The Watsons Go To Birmingham: 1963
Ages 10 and up
by Christopher Paul Curtis
Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Newberry Honor book
The Newbery Medal is awarded annually by the American Library Association to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. This was Christopher Paul Curtis’s first book, and it was awarded a Newbery Honor. His second book, Bud, Not Buddy (Delacorte Books for Young Readers; 1999), won the Newbery medal. The man knows how to write. His characters are genuine and relatable and his storytelling is rich and vivid.
This book is funny. Laugh out loud funny. Here’s a few of the chapter titles.
“Swedish Cremes and Welfare Cheese”
“Every Chihuahua in America Lines Up to Take a Bite out of Byron”
“I Meet Winnie’s Evil Twin Brother, the Wool Pooh”
This book is sad as well. The crux of the story is the bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, an atrocity in which 4 young girls were killed. Though none of the Watsons are physically hurt, our narrator, Kenny, is fundamentally changed by the event.
The Watsons are an African-American family of five living in Flint, Michigan in the early 1960’s. Dad is from Flint, Momma was born and raised in Alabama. Byron is the oldest child at thirteen. He is vain, relentlessly teases his younger brother Kenny and is always getting into trouble. Kenny, ten, is smart, funny and an avid reader. Joetta, or Joey, the youngest child and the only girl, is very protective of her older brothers and worries constantly about the trouble Byron causes. When I was little, if my older siblings got into trouble, I would cry and beg my mother not to punish them, even when they were being punished for something they’d done to me. I never wanted there to be any trouble, I always wanted to keep the peace. That’s Joetta all over.
Byron, ever the troublemaker, has pushed his Momma too far and she makes the decision to send him to Birmingham, Alabama. He’s going to live with her mother, who will either straighten him out, or kill him. So, the whole family is going on a road trip to Alabama.
The title of the book comes from the notebook Momma puts together in preparation for the trip. She’s calculated the daily mileage, factored in food breaks, bathroom breaks and drawn up a hotel budget. Dad is very excited about the road trip and purchases an Ultra-Glide for the car. The Ultra-Glide was a turntable that attached to the dashboard of your car so that you could play records in your car. I’ve looked it up. It was real!
Kenny passes the time in the car imagining who will win the impending battle between Byron and Grandma Sands. It would be “something like if Godzilla met King Kong, or if Frankenstein met Dracula, or like when champion wrestler Bobo Brazil meets the Sheik.” But once he lays eyes on Grandma Sands, who “looked just like Momma would if someone shrank her down about five sizes and sucked all the juice out of her,” he believes Byron will destroy the old woman.
It’s September but it’s hot in Birmingham. A heat the children have never experienced before and one they’re certain no human could truly survive. In an effort to get relief from the oppressive mugginess, the children head to a local swimming hole. Despite Grandma Sands’s warnings of the whirlpools (which Kenny mistakes for “Wool Pooh” because of her thick southern accent), Kenny is determined to swim in the forbidden area. Byron and Joey leave Kenny behind to go to the public swimming spot and Kenny soon finds himself in real trouble. He’s pulled under water and comes face to face with the Wool Pooh (who looks nothing like Winnie). Just as Kenny thinks the Wool Pooh will take him for good, Byron dives into the water and saves him from drowning.
The morning of the church bombing, Joey has already left for Sunday school when Kenny hears the noise. Actually, he feels it more than hears it. Word soon spreads that the local church, the church where Joey is, has been bombed. The family rushes to the scene and Kenny walks right up to the demolished and smoldering church. He finds a shiny black shoe among the rubble and is convinced it’s Joey’s. He’s certain she’s dead. In a daze, Kenny returns home, alone, with the shiny black shoe in his pocket. When Joey appears in his bedroom, happy and completely unaware of the tragedy, he believes her to be an angel and refuses to look at her. Joey, irritated and unsettled by Kenny’s behavior, picks up the shiny black shoe and throws it at his head. Kenny finally looks at her and sees that she is unharmed and wearing both her shoes. He then learns that she was too hot in the church basement and went out to the porch for some air, escaping the tragedy.
There’s an interesting mystical connection between Kenny’s near drowning and Joetta’s near death but I want to leave that to the reader to discover.
The tragedy in Birmingham leads Momma to rethink leaving her eldest child behind, and the whole family returns to Flint together. Kenny, however, has clearly changed. He is not at all himself and spends his time in a secret hiding place, reliving the events in Birmingham and hoping that all the bad memories of what happened will magically disappear.
It’s Byron who figures out where Kenny’s been hiding and Byron who finally gets through to him, in the most sweet, patient and caring way. No matter how many times I read this book, or the speech Byron gives Kenny about how everything’s going to be all right, I’m always reading it through tears.
Though this is a family living in a very different time you can still relate to their troubles, share in their joys and feel their pain. If you purchase this book for someone else, I highly recommend you read it yourself first.
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