The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963

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This article is about the novel. For the television movie, see The Watsons Go to Birmingham.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 is a historical-fiction novel by Christopher Paul Curtis. It was written in 1995 and republished in 1997. It tells the story of a loving African-American family, living in the town of Flint, Michigan in 1963. When the oldest son begins to get into a bit of trouble, the parents decide he should spend some time with his strict grandmother (Mrs. Watson's mother) in Birmingham. The entire family travels there together by car, and during their visit, tragic events take place that affect them collectively.

Although the Watson family is fictitious, the story incorporates and centers around the historically factual 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, a critical catalyst of the Civil Rights Movement.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 was Christopher Paul Curtis' first novel, earning him a Newbery Honor, the Coretta Scott King Award, and the Golden Kite Award.

At the beginning of the 201314 school year, the book was distributed to all fourth graders in Birmingham City Schools as part of the Read It Forward program, a partnership between Birmingham schools, the Birmingham Public Library, and the city of Birmingham. It was selected to help engage students during the 50th anniversary of the Birmingham Campaign.

The novel was also adapted as a made-for-television movie for the Hallmark Channel in 2013.

Summary

The first part of the book is set in Flint, Michigan, with the narrator, Kenny, introducing his family, in a cold house on the couch huddled up together, the "Weird Watsons'". His family includes his dad, his mom, older brother Byron, nicknamed By, and their younger sister Joetta, nicknamed Joey. This section is largely a description of the Watsons' family life: Byron kissing his reflection in a car mirror in January and freezing his lips to the chilled glass, Kenny's friend LJ stealing many of Kenny's toy dinosaurs, the countrified new kids at school, and Byron's sliding into friendship with the bad element in town. It is this last episode that prompts the main conflict in the story, as Byron's behavior worsens. Ultimately he is caught again playing with matches despite having been warned repeatedly against doing just this.

At this point, the family decides Byron should live with his Grandma Sands in Alabama for the summer and if things don't work out he'll stay there for the next school year. It is, however, when the grandmother's church is bombed that the family decides to return home, with Byron, in an attempt to avoid explaining the full implications of what has happened to the children.

Kenny, having never encountered racism of this magnitude before, is unable to process what has happened—he ran to the church moments after the bombing took place as he believed his sister to be in the building, and saw the aftermath. As a result of the bomb, four little girls had died, one was blinded, and one had to have one of her eyes removed. Byron does his best to help Kenny understand what has happened, as the parents are reluctant to explain. Kenny sees that though the world is not perfect, he has to keep pushing on.

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