The Watsons go to Birmingham ---1963 is a Newberry Honor book and the recipient of the Coretta Scott King award. This book is a comical, tragic, and touching story about a family that lives in Flint, Michigan.
Christopher Paul Curtis spends a large amount of time developing each character and the relationships within this family. We learn that thirteen-year-old Byron is destined to be an “official juvenile delinquent.” Six-year-old Joetta is as sweet as can be, but will do anything to protect her older brothers. Kenny, the narrator, is ten years old. He is smart and gets picked on at school. Dad is fun loving and likes to make people laugh. Mom is the disciplinarian with a loving heart.
As a result of By’s activities, the parents decide that it is best to take him to Birmingham for the summer to live with his grandmother. There is even the possibility that he stay for a year. As they prepare to leave, the mother has planned and researched their every stop because she knows they will not always be welcome. The children have new experiences such as a roadside outhouse and legalized segregation.
They are heading south in the middle of one of the most tragic events in the civil rights era. The story is set in a real time against the backdrop of real events. On September 15, 1963 white racists threw a bomb into a black church, in Birmingham. Four young girls were killed, and many others were injured. Curtis uses this bombing in his novel as the family is visiting Grandma Sands.
Joetta had gone to church that morning and Kenny didn’t go because he didn’t want to go. The bomb went off and Kenny ran to find his sister. He walked into the church just minutes after the explosion went off.
“I walked past people lying around in little balls on the grass crying and twitching, I walked past people squeezing each other and shaking, I walked past people hugging trees and telephone poles, looking like they were afraid they might fly off the earth if they let go. I walked past a million people with their mouths wide-opened and no sounds coming out.”
Curtis does an amazing job with helping the reader understand each character. As events occur in the story the tone changes smoothly. The emotions that are evoked in this story are strong from the fun loving events to the horrific tragedy with the bombing.
Curtis presents this family within the context of a tragic time in American history. Kenny is left to question WHY? Byron responds with, “Kenny, things ain’t ever going to be fair. How’s it fair that two grown men could hate Negroes so much that they’d kill some kids just to stop them from going to school? How’s it fair that even though the cops down there might know who did it nothing will probably ever happen to those men? It ain’t. But you just gotta understand that that’s the way it is and keep on steppin’” p. 203. This book lends itself well to great conversations.
How far have we come? How much further do we need to go?