The Mighty Miss Malone
Prompted by fans discouraged by a lack of female protagonists in his body of work, Christopher Paul Curtis created Deza Malone, an irrepressible twelve-year old surviving the Great Depression with savvy, strength, and trademark Curtis wit. Readers of Bud, Not Buddy, Curtis’s Newbery Award-winning historical novel, will recognize Deza as “the girl who kissed Buddy.” Prior to meeting Bud, Deza lives in Gary, Indiana, where she loves school and revels in her status as top student. By contrast, her older brother Jimmy struggles in school and with his stunted growth. But what Deza has in book smarts, Jimmy matches with musical talent. Times are tough in 1936, but Deza takes great comfort in the security of family, school, and community, particularly under the guidance of mentors such as Miss Needham, her teacher, and Dr. Darcy, an English professor. But her world is interrupted when she, Jimmy, and their mother, must find her father, who left town months earlier in search of work. It has been said that the hero’s journey requires that one must leave home to find home, and that is true of Deza. Through careful characterization, Curtis allows her to grow strong despite discouragement. As her family is tested continuously, she finds new strength and faith in herself and her family, and never lets go of their motto: “We are a family on a journey to a place called Wonderful.” Curtis peppers the novel with references to other texts, including excerpts from poems and songs as well as books by writers of the Harlem Renaissance. These references, coupled with the presence of Bud, create a richly layered intertextual experience for middle grade readers.
- Understanding Contemporary Child Poverty. In a note to the reader that precedes the novel, author Christopher Paul Curtis states that “even though the Great Depression took place some seventy-five years ago, we haven’t come very far…The black and Hispanic middle classes have been nearly wiped out in the past five years; the ‘wealth gap’ between white and black households is an unbelievable 20 to 1, the gap between white and Hispanic households 18 to 1.” While this book is about the past, it is shaped by the present. Have students explore the letters to President Roosevelt in the New Deal Network below, and compare some of their stories to stories of families in need today using local and national digital newspaper stories. In what ways does Deza’s story continue today? In what ways can she, as Curtis suggests, “serve as a voice for the estimated 15 million American children who are poor, who go to bed hungry and whose parents struggle to make a dignified living to feed and care for them?”
- “Gang Aft A-Gley.” Part One of the novel is named after an excerpt from a poem by Scottish poet Robert Burns entitled,“To a Mouse.” The excerpt is referred to throughout the novel. Have your students tackle the poem and consider the reasons why Curtis made this choice of metaphor. Interested students might want to then read John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, also set during the Depression.
- Children and the Great Depression. Have your students explore the lives of children during the Great Depression through a variety of historical novels listed below (see Further Explorations), The Mighty Miss Malone, and Russell Freedman’s Children of the Great Depression. You can have each group do a paired reading of Freedman’s nonfiction text and a historical novel, or you could have a separate group read the nonfiction while others read fiction. What are some of the similarities and differences between the experiences each protagonist has? How was the Depression experienced differently in different parts of the nation? Using audio, video, still photographs and artifacts available online (see Further Explorations, Digital Resources), have students compare and contrast the fictional representations with reality. Have them share their findings through multimodal, multigenre presentations.
- Sports and Race. On p. 121, Deza’s father says that, “the boxing ring is one of the few places in America where your skin color doesn’t play a huge role.” Was that really true in 1936? Is it true in American sports today? Ask students to consider a variety of sports, athletes, and statistics in order to debate this question.
- Joe Louis & Max Schmeling. Using the digital and print resources below, have your students explore the 1936 fight between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling in greater depth, to better understand how important it was to the African-American community in Gary, Indiana and all over the nation. Be sure to take advantage of all of the modalities available: audio, video, still photography, and print. What do students make of the long friendship the men shared? What can they learn from this relationship? Can students pinpoint a similar event in their own lives that was important, not just to their family, but to their community or the nation?
- Creating Community. Were your students surprised by the tight organization at the camp that Deza stayed at outside of Flint? Using online resources (see Further Explorations, Digital Resources) , have your students explore the ways in which hobo camps and Hoovervilles were organized by their residents. Compare and contrast that to some of the ways in which the government ran labor camps in California. Finally, take a close look at some of the ways the recent Occupy Wall Street camps have been organized and run. What comparisons and contrasts can be made?
- Music and Money. Was Curtis realistic in his representation of nightclubs and Jimmy’s success? Have your students explore the digital resources associated with the Ken Burns documentary, Jazz, as well as Scholastic Teacher (See Further Explorations, Online Resources below) to learn more about the significance of jazz music during the Great Depression.
- Reading and Race. When at school in Flint, Deza has only white teachers, which leads to a very different experience in the classroom than she had in Gary. She never gets called on, the highest grade she receives is a C, and she is fed a steady diet of books with white protagonists, which cause her to “get snapped out of the book” at times because of the disconnect between the protagonist and herself. Deza talks about her decision-making strategies as a reader at the bottom on pages 233-234. For her birthday, Deza is given books by W.E.B. DuBois and Nella Larsen. Have your students explore these two writers, as well as the Penrod books (available via Project Gutenberg) and consider why they were important to Deza, particularly when compared to Penrod.
- Reading Autobiographies. Have your students write reading autobiographies. What books have they truly identified with as readers and why? Were they fiction or nonfiction? Did the fictional books consistently feature protagonists who share their race or ethnicity? What topics reappear in the nonfiction listed? How did your students find those books? To what extent were the important books in their autobiographies required reading for school? How can their reading autobiographies shape their future reading choices? Ask your students to consider the balance of identity and culture in the assigned reading at your school. What can they do to change the reading choices offered in your school in order to achieve balance?
- This picture book biography covers the life of Joe Louis, with illustrations that reflect the artistic style of WPA murals completed during the Great Depression.
- This nonfiction picture book centers on the two fights between Joe Lois and Max Schmeling, but within provides a snapshot of Louis’s childhood as well.
- This middle grade photo essay uses archival materials and artifacts to bring Joe Louis to life.
- This humorous novel, also by Christopher Paul Curtis, tells of the orphaned Bud’s search for his father, which takes him out of Flint, Michigan to Grand Rapids.
- This historical novel traces one family’s journey from New York City to a farm in the country, and the three sibling’s struggle for survival while their father searches for work.
- Set against the backdrop of the Dust Bowl, this novel tells in verse the story of Billie Jo’s grief and resilience in the wake of her mother’s death.
- This historical novel tells the story of a three African-American children living in in the Mercy Home for Negro Orphans in New York state; the 1936 fight between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling play a significant role in this novel, as it does in Miss Malone.
- This novel traces Esperanza’s journey from her father’s Mexican ranch and a life of luxury to the rough migrant labor camps of California.
- Freedman chronicles different aspects of urban and rural childhood during the Great Depression.
About Mary Ann Cappiello
Mary Ann is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former public school language arts and humanities teacher, she is a passionate advocate for and commentator on children’s books. Mary Ann is the co-author of Teaching with Text Sets (2013) and Teaching to Complexity (2015) and Text Sets in Action: Pathways Through Content Area Literacy (Stenhouse, 2021). She has been a guest on public radio and a consultant to public television. From 2015-2018, Mary Ann was a member of the National Council of Teachers of English's Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction (K-8) Committee, serving two years as chair.
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