The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963 Book Poster Image

The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963

A funny novel with a devastating emotional punch.
Parents recommendPopular with kids

What parents need to know

Positive messages

The history of one family's past is rich with important lessons on the changing times of the last century.

Positive role models

Byron steals, plays with matches, and is disrespectful.


A church bombing is described, and the narrator's older brother fights. Kenny nearly drowns, and his sister is believed to have died in a bombing.

Not applicable

Byron is described as swearing and making obscene gestures; mild religiously themed profanity.

Not applicable
Drinking, drugs, & smoking
Not applicable

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that the language and writing are rich, capturing the immediacy of a young boy's thoughts, but the style sometimes overwhelms the story. This first-person account, written in the slang of a 10-year-old boy, examines how he and his family react to a pivotal moment in civil rights history.

What's the story?

They're called Weird Watsons, and sometimes Kenny, Joetta, and delinquent big brother Byron, deserve the name, like when Byron gets his lips frozen to a car mirror while he's practicing kissing. But when they visit Grandma Sands in Birmingham, they head into a nightmare. At first hilarious, but by the end devastatingly powerful, Curtis's first novel packs a terrific punch.

Ten-year-old Kenny introduces readers to his family; his parents, little sister Joetta, and tough, cool, delinquent-wannabe Byron. When Byron's antics escalate, though they are mild by today's standards, his parents decide he needs a dose of the iron hand of Grandma Sands. So they load up the car and head off to Birmingham for the summer.

Humorous incidents abound, but when the Watsons arrive in Alabama, they find themselves caught up in something far more serious than dealing with a mildly delinquent adolescent. Racists bomb Grandma Sands's church, and Kenny's little sister is feared dead. Kenny, who witnessed what happened, sinks into depression and believes that only magic can heal him. But when his parents don't know how to help him, he finds comfort in the words of the person he least expected.

Is it any good?


Most of the book is hilarious, told in Kenny's distinctive and believable voice. But when the family travels South, and Joetta heads off to Sunday School in Birmingham, readers who know a bit of history think they know what's coming. When Joetta is not killed in the church bombing, readers heave a sigh of relief, and the family heads back to Michigan for the last chapter of what now seems like an enjoyable but lightweight book.

And then the author wallops readers with an emotional sucker-punch. For Kenny saw the results of the bombing, and he is no longer whole. No one knows what is wrong or what to do about it, as he drifts further and further away, hidden behind the couch where he believes magical powers will somehow heal him. But in an emotionally wrenching scene, tough, bad, kindhearted Byron figures out what is going on and, in his casual, undemonstrative way, knows just what to do about it.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about coping with terrible events.

  • Kenny tries to cope by hiding. Why doesn't that work?

  • Has a family

  • member or friend ever helped you work through painful emotions?

Book details

Author:Christopher Paul Curtis
Genre:Historical Fiction
Book type:Fiction
Publisher:Random House
Publication date:January 1, 1995
Number of pages:210
Award:Coretta Scott King Medal and Honors

This review of The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963 was written by

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Kid, 10 years old January 30, 2010

Better For OLDER Kids

I didn't like this very much. I think this is iffy for kids age 10. Some of the things in here really bothered me; when the mom tries to burn one of her kids fingers, the personification of the 'Wool Pooh' or whirlpool, the bombing of the church, and seeing a dead girl which the main character thought was his sister among other things. I think younger kids might get freaked out about some of the things that happen in this story.
Adult Written byHkboo2 January 31, 2009
Educator and Parent Written byFunner School September 4, 2014

Don't read this book. Please.

Review by a 12 year old: This is the worst book I have ever read. The kids are mean and very disrespectful to their parents. There is also a lot of bullying. One boy is thrown repeatedly against a chain link fence, and kids are hit several times. The older brother threatens to "hunt them down and beat them up," and he makes up stories of frozen dead people and deadly creatures to scare his younger siblings. He also steals food from a store and makes his parents pay for it. The mom tries to burn one of her children's hands for playing with matches. That's only half of it, but I think you get the idea not to read the book. If you think it might still be a good book that demonstrates racial segregation in the 1960's, you're wrong. Jim crow laws are only mentioned twice during the entire book. The grandmother's church is bombed at the end, which it only talks about for 10 pages. However, if you want the worst read of your life, order this book today. You won't be disappointed.
What other families should know
Too much violence
Too much swearing