The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963

Book review by
Barbara Schultz, Common Sense Media
The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963 Book Poster Image
Parents recommendPopular with kids
Family faces everyday and traumatic events in touching tale.

Parents say

age 10+
Based on 25 reviews

Kids say

age 10+
Based on 66 reviews

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Youngsters will learn about what American life was like in 1963, and they'll read about perceived differences between the North and South in the United States. Readers will gain understanding about the effects of racism and events during the early days of the U.S. civil rights movement. 

Positive Messages

As long as one person is being treated unfairly, we all are. Heroes are those who see injustice and try to change it.


Positive Role Models & Representations

African American family the Watsons' love and concern for one another show that underneath any sibling teasing or parental discipline, they care deeply for one another. 


Byron playfully, and not so playfully, punches Kenny more than once. When the family visits their grandmother in Birmingham, an attack on a Black church occurs during Sunday school class, and children are killed. Kenny sees a man with blood on his clothing carrying a limp child from the wreckage. 


The children hear their parents kissing and their mom giggling. In the car, "Dad reached over past Momma to start the car, but on the way his hand kind of accidentally on purpose brushed her chests."


A bus driver and Kenny's brother, Byron, say "ass" a few times. Byron says "damn." "Hell" is used as a swear word and a place.


Brand mentions in the novel include Vaseline, Band-Aid, and Plymouth. 

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Christopher Paul CurtisThe 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.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written bywatersschool07 April 9, 2008

Great Family Book

This is a great book to read together as a family. It has a great way of showing the dynamics of the Watson family and the issues they face. It is so well wri... Continue reading
Adult Written byyay!!! November 13, 2011


i am 11 and my class recently finished reading this book.i think anyone can read this book once they are mature enough,so they wont try doing these stupid thing... Continue reading
Kid, 12 years old February 22, 2009
Teen, 13 years old Written bybabykajh May 18, 2009

I Loved It!

This book is in my reading class for a project and it is awesome! Well what I've read so far. On a scale of 1-10 I'd give it a 400000000! Lol. Haha.

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?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love stories of racism and social justice and friendship tales

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