Katie Reads: The Watsons Go to Birmingham 1963

After reading my review of The Lions of Little Rock and how I could see using it with my students, a friend recommended Christopher Paul Curtis’ The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963.

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The Newbery Honor-winning American classic, The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963 , celebrates 20 years with this anniversary edition featuring a special letter from Christopher Paul Curtis and an introduction by noted educator Dr. Pauletta Bracy.
Enter the hilarious world of ten-year-old Kenny and his family, the Weird Watsons of Flint, Michigan. There’s Momma, Dad, little sister Joetta, and brother Byron, who’s thirteen and an “official juvenile delinquent.” When Momma and Dad decide it’s time for a visit to Grandma, Dad comes home with the amazing Ultra-Glide, and the Watsons set out on a trip like no other. They’re heading South to Birmingham, Alabama, toward one of the darkest moments in America’s history.

My favorite parts of this book were the early chapters. The first half (actually slightly over half) of the book is spent on one shot vignettes narrated by 10 year old Kenny Watson. Each of these mini stories flowed naturally and felt like the sort of events and emotions that a child would experience. I loved hearing Kenny talk about making new friends and playing with his toy dinosaurs and Kenny’s brother getting his lips stuck to a mirror during a cold spell.

My problem was that having read the book description, and having had the book recommended to me as a diverse perspective about the Civil Rights movement, I expected the book to be more about the Watsons’ time in Birmingham and their experiences with the Civil Rights movement. As it was, the Watsons don’t even mentioned going to Birmingham until half way through the novel and they don’t arrive until almost 3/4 of the way into the book. Vague references are made to how things are in the South for African Americans, but until the BIG EVENT at the end of the book, the Watsons are relatively unaffected by the Civil Rights movement. Instead the book is about random events in Kenny’s life, which as I said above, I loved, but made me feel cheated by the description. I was also disappointed that once the tragedy occurred, we got a limited perspective on how it affected the Watsons. We got a great view into Kenny’s mind, but we don’t really get a sense of why the tragedy matters in the larger scope of things.

As a book, I really liked The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963. As an educational piece about the Civil Rights movement, I think it falls a little flat because readers aren’t given the context within the story to really get an insight into what was happening at the time and there really wasn’t an emphasis on Civil Rights until the very end.

Stay magical readers!

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