Bucking the Sarge by Christopher Paul Curtis (2004)

To some kids it might look like Luther T. Farrell has got it all. He is the only 15-year-old in Flint who has a driver's license, a credit card, and a large sum of money saved up for college. However, Luther's life is far from desirable when his true life, living with his evil mother he calls "The Sarge", is revealed. Let's just say, her name alone makes people run for cover, which is reinforced by Luther’s best friend, Sparky. The Sarge, being the ruler of all slum living in Flint and the owner of a men’s group home, is as tough on Luther as she is on her late paying tenants. She has been grooming him since childhood to follow in her footsteps and she will not accept “no” for an answer.

Therefore Luther spends his days taking care of disabled men twice his age, cleaning rental properties owned by his mother, going to middle school and obeying every one of The Sarge's many demands. All the while he must find time to create a project good enough to win the science fair for the third year in a row against his biggest rival but also the love of his life, Shayla Patrick.

It is safe to say that Luther's life is not easy. Most adolescents would agree that Luther's life is not much different from their own. Everyone finds faults in their lives and makes them seem much worse than they really are. The difference is that Luther's life might actually be as bad as he makes it sound. His mother, The Sarge, isn't like most mothers, or even the typical idea of what a mother is supposed to be. Most mothers are caring, and want to see their children succeed, but not The Sarge. She instead cares only about money, and no matter what, no one is going to get in her way—not even her own son…so she thinks.

However Luther has other plans.

Instead of a life in Flint scamming the poor out of their money, Luther wants to be America's best-loved philosopher. Although to accomplish this, he must come up with a plan to break away from The Sarge’s control. With a little help from Sparky, a lawyer with the number 1-800-Sue-Them-All, and Chester X from the men’s home, Luther may possibly be able to escape Flint and seek revenge on The Sarge.

Bucking the Sarge is a departure from Christopher Paul Curtis' other famous works. This book is a modern take on life in the slums of Flint, and Curtis draws readers into the story with the hilarious situations thrown at the main character Luther.

Although the book starts off rather slow, leaving the reader wondering, "What in the world is this book about?" and "Where could this story possibly be going?” these questions are quickly answered as the reader is thrown into Luther's life as if he/she is following him throughout his day. The reader experiences Luther’s crazy journey as he chooses his science fair topic, takes care of the elderly men, cleans out the houses after evictions, takes part in Sparky's money schemes, and faces everything going horribly wrong.

Bucking the Sarge will leave the reader wondering what could possibly happen next.


About the Author:

Christopher Paul Curtis was born (May 10,1954) and raised in Flint Michigan, after high school he spent thirteen years working in a factory hanging doors on cars. He worked during the day, writing on his breaks to get away from all the noise of the factory, and attended classes at night at the Flint branch of the University of Michigan. His first book came out in 1963 and was titled The Watsons Go to Birmingham, his second book Bud, Not Buddy was the first book ever to receive both the Newbery Medal and the Coretta Scott King Award. He and his wife Kaysandra, a registered nurse, have two children, Steven and Cydney. Steven was the first person to read The Watsons Go to Birmingham and he typed the book on the computer for his father. Christopher Paul Curtis enjoys playing basketball, collecting old record albums and, of course, writing.


Scholastic Interview Interview with Christopher Paul Curtis in June 2007.
final.mp3 A podcast created by the makers of this review based on the novel Bucking the Sarge.

"To me the highest accolade comes when a young reader tells me 'I really liked your book.' The young seem to be able to say 'really' with a clarity, a faith, and an honesty that we as adults have long forgotten. That is why I write." -Christopher Paul Curtis

Notes for Teachers:

This novel would reach a wide range of students and should be taught to eighth through tenth graders. Bucking the Sarge speaks to a younger generation, shining light on real life issues of dealing with "difficult choices" and parental disagreements. Trying to teach this book to an older set of students, the situations and outcomes may become predictable or obvious, causing them to be bored or discouraged with the lack of surprises.

There are several notions of sexual innuendos (example: talk of Chauncey which is the condom Luther keeps in his wallet) but the language is very clean, and any other inappropriate matters such as drug and alcohol are lacking except when Luther talks about administering medications to the men he takes care of.
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Helpful Links for Teachers:

Discussion Guides: This page offers a quick summary, offers discussion questions to help lead a book talk, and offers other books by different authors.
Discussion Questions: This page not only includes discussion questions for Bucking the Sarge, but also for several other novels by different authors.

Helpful Links:

Bnet Research Center: Short synopsis of the novel, followed by an interview with Christopher Paul Curtis.
City of Flint Official homepage of Flint, the city where the author grew up and where Bucking the Sarge takes place.
Flint in Pictures Color photos of Flint in the area near Kettering University in 2002.
Group Homes This link offers a definition and description of what group homes are.
Lead Poisoning Article explaining some of the adverse effects of lead and where lead is found.
Powell's Books Interview with Christopher Paul Curtis Article and interview discussing both the author's life and his writing.
Random House Author Page This page has a biography of the author, blurbs for his books, activities, upcoming events and a link for teachers.
Sarge's Line of Work Rental Housing Online site describes how slumlords create a profitable "business".
Slum Housing Wikipedia link for Slums which includes information on slums around the world.
Tavis Smiley Archive Archival interview with Christopher Paul Curtis with audio and a written transcript.
The Beat Within Art and writing from incarcerated individuals.

Page Edited by Kristin Palkowski, Jessica Postma, Colleen Ryan, Desi San Miguel