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The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Christopher Paul Curtis' The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963 is a striking work of fiction, set during the U.S. civil rights movement. The novel is narrated by 10-year-old Kenny Watson, the middle child in a Black family that relocated from Birmingham, Alabama, to Flint, Michigan. The parents sometimes discuss the differences between life in the South and in the North. Much of the book focuses on everyday sibling disputes -- complete with some fighting and strong language ("ass," "hell," "damn") -- and parents Daniel and Wilona's efforts to raise their brood. They struggle most with their defiant oldest child, Byron, who plays with matches, lies, and skips school. The Watsons take a road trip to visit family in Birmingham, where there's an attack on a church during a children's Sunday school class. The tragic event is described by Kenny, offering a child's-eye view of a horrific scene where a limp child is carried out of the wreckage by a man whose clothes are red with blood. The book includes an inspiring epilogue about the heroism of activists. A film version is available on DVD and streaming services. Actor/Reading Rainbow host Lavar Burton provides an engaging, sensitive voice on the Audible audiobook.
- Parents say
- Kids say
What's the story?
Ten-year-old Kenny narrates THE WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM-- 1963, Christopher Paul Curtis' novel about an American family and the civil rights movement. The middle child in the family, Kenny is picked on by his older brother, Byron, and is protective of his little sister, Joetta. Much of this novel focuses on the family's struggles to thrive in their adopted hometown of Flint, Michigan, and on Kenny's relationship with "By," whose reckless misadventures have their parents, Daniel and Wilona, convinced that Byron should go live with Grandma Sands (Wilona's mother) in Birmingham, Alabama. The family takes a road trip to visit Grandma Sands, with the idea of leaving Byron to spend the summer there. But during their visit, a traumatic event terrifies the family, and Kenny sees more than a child his age can handle. Kenny's gradual recovery and the book's epilogue help readers turn fear and sadness into hope for the future.
Is it any good?
This novel is full of funny, touching, relatable moments in the life of a 10-year-old boy in the South during the civil rights era. Kenny makes friends (and some mistakes along the way), fights with his big brother, and half understands his parents' struggles to keep their family on an even keel. At the beginning of the book, Kenny refers to his family as the Weird Watsons, but in reality they are a very average, loving, lower-middle-class American family, and this renders what happens in Birmingham all the more shocking. Readers have gotten comfortable inside the Watsons' family life by the time things explode.
Author Christopher Paul Curtis has a wonderful ease with creating relatable young characters, and in this novel he also educates readers about the life and times of Black Americans during the early 1960s. The events are fictional, but just barely, as they relate to real-life tragedies that occurred. This important book contains frightening events and a strong message. Younger readers will do best to read this in a classroom setting or with a parent.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about siblings in The Watsons Go to Birmingham-- 1963. How do Kenny, Byron, and Joetta feel about one another? Do they remind you of your siblings, or others you know?
Why do you think Kenny hides behind the couch? How does Byron help him feel better?
Have you read other books about racism and the U.S. civil rights movement? What seems different to you about the civil rights struggle now as compared with during the time when the book takes place?
- Author: Christopher Paul Curtis
- Genre: Historical Fiction
- Topics: Activism, Brothers and Sisters, Friendship, History
- Book type: Fiction
- Publisher: Random House
- Publication date: January 1, 1995
- Publisher's recommended age(s): 10 - 13
- Number of pages: 210
- Available on: Paperback, Nook, Audiobook (unabridged), Hardback, iBooks, Kindle
- Awards: Coretta Scott King Medal and Honors, Newbery Medal and Honors
- Last updated: October 24, 2020
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