Steven B. Frank
Armstrong & Charlie
Charlie isn’t looking forward to sixth grade. If he starts sixth grade, chances are he’ll finish it. And when he does, he’ll grow older than the brother he recently lost. Armstrong isn’t looking forward to sixth grade, either. When his parents sign him up for Opportunity Busing to a white school in the Hollywood Hills, all he wants to know is "What time in the morning will my alarm clock have the opportunity to ring?" When these two land at the same desk, it's the Rules Boy next to the Rebel, a boy who lost a brother elbow-to-elbow with a boy who longs for one.
From September to June, arms will wrestle, fists will fly, and bottles will spin. There'll be Ho Hos spiked with hot sauce, sleepovers, boy talk about girls, and a little guidance from the stars.
Set in Los Angeles in the 1970s, Armstrong and Charlie is the hilarious, heartwarming tale of two boys from opposite worlds. Different, yet the same.
The ARMSTRONG & CHARLIE playlist
"ARMSTRONG & CHARLIE is one of those distinctly American books that speaks to us of who we are. It warns us of those forces that divide us, and celebrates the strength of those who can overcome them. Armstrong and Charlie are real kids, and their friendship is a real friendship, and their conflicts are real, and their courageous solutions are real as well. This novel is an exultation of hope--and a dang good story to boot."
--Gary D. Schmidt, Newbery Honor-winning author of The Wednesday Wars
"Unforgettable, well-drawn titular characters are the heart of this deeply moving and laugh-out-loud funny story about family, friendship, integrity, and navigating differences."
--Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
"In 1974, two 11-year-old boys, one white and one black, learn that their differences don't have to keep them from becoming friends in this funny and moving middle-grade novel."
--Shelf Awareness STARRED review.
"This was a fantastic book. While at its heart it’s about serious issues–racism, busing, and school integration–it’s also a book full of humor and is narrated by two characters with great, stand-out voices."
--Amanda MacGregor, School Library Journal's Teen LIbrarians Toolbox
Q & A
Steven B. Frank
- What made you decide to write about your experience from elementary school? How much of the novel is fact vs. fiction?
Armstrong & Charlie is, maybe, 15% real and 85% fiction. But in that 15% is the spirit of a boy who captured my heart with his outrageous humor and unbound energy. A boy who made me think about a lot of things, and who lived on in my memory long after we were schoolyard friends. Years later I moved back to Laurel Canyon. I would walk my kids to the same elementary school where I had gone. Those walks stirred up stories, awakened characters, and a book was born.
- What was the most surprising thing you learned while writing ARMSTRONG AND CHARLIE?
I had heard fiction writers say that some books write themselves. How's that even possible, I wondered. It sounded like a kid's fantasy about a magic pen. But at one point while I was writing the book, my characters took over. They literally woke me up at night--often with something that made me laugh--and I had to get their voices out of my head. I'd tap the voice recorder on my phone and let my characters do their own talking. The next morning I would copy down what they said as if hearing it for the first time. I must have a dozen of these recordings in my midnight voice thick with sleep. There's a even a big plot point that never would have happened if Charlie hadn't woken me up to announce his plans. I learned that you don't need a magic pen for your stories to write themselves. You just need to get out of the way (and have a recording device by your bed).
- What was the hardest part about writing ARMSTRONG AND CHARLIE?
Rewriting it, for sure. At some point you have to give your book to readers for "notes." The notes sound great when you hear them, but then you have to work them into your previous draft. Your characters might not agree with the notes, even if they're for their own good. You might not agree with them, either. When that happens, you have to listen hard for the truth. Sometimes it's your own gut feeling that's right. Sometimes it's your agent's wisdom, your mom's perspective, your editor's experience, your wife's story sense, or your brother's insight. In the end, though, you're the writer. You have to figure out what's right.
- Did you draw inspiration from your time as a teacher to tell your story?
I would flip that around and say I draw inspiration from my story to be a better teacher. One thing I learned from my characters is that kids their age want to feel at home away from home. Armstrong tells Charlie, "I'm away from home every day I ride the bus to your school." Even if you're not being bused to a distant neighborhood, going to school means going someplace other than home. As a teacher, I try to make that "field trip" safe, engaging, and inclusive for all my students, especially the ones who travel extra far.
- What message would you like readers to take away from your book?
"Message" is a tough word when it comes to writers and readers. I have to say I think that readers--especially young readers--are lots smarter than writers. There are more of them, for one thing, and their collective insight into a book is deeper, clearer, and more meaningful than mine could ever be. I will say what I hope: I hope that readers will like Armstrong and Charlie even when they do unlikable things. I hope that all the book's characters will feel as real to the reader as they feel to me. And I hope that, if they meet people in life who are in any way like the characters they've met in fiction, they won't judge them by the outside but will get to know them, and honor them, from the inside.
- You said that ARMSTRONG & CHARLIE was inspired by a boy you knew in elementary school. Do you still know him today?
The real-life Armstrong grew up to be one of the funniest people I know: comedian Kivi Rogers. Recently we met up again, talked about our schoolyard days, and caught up on our lives today. We had so much to talk about we could hardly eat our breakfast. Here's something Kivi said about his time at Wonderland:
"Coming to Wonderland, riding that bus every morning and looking out the window and seeing the neighborhoods, changed me. It showed me a possibility. I saw all those nice houses and all those trees and I thought, I want this kind of life someday. Honestly, if I hadn't gone to Wonderland I don't know if I would have dreamed so big."
I feel so grateful that, all those years ago, Kivi rode into my life on long, yellow bus; and that, all these years later, he walked into it again.