Bucking the Sarge by Christopher Paul Curtis
It’s no secret that I absolutely adore Christopher Paul Curtis. Both The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 and Bud, Not Buddy are landmarks in children’s literature (though adults can and should read them, too). I’d heard about Bucking the Sarge some years back, as Curtis was making a foray into young adult territory. Now, after devouring the book, I can’t help but hope he will stay there for a while, maybe even venture forth an adult book. One can hope.
Luther T. Farrell is an aspiring 15-year-old philosopher. Not in the same way other precocious and obnoxious old-for-their-years children are (hem, hem, Oskar from Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close). No, Luther’s just a smart kid with a crappy home life and a head full of dreams. He lives in Flint, Michigan, where he and his best friend Sparky are trying to figure out a way to get out. His mother, the Sarge, is a scary slumlord who exploits the poverty of others to try and maintain a good life for her and her boyfriend, Darnell T. Dixon. Luther is forced to balance school and working for the Sarge in one of her adult group homes. At the same time, he tries to figure out a winning science project that will beat his nemesis Shayla’s. And by the way, he has an enormous crush on her and can’t figure out how to be anything but 15.
Curtis is a genius. He hits readers with some heavy, heavy stuff, but he does so in a way that keeps it interesting, light, and relatable. There’s a plot point that involves exploitation of Flint citizens that made me gasp—this book was written in 2004, and we’re just now hearing of Flint in 2016? Very, very sobering. This book reminded me of Jason Reynolds’ The Boy in the Black Suit or Eric Gansworth’s If I Ever Get out of Here, but I like this one quite a bit better. Curtis makes his characters come alive, and his cast is diverse and balanced. I highly recommend this book, but it’s definitely heavy. You should probably be in a good place when you read it.