The Watsons go to Birmingham – 1963 was written by Christopher Paul Curtis. It was published by Yearling in 1995.
The Newberry Honor book, The Watson’s go to Birmingham – 1963, is a historical fiction book about a black family and their world in 1963. The narrator of the story is Kenny, the middle child in this 5 person family. He has one older brother, Byron (By) and a younger sister, Joetta (Joey) and live in Flint, Michigan with their parents.
I feel as though this is a pretty typical family. They ‘cut up’ with each other (a term I had thought was pretty recent until I read this book!), picked on each other, and stuck up for each other to people outside of the family. They joke around often, yet the kids know when the parents are being serious and know when to shut it down. The hierarchy is similar to many families in real life. The oldest brother, By, tortures Kenny in his sibling rivalry, although he keeps others from making fun of him, as he is an easy target with his bright mind and lazy eye. Kenny holds his own with By through most of the book, and you can tell that they really do love each other. The youngest sibling, Joey, is a typical youngest child. She looks out for her brothers and doesn’t want them to get in trouble by their parents, and if often the one pleading for leniency with it comes to By. In one scene, after By has again been caught playing with matches, his mother is ready to teach him a lesson by burning him. She feels as though it is worth burning him if he learns that he cannot play with matches that might someday burn down the house and kill the family. Joetta tries to stop mom from going ‘crazy’ with By.
“Momma’s voice got strange, hissing like a snake. ‘Joetta, go out to the kitchen and bring me a book of matches.’
‘But Mommy…,’ Joey said, starting to get all sobby.
‘Joetta, do what I told you.’
‘Mommy, I can’t…’ The tears really started coming and Joey was squeezing my arm.
‘Joetta, go get those matches!
‘Please, Mommy, he won’t do it again, will you Byron? Promise her, promise Mommy you won’t do it again!”
Later, after Mom gets the matches herself, Joey continues to help her brother by blowing out the match each time her mother got too close to By. This is just one example of the way Joey stands up to try to defend and help her brothers throughout the book. This is also an example of extreme discipline throughout the book. I do feel as though this family is a very good family and the parents care a lot about each other and their kids, but they are not parents to be messed with. The children have consequences -- sometimes severe consequences -- for their behavior. Most of the consequences wouldn't be seen as good parenting today, as their were several beatings throughout the book, but I tried to keep in mind that this was a different era with a different culture of people.
Although the title alludes to the family being in Birmingham, most of the book takes place in Flint, Michigan, where the family appears to be a pretty well-off family. Kenny has a friend, Rufus, who cannot afford to bring lunch to school, so after Kenny’s mother realized this, she started sending four peanut butter sandwiches (two for Kenny, one for Rufus and one for Rufus’ younger brother) and three apples (one for each of them) for lunch every day. They are also able to afford buying new gadgets and upgrades for their car, such a record player (who knew those were in cars?!) while they are getting ready for their trip to Birmingham. The parents are from a generation of people who do not live on credit cards, and they appear to be smart and responsible with their money, planning their trip to the dime. Although they are a responsible and loving family, Byron has been getting in a lot of trouble. He “is officially a teenage juvenile” often making poor decisions such as skipping school, fighting other kids, and playing with matches. He refuses to listen to his parents, so he is being sent south to live with his grandmother for the summer. If he can’t shape up, he’ll be there longer.
Throughout most of the book, it could have been realistic fiction. It wasn’t until the last third of the book that they went to Birmingham, which is what allowed for it to be considered historical fiction. The time Watsons was set in was during the Civil Rights Era. Mr. and Mrs. Watson tried to explain to their children that the south was much different than the north at that time (as it still is, in many ways). They tried to warn them that black people were not as accepted in the south as they are in the north, but the kids didn’t really understand until tragedy struck while they were in Birmingham. Without giving away what happens, the family had to suffer and event that far too many real-life people had to suffer through during that time. They saw first-hand the destruction racism and hatred could have, without much consequence to the destructors.
I really enjoyed this book. It was a fun, easy read, with characters that are relatable to anyone who reads it. The children are funny and real, cutting it up with the best of them. The parents are genuine and believe in taking care of the children – not letting the streets raise them. They expect the children to be responsible, educated children, who are kind and generous to others.
Watsons is part of the fourth grade curriculum in Newport News and it is a book I would love to work through with my fourth grade students. I am looking forward to helping my students understand what has happened in our country and teach them about what many of their grandparents or great parents had to go through during the Civil Rights Era. If you would also like to study this book with your students, you can find local copies here. The Watson’s Go To Birmingham – 1963 has been turned into a movie on the Hallmark channel. It goes much further into the fight for Civil Rights and the Watson’s realize how different the south is in the movie. You can find the trailer, with more information here.