book review: Madman of Piney Woods

" Curtis deftly makes what might have been simply heart-rending hopeful and redeeming instead." NY TImes
” Curtis deftly makes what might have been simply heart-rending hopeful and redeeming instead.” NY TImes

Title: The Madman of Piney Woods

Author: Christopher Paul Curtis

Date: Scholastic Press; 2014

Main Characters: Benjamin “Benji” Alston and Alvin “Red” Stockard

Christopher Paul Curtis takes readers back to Buxton with the Madman of Piney Woods, the second book in the trilogy. I’ve not read Elijah of Buxton, but if it’s half as good as this book, I’m missing a real treat.

I admit to not being a fan of middle grade books for many reasons. However, I can admit that when a middle grade book is really good; it’s the makings of a classic. Madman of Piney Woods is really good. If you’ve not read books by Curtis before, you don’t know what a masterful storyteller he is. This gift allows Curtis to use a variety of elements to build suspense, bring characters to life and suspend reality.

I also admit to reading this book several weeks ago and not taking any notes while doing so. I’d love to provide a more detailed review but I more than having you agree with my conclusions toward a particular book; I’d like to have you trust me.

I do remember that The Madman of Piney Woods is told in alternating voices. Benji is a young, black boy who is at home when he is in the woods. He wants to be a journalist and through connections to pioneering African American journalists of the time, he’s able to begin his career. Red (you only need look at him to know how he gets that nickname) is a young white boy and an only child. His mother has passed away and he’s often in the care of his grandmother. Red’s father and grandmother are on extreme ends of the nice spectrum and only through his father’s compassion does Red (and the reader) learn how important it is to learn each other’s stories. There’s a similar underlying message with regards to the Madman.

These children are growing up near the Piney Woods in Southern Canada at a time when race defined people, but, this close knit community, these strong families, give children the positives they needed to grow and rise above defining others simply by the color of their skin. The boys have silly, fun-filled escapes with their friends and siblings doing stuff that kids will do to each other. Both boys love the woods and this is one of the things that brings them together. Their love of the “Madman” is the other.

I love Curtis’ use of language but as a storyteller, words would of course be tools of his craft. I like that this is a book actually written for young people. It’s never didactic or judgmental and it honors their intellect. The young people in this book embrace life and go for all the gusto they can while still maintaining their pride and dignity.

Christopher Paul Curtis is the author of The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963 (Newbery Honor Book; Coretta Scott King Award Winner); Bud Not Buddy (Newberry Award Winner; Coretta Scott King Winner); The Mighty Miss Malone and Bucking the Sarge. 

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