Maggie's Reviews > The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963

The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
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Apr 07, 08

bookshelves: juvenile-fiction, historical-fiction, lis-565, siblings
Read in April, 2008

CIP: "The ordinary interactions and everyday routines of the Watsons, an African American family living in Flint, Michigan, are drastically changed after they go to visit Grandma in Alabama in the summer of 1963."

The many adventures of the "Weird Watsons" of Flint, Michigan are recalled in this book, told from the prespective of 10 year-old Kenny, the middle child. The exploits of his older brother, Byron, nicknamed "Daddy Cool" by the family, are hilarious, and the parents reactions are even better. Although mostly a humorous novel, the book also introduces readers to the reality of discrimination and racial tension, culminating with a fictionalized account of the 16th Street Bapist Church bombing, which claimed the lives of four African American girls, all of whom the book is dedicated to. The reader has a first-hand account of the emotions that young Kenny experiences, having thought that his younger sister was a victim of the attack. Curtis' debut novel for young readers is a wonderful way to learn about our turbulent past in regards to racial discrimination without being too preachy. A highly recommended read for children ages 8 and older.

Booklist review (Aug '95): "Gr. 4-8. In a voice that's both smart and naive, strong and scared, fourth-grader Kenny Watson tells about his African American family in Flint, Michigan, in 1963. We get to know his strict, loving parents and his tough older brother, who gets into so much trouble his parents decide to take him back "home" to Birmingham, Alabama, where maybe his strong grandmother will teach him some sense. Several of the family stories are a bit self-conscious (we keep being told we're going to laugh as Dad puts on a show and acts the fool), but the relationships aren't idealized. Racism and the civil rights movement are like a soft rumble in the background, especially as the Watsons drive south. Then Kenny's cute little sister is in a Birmingham church when a bomb goes off. She escapes (Curtis doesn't exploit the horror), but we're with Kenny as he dreads that she's part of the rubble. In this compelling first novel, form and content are one: in the last few chapters, the affectionate situation comedy is suddenly transformed, and we see how racist terror can invade the shelter of home."

Kirkus review (Sept. '95): "Curtis debuts with a ten-year-old's lively account of his teenaged brother's ups and downs. Ken tries to make brother Byron out to be a real juvenile delinquent, but he comes across as more of a comic figure: getting stuck to the car when he kisses his image in a frozen side mirror, terrorized by his mother when she catches him playing with matches in the bathroom, earning a shaved head by coming home with a conk. In between, he defends Ken from a bully and buries a bird he kills by accident. Nonetheless, his parents decide that only a long stay with tough Grandma Sands will turn him around, so they all motor from Michigan to Alabama, arriving in time to witness the infamous September bombing of a Sunday school. Ken is funny and intelligent, but he gives readers a clearer sense of Byron's character than his own and seems strangely unaffected by his isolation and harassment (for his odd look--he has a lazy eye--and high reading level) at school. Curtis tries to shoehorn in more characters and subplots than the story will comfortably bear--as do many first novelists--but he creates a well-knit family and a narrator with a distinct, believable voice."
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