The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963

by Christopher Paul Curtis (1995)

Read to Them is proud to finally add and make available Christopher Paul Curtis’s modern classic The Watsons go to Birmingham – 1963.

This personal tale, largely based on the author’s own childhood, has become a favorite in elementary and middle schools across the country since its publication in 1995 when it won the Coretta Scott King Award and was a Newbery Honor Book.

It’s a book with bountiful storytelling and opportunities – but it’s also always been a tricky book to match with age and audience.

It is a hilarious account of family hijinks in an African-American family in Flint, Michigan.  The narrator, Kenny, tells stories of tongues getting stuck to a car mirror in winter, and squabbles with his siblings, and the hijinks of his ne’er-do-well brother, Byron.  Curtis fills their life with all manner of colorful period detail – the food and clothing and cartoons and expressions that kids in 1963 lived in and used.  It is rich elementary school stuff, told with colorful verve.

But The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 is also a story about race.  Curtis treads gently here, which is why the Watsons have been safely shared with so many elementary school audiences.  Kenny and the reader are barely aware of much racial tension in Flint, a northern city.  (Kenny’s educated father has a fine job at an automobile plant.)

But life for African-Americans is different in the South.  Kenny’s father makes fun of people in the south – all people – the slower, ‘friendlier’ blacks and the racist ‘Cracker’ whites.  When they prepare to take their trip South, Kenny and his siblings are focused on where they’re going to sit and what they’re going to eat and what they’re going to see.  Mr. Watson is focused on where they’re going to stay.

Most readers of this page will know that 1963 saw the horrific bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama at the height of the Civil Rights Era – a bombing in which four young black girls were killed.  For some readers, this event looms over the novel – a moment any reader is dreading.  But Curtis plays this event deftly.  It happens, it affects the Watsons, he doesn’t shy away from that.  But it is not the central thrust or narrative purpose of the novel.

Christopher Paul Curtis has fashioned a tale that highlights the education and growth that Kenny and his family – especially his older brother, Byron – undergo, as they move from the antics and joy of life in Flint, to the reality of what it was to live and learn as an African-American in the United States in the 1960s.

Elementary Schools will enjoy all the delightful details and unforgettable, humorous story-telling that fill most of the book’s chapters.  And if you’re willing to ‘go there’ – schools that study Civil Rights can use and explore the Birmingham part, too.

Middle Schools will surely relish the balance that The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 provides.  Middle Schools students will dive right into the teasing relationship between Kenny and his older brother, Byron.  And they will be unafraid to explore the racial tensions revealed by Mr. Watson’s mocking of southern accents and the dark deeds in Birmingham in 1963.  Read to Them has created a rich array of resources and provocations for Middle School readers to explore this theme.

We’re offering The Watsons as a Tweener title for elementary schools that want to ‘go there’ – and as a Middle School title for schools that want to fully explore the role-playing opportunities that emerge when Kenny and ‘the Weird Watsons’ head South.