Reading two books about two boys in very different eras and situations warmed my heart at the start of this cold, dark winter. I began Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis with my 10-year-old granddaughter. And then I started The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, Jr. to complete a prompt about banned books in a reading challenge. They unexpectedly paralleled each other despite the differences between them.

In Bud, Not Buddy, our hero is a boy of 10 named Bud. It’s the Depression, and times are tough in his hometown of Flint, Michigan. Bud’s mother dies and he ends up in an orphanage. But as a few years pass there, he wonders if any of her few remaining possessions are clues to the identity of his father. So he sets out to find this man, adventuring through a shanty town, a library, and even hitching a ride with a ‘vampire.’ What he learns along the way teaches kids about the power of kindness to strangers and more than a little about persistence.

Alexie spins a more current day tale in his book. His main character is Arnold Spirit, Jr. who lives on a Native American reservation near Spokane, Washington. Arnold isn’t a typical kid, because of both his health, his smarts, and his moxie. And in a lot of ways, he reminds me of Bud, despite their difference. Arnold ventures off the rez when he changes high schools. In the process, he becomes the only Native American kid in an all-white school. But he learns how to reach deep inside himself to deal with bullies, fear, and loss.

My conclusions

I hope that my granddaughter enjoys Bud as much as I did. And I look forward to sharing Arnold with her in a few years. Any chance to pull her away from screens and into other activities is a good thing!

These stories about these boys teach a variety of lessons. Obviously, they mature and learn more about themselves. Hardships like missed meals and concerns about identity are common to both Arnold and Bud. They both take the hard road, sometimes in the literal sense of walking to reach destinations. But also, because they experience grief. 

Of course, Bud grieves for his mom. And it’s quite touching when Curtis tells about Bud’s memories of her. And through the course of Alexie’s book, Arnold loses a few cherished family members. He’s an older kid, so his musings about death are more complex. And layered within them are interesting details about Native American traditions, and the realities of hard life on reservations.

The third theme that touched me in these books was the friendships Bud and Arnold experience. Bud is more of a loner, but he finds close buddies (pun intended) in the orphanage and during his journey. It reminds me of a simpler time in life, even with the inherent challenges of the time period. On the other hand, Arnold has a lifelong bestie on the reservation. The friendship between these boys is tested when Arnold changes schools, and they learn hard lessons as a result. The semi-autobiographical details about them revealed in the author’s afterword are also heartbreaking.

I recommend these books if you’re interested in unique coming-of-age tales about relatively young boys. That’s not my normal book preference, and yet I enjoyed them both. Pair them together or add something like This is How it Always Is by Laurie Frankel. That one’s about the family of a young boy struggling with his gender identity.