Sunday, March 31, 2013

Watsons Go to Birmingham (Christopher Paul Curtis)

Summary of The Watsons Go to Birmingham 1963 (by Christopher Paul Curtis):
Kenny and his family of “weird” Watsons live in Flint during the tumultuous civil rights era.  In their middle class, black community in Michigan, they are insulated from much of the tension and violence.  The novel focuses on their everyday lives and relationships, which ranges from humorous when Byron gets his tongue stuck to the car mirror during a winter storm to endearing as the family sits around listening to music on their new car record player to reflective as Kenny learns how to be a friend to the neighborhood newbies.  The family decides to take a trip down to Birmingham, Alabama to visit extended family.  During their stay, they experience a racial terrorist attack on a church in the community they are visiting. 

I had a fond recollection of this middle grade novel after reading it several years ago, but I had honestly forgotten how endearing the voice and timeless the story until I recently reread it.  Author Christopher Paul Curtis so beautifully captures the perspective of a 9 year old boy, Kenny.  He has an innocence about him that tempers the tragedy and tension, which is ideal for young readers.  Kenny, also, has a mischievous-side, bringing about much of the humor and lightness in the novel. 

I love the family dynamics.  There is sibling rivalry—particularly between Kenny and his older brother Byron--but it is clear the boys love each other.  Kenny looks up to his brother, known the “juvenile delinquent,” even though Byron often torments him.  Also, Byron saves Kenny physically and emotionally during the course of the story.  The parents have a strong, through not overbearing, presence in their children's lives.  The youngest child plays the smallest role in the action, mostly that of a tattle tale and conscious to the two older boys.  Each person, including the parents, is flawed, but ultimately, they all look out for each other and love each other. 

Kenny is often naive and immature in social situations.  Throughout the novel, he grows as a friend, family member, and person.  The most significant growth comes after their visit to Birmingham which causes him to face his own mortality as well as that of his younger sister and his community.  Back in Flint, it takes him several weeks to go though a healing and mourning process.  Just as everything is not clear and neatly tied up in life, so is Kenny still left with some uncertainty even has he moves forward with hope. 

The author does an excellent job with the historical time period and tragic bombing.  Much of the oppressive and dangerous backdrop is understated, which works well for the child perspective and reader.  At the same time, the events are ideal for discussions on recent tragedies and dangers that young readers are familiar with (or may even have some first hand experience). 

Christopher Paul Curtis is an impressive and memorable writer.   He has two other middle grade novels that tackle issues that are unique to the African-American culture while transcending it with characters and experiences that are universal (Bud, Not Buddy and Elijah of Buxton).  All three books have been awarded the Newbery or Newbery Honor award, which is quite an impressive feat.  In addition, he has published a couple middle grade mysteries.  I had the pleasure of hearing him speak and meeting him at a conference.  He was warm and friendly as he met his many fans as well as entertaining and engaging as a speaker--all qualities that come through his writing.  For any middle grader reader or fan, he is a must read! 

I recommend The Watsons Go to Birmingham 1963 for ages 9 and up.  It is also ideal for classroom and home schooling curriculums because of the outstanding characterization, excellent literary qualities, and connections to a pivotal historical era.

Teaching Opportunities:
  • History:  read during a unit study on the 1960’s and/or civil rights movement
  • Music:  Kenny has a favorite song he loves to listen to over and over again; play it and discuss why he might be so drawn to it; then, listen to other popular songs of the era and discuss
  • Biography:  read about famous civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks
  • Compare/Contrast:  discuss similarities and differences in Kenny’s life and that of contemporary middle graders
  • Character Education: discuss the qualities of a good friend; apply the list to Kenny to evaluate if he would be  a good friend and to selves
  • Similes and Metaphors:  have the students pick a character or conflict in the book; next, ask them to pick an animal or thing to describe the person or conflict and explain why they chose it; write similes and metaphors using the animals or things
  • Picturebook Literature:  read other experiences during this historical era such as Ruth and the Green Book, Back of the Bus, Grandma's Pride, When Grandma Sings, and Goin' Someplace Special
Visit Shannon Messenger, the hostess of Marvelous Middle Grade Monday, for other great middle fictions.


  1. My kids and I loved this one (as we do most of Curtis' work). It provides such a unique look at a historical happening.

  2. I read and LOVED Bud, Not Buddy. I must read this one now, too! I hope to read it before I start my HF unit with my 5th grade students. This sounds perfect for my unit. Thanks for sharing. :)

  3. @ Barbara Thanks for stopping by and seconding my review :)
    @ Stephanie I have read Bud, Not Buddy too. I enjoyed this book even more, so you are in for a treat :)


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