A FEW OTHER EVENTS FOR
FEBRUARY 26:

  • Happy birthday Bernard Wolf (Coming to America: A Muslim Family’s Story), Judith St. George (So You Want to Be President), Colby Rodowsky (Not My Dog), and Sharon Bell Mathis (The Hundred Penny Box).
  • It’s the birth date of Miriam Young (1913–1974), Miss Suzy and Victor Hugo (1802–1885) The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Les Misérables.
  • Also born on this day was frontiersman William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody (1846–1917). Read Buffalo Bill and the Pony Express by Eleanor Coerr, illustrated by Don Bolognese.
  • It’s National Pistachio Day. Read Probably Pistachio by Stuart J. Murphy, illustrated by Marsha Winborn, and The Pistachio Prescription by Paula Danziger.

In February we celebrate Black History Month, and today I want to present one of the finest debut novels of the 1990s, The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963. Although Christopher Paul Curtis has emerged as one of the most brilliant and beloved writers of his era, he did not immediately find a publisher. I know two people who turned down his first book and lived to regret it.

Narrator Kenny, age ten in 1963 and the middle son, describes the family he dubs the “Weird Watsons” of Flint, Michigan. Wise-cracking, joking, teasing, and sometimes tormenting each other, they form a solid family unit. On occasion Kenny enjoys watching his thirteen-year-old brother Byron gets in trouble—such as the time he kisses a frozen car mirror and his lips stick, making him the “Lipless Wonder.” For 120 pages readers follow the antics of this creative group, from one small funny scrape to another. Curtis has a pitch-perfect voice for dialogue and develops all his characters brilliantly, including little sister Joetta.

Then, because Mother and Father think that Bryon, who Kenny calls an “official juvenile delinquent,” needs to learn some lessons, they set out for Mrs. Watson’s family home, believing that Grandma Sands will straighten Byron out in no time. With a record player in the car—and “Yakety Yak, Don’t Talk Back” coming from the speakers—the Watsons drive through the country on a road trip and arrive at Grandma Sands’s Alabama home.

Readers of this novel, ideal for ten- to fourteen-year-olds, have become so used to the bantering and humor-filled story that the final forty pages stand as a shocking juxtaposition to what has come before. In Birmingham, Alabama, Kenny almost drowns. Then on September 15, 1963, Joetta heads out for Sunday school class—and into one of the most famous and tragic events of the Civil Rights Movement. Her life is in grave danger when the church is bombed that day. In The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 Christopher Paul Curtis takes one of the most horrible moments of American history and makes it immediate and accessible for young readers.

This novel works for independent reading, but over the last decade it has moved into the curriculum across the United States. The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 is sometimes taught as early as fifth grade or as late as eighth. The tie-in to Civil Rights events is, of course, obvious but the most compelling aspect of this book remains its portrait of a strong, black family.

Curtis won the Newbery Award for his second book, Bud, Not Buddy, and every few years he contributes another compelling work of fiction, such as Elijah of Buxton. But for me as a critic, his first book still stands as one of the best works of historical fiction written in the the last half of the twentieth century.

Here’s a passage from The Watsons Go to Birmingham:

Dad turned on the TV to try to make us forget how cold we were but all that did was get him into trouble. There was a special news report on Channel 12 telling about how bad the weather was and Dad groaned when the guy said, “If you think it’s cold now, wait until tonight, the temperature is expected to drop into record-low territory, possibly reaching the negative twenties! In fact, we won’t be seeing anything above zero for the next four to five days!” He was smiling when he said this but none of the Watson family thought it was funny. We all looked over at Dad. He just shook his head and pulled the blanket over his eyes.

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Originally posted February 26, 2011. Updated for .

Tags: African American, Civil Rights, Family, History, Humor, Multicultural
Instructional materials from TeachingBooks.net for The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963
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COMMENTS

  1. Sydnee says:

    Such a fantastic book! I love Kenny’s voice so much; his humor is just perfect.

  2. Maria says:

    I’ve read this book many times, and the ending still gets to me the way it did the first time. Powerful story.

  3. I have now read this book three times of late, am so glad Ari referred me to it;what a book! http://www.rascofromrif.org/?p=4623

  4. Oooohhh, one of my top 40 favorite books! (I worked it out, recently, I actually do have 40 favorite books). It just has a voice that captures you immediately– it amazes me that it WASN’T immediately scooped up by the first editor who read it.

  5. What stands out about this book is how Curtis lulls the reader into the belief that the Watson’s, while in Flint, do not experience any racial prejudice. Kenny is unconscious of racism. The only thing odd in Flint is his “weird” family – a feeling that is probably shared by many readers about their own families, regardless of their background. So by the time the Watsons make it to Birmingham, we readers relate to them as people like us – which makes the racial tension and the bombing of the church all the more personal. It’s not that this happened to “them” but it happened to “us.”

  6. Tess W. says:

    This is such a fantastic book! My fifth grade teacher, a crazy old man with a Texan drawl, read this one aloud to us. He had a voice for every Watson and could have the entire class rolling on the ground laughing or silent as a graveyard at midnight, glued to every one of Curtis’s well-crafted images.

  7. Thanks for reminding me of this book that I really want to read. I have a list of books for MLK day that this book needs to be added to (once I actually read it): http://www.pragmaticmom.com/?p=14847

  8. Andrena says:

    This is one of my absolute favorite books. I used the audio and text in my first classroom in D.C. My sixth graders at the time – had been discouraged from reading, and I almost felt like this book was reading therapy. They fell in love with the narrator, whose name escapes me now (I want to say that Kenny?)

    The most bone chilling parts – literally silenced each of us. My students and I experienced this book together – and for them – it opened up the entire world of Civil Rights, the Atlanta Bombing, everything. They wanted to know why.

    I also fell in love with the story behind Christopher Paul Curtis. A factory worker from Flint – a setting I felt such an affinity to with a father who worked for GM forever. I just love books that make me feel like I belong in this world. The Watsons Go to Birmingham is such a strong representation of this – that I almost want to do my project again on this book. The memory of it brings me chills and renews my love for historical fiction. Love this book!!!

  9. Colleen says:

    I read Bud, Not Buddy first and loved Curtis’s style so much I went right out and picked up The Watsons Go to Birmingham. I become totally immersed in reading historical fiction, and as a Michigan native, I was taken in completely by this family and their experiences. It is such a powerful story with very real characters.

  10. This is such an extraordinary book, and your post highlights all the many reasons to appreciate and celebrate it!

  11. ICEBERG1 says:

    Haven’t read it yet from all the comments it sounds pretty good… Bout to start reading today in class

  12. Erin says:

    I read this book as an undergrad in my Children’s Lit. survey course. (We also read Bud, not Buddy.) I must admit that i do not remember everything in the book, but the images that stuck out to me are the record player in the car and when kenny gets excited about the idea of his family staying in a hotel for the night. The “wool pooh”, evil relative of Winne the Pooh, still makes me laugh.

  13. Suzanne says:

    My fourth grade students always adored this book when I read it aloud. The first chapter is one of the absolute best in children’s literature! I also strongly recommend Mr. Curtis’s newest title The Mighty Miss Malone in which he features a female protagonist for the first time. She is a great character and her story is equally uplifting and heart wrenching.

  14. Momo says:

    The record player in the car also amazed me.

  15. I read this book when I was in the third grade (ish) and it was very disturbing to me. I think it was my first awareness of civil rights and the violence that accompanied it. This was a very eye-opening book for me. The ending is still a little a haunting when I think about it, even years later.

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