I had never read The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963 before, but I was aware that all fourth graders in Newport News Public Schools are required to read it when they study the civil rights movement. It is a 1996 Newberry Honor Book, a 1996 Coretta Scott King Honor Book, and an American Library Association Notable Book for 1996. I understand why! Now I am sorry that I waited so long; it is currently my favorite book that we've read so far in this class. I love how Christopher Curtis use humor to deal with a tragic situation.
The Watson's Go to Birmingham--1963 is told from the point of view of the middle child of the Watson family, Kenny. He tells the story of a family trying to raise children and stay a float in 1960 Flint, Michigan. Kenny is the book worm, Joetta is the caring little sister, and Byron (By) is "officially a teenage juvenile delinquent" (p. 2). At their wits end of what to do with By and his increasingly ridiculous behavior, the Watson's decide that the only thing left to do is to leave him with Grandma Sands for the summer, maybe even the whole school year. Kenny is thrilled with the thought of a road trip and no By for the summer, however events that happen while they are in Birmingham will change the family forever.
The book is set in 1963 Flint, Michigan and then travels south to Birmingham, Alabama. At this time in the country's history many African-Americans had already fled to the North to get away from the racism and segregation that was the norm in the South. The Civil Rights movement had started the decade before, but there were still many battles to come before segregation was broken. The bombing of the Sixteenth Avenue Church on September 15, 1963 where 4 children were killed was on of the many violent acts against African-Americans. It was also a turning point that made many Americans wake up and realize that segregation and discrimination had to stop. The Watsons represent millions of African-Americans that were just trying to make a better life for themselves and their children.
Very early in the story you being to feel sorry for little Kenny. He says that in his neighborhood "I had two things wrong with me...The first thing was because I loved to read, people thought I was real smart, teachers especially." (p. 22) and "The other thing that people would have teased me a lot more about if it hadn't been for Byron was my eye...ever since I'd been born one of my eyeballs had been kind of lazy.(p. 25)" He seems to be the target for consistent bullying. Yet you see another side of him when the new kid, Rufus, comes to town. Kenny is compassionate enough to share his lunch with him and his brother, but he laughs along with the others when Larry Dunn says, "Country Corn Flake, I noticed how you and the Little Flake switch off on them pants, and I know Fridays is your day to wear'em, but I was wonderin' if the same person who gets to wear the pants gets to wear the drawers that day too?"(p. 43). It reminds me of the scene in Wonder when Auggie overhears Jack saying mean things about him. Interestingly both Auggie and Rufus react the same way, they walk away from friendships with out a fight. When confronted Rufus tells Kenny "I thought you was my friend. I didn't think you was like all them other people...I thought you was different." Like Jack, Kenny has to figure out how to apologize and to show that he was different from the other kids.
Any parent can understand the Watson's frustration with Byron's behavior. The first part of the story is littered with his poor choices. He pushes his mother to the edge by playing with fires. To make her point, she attempts to set him on fire. After announcing that he is spending the summer in Alabama, Momma lists his transgression for the year. "You've cut school so much that Mr. Alums has come here three times to see what's wrong with you, you've been lighting fires, you've been in fights, you had that trouble up at Mitchell's food Fair, you had that... that... problem with Mary Ann Hill, you set mousetraps in the backyard for birds, you fell out of that tree when you were trying to see if that poor cat always landed on its feet, you got that conk, you joined that gang...There's just too much, Byron. We can't have all this nonsense going on." (p. 118) You have to respect Mr. and Mrs. Watson, they know that Bryon is out of control and they are willing to do anything to get him straight. Mr. Watson tells Kenny "we think it's time Byron got an idea of the kind of place the world can be, and maybe spending some time down South will help open his eyes." (p. 123) Fortunately Byron does see and learn from his trip South, he has to save Kenny from drowning and thinks that his youngest sister may have been killed in the church bombing. I think of all the characters from the story Byron grows and changes the most. While he does occasionally protect Kenny at the beginning of the story, he is also one of his biggest tormentors. After the trip it's Byron that steps up and helps Kenny to heal from all that is haunting him. He in a way becomes Kenny savior again.
I appreciate they way that Christopher Curtis presented such a tragic event in the context of a family that loves each other. I think that this makes the topic feel safer for children. I also enjoyed his web page and his video on how he became a writer. He too lived in Flint, Michigan and saw the same problems in his neighborhoods that he now writes about in his books. He saw writing as a way to escape the issues going on around him and to save himself for the life of an assembly line worker. I look forward to sharing this book with others and reading more of Christopher Curtis's work.