Curtis, Christopher Paul. 1995. The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963. New York: Delacorte. ISBN 0385321759
The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 is a realistic historical fiction account of the Watson family -- Momma, Dad, Kenny, Joetta, and Bryon. The first person account is through the eyes of 10-year-old Kenny. Joetta is his younger sister, and Byron, his 13-year-old "juvenile delinquent" brother. The story recounts the day-to-day happenings of this tough, but loving family in their equally tough Flint, Michigan neighborhood. Byron's constant trouble-making activities prompt a trip south so that he may spend the summer under the reforming hand of his strict grandmother in Birmingham, Alabama. While in Birmingham, the Watsons witness the bombing of the Sixteenth Avenue Baptist Church and must come to terms with its impact upon their family.
The Watsons Go To Birmingham is a Newbery and Coretta Scott King award winner with a 10-year old protagonist that children will relate to. Kenny has a loving family and problems that are still familiar today - a lazy eye, the unwanted attention of the school bully, poverty typical to his neighborhood, and a roller coaster relationship with his older brother, Byron. Although the Watsons witness the 1963 bombing of the Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, and the facts concerning the bombing are accurate, the historical aspect of the tale takes a back seat to the fictional story of the Watson family.
The harsh life of the Watsons is evident in the details of their daily lives. Although poor, Momma makes sure that each of the children have two new pairs of gloves each winter for the frigid Michigan weather. Kenny shares his lunch and his extra pair of gloves with a new friend who can afford neither, but then his gloves are stolen. Byron, 13, forcefully retrieves the gloves from a school bully and offers Kenny the chance to get even. When Kenny declines Byron's invitation, Byron punches Kenny instead of the bully. Kenny's relationship with his older brother is a major focus of the story. Bryon is at times tender; at times cruel. Kenny's younger sister, Joetta is obedient and protective of her brothers. Momma and Dad are loving, but firm.
Most of the story is set in Flint. The family travels to Birmingham to take Byron to stay with his Southern grandmother, where Momma and Dad hope he will break away from his "juvenile delinquent" friends and learn respect. The Watsons journey to Birmingham in the "Brown Bomber," accompanied by the sounds of the "True-Tone AB-700 Ultra Glide", the latest technology - a dashboard mounted record player! The Ultra Glide, the frequent use of the word Negro, references to "The Untouchables" and "Felix the Cat, and the $1.23 price for groceries at the local market, help to firmly set the story in 1963.
Although the Birmingham events occupy just the last sixty pages of the book, the contrast between the North and the South is a focal point of the story. In Flint, the only inkling of racism is a teacher's reminder that "..as Negroes the world is many times a hostile place for us." As the Watsons travel south, the reader feels the danger growing. Mrs. Watson carefully plots the three-day trip, making sure that they stop in locations known as friendly to Negroes. Mr. Watson is not as confident of a friendly welcome, and instead chooses to drive straight through. When they make a rest stop in Appalachia, Kenny is at first afraid of encountering a snake in the dark, but Byron tells him that snakes are the least of his worries. "Man, they got crackers and rednecks up here that ain't never seen no Negroes before. .....they'd hang you now, then eat you later." The reader can feel the fear of being a Negro in the South of 1963.
Once in Birmingham, fiction, fact, and fantasy are combined as Joette goes off to Sunday school at the Sixteenth Avenue Baptist Church with her relatives. Kenny remains at the house, exhausted from his near-drowning in a "whirlpool" a day earlier. The family hears the blast and races to the church. Kenny follows and discovers a shiny, little shoe in the church and believes that his sister has perished, killed by the devilish "Wool Pooh" of his imagination. Miraculously, his sister is found alive and insists that Kenny saved her, waving to her and luring her away from the church before the bomb blast.
The family travels together back to Flint and struggles to regain normalcy. Byron and Kenny undergo changes as Kenny suffers post-traumatic stress, and Byron helps him overcome it. Eventually, the Watson family rises above the experience of racism and violence in the same way that they overcome all difficulties - with love, pride and determination.
An Epilogue offers the reader a short, factual account of the Civil Rights struggle, and a challenge to continue the quest for freedom.
Christopher Paul Curtis grew up in Flint, Michigan in the same era as the fictional Watsons, making his setting authentic and believable. The addition of the Birmingham church bombing makes this a historical fiction story, but the true purpose of this factual event to the story is to underscore the far-reaching effects of racism and injustice. The fundamental theme of the book is the strength and power of family to overcome adversity.
Writing for Horn Book Magazine in March, 1996, Martha V. Parravano wrote, "Curtis's control of his material is superb as he unconventionally shifts tone and mood, as he depicts the changing relationship between the two brothers, and as he incorporates a factual event into his fictional story."
In the Jan/Feb volume of Book Report, Susan N. Bridson wrote, "The transition from comic to tragic jars the reader's sensibilities as Curtis hammers home the cruelty of racism. Recommended--should be seriously considered for purchase."
An excellent website for students to visit after reading this title is http://www.centralhigh57.org This is the official website chronicling the integration of Little Rock, Arkansas' Central High School in 1957 - a pivotal event that set helped propel the Civil Rights movement and set the stage for the climate leading to the Birmingham bombing. The site is slightly dated, but contains poweful video of the events and is a great resource.
An appropriate title to accompany The Watsons.. is Newbery award-winning, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor.
An introduction to artist, Norman Rockwell, and his famous painting "The Problem We All Live With," depicting integration, would also be appropriate.