor-clad stallions who outweighed him by a ton or two. It was a tragic tale, but it did have a somewhat happy ending: the other horses were so impressed by Banky’s bravery and guts that even though he was crushed to death before crossing the finish line, as a show of respect the other horses dragged his lifeless, crumpled body over the line and proclaimed him to be champion. I had a blast writing the article, and when I finished, I gave it to my mother and asked what she thought.

I was nervous showing it to Momma because she could be a harsh critic. But I still remember the feeling of relief that swept over me as she read it and laughed in all the right places. That, however, wasn’t what set me on the path to winning the CSK Author Award. That happened when Momma looked up from my assignment and said, “I wish you hadn’t brought this home, Miss Henry will think an adult wrote it.”

Not only was that the greatest review I’ll ever get as a writer, it was also the moment I can point to and say: that feeling of joy and pride and accomplishment was without doubt my first step toward becoming an author.

From the May/June 2019 Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: CSK Book Awards at 50. Find more information about ordering copies of the special issue.

Christopher Paul Curtis About Christopher Paul Curtis

Christopher Paul Curtis won the CSK Author Award in 2000 for Bud, Not Buddy (Delacorte) and in 2008 for Elijah of Buxton (Scholastic). His most recent book is The Journey of Little Charlie (Scholastic).

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Comments

  1. Your mother was right to be wowed–I’ve read a lot of third-grade stories, and this one would make me sit bolt upright and say, “This kid’s a genius; this kid’s a writer.” We’re all lucky that you got the right compliment at the psychological moment–thank you for all your brilliant books.

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