Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis

Published in 1995 by Dell Laurel-Leaf
an imprint of Random House Children's Books
Historical Fiction

Victims of the Birmingham Church Bombing - 1963
Christopher Paul Curtis' first novel, The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963, earned him a Newbery Medal, a Coretta Scott King Award, and the Golden Kite Award, in addition to many other awards and honors. I hadn't read this book
before, but as soon as I opened the cover and saw who the book was dedicated to, I knew I wanted to read it: Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, the toll for one day in one city.

I was immediately reminded of the poem "Ballad of Birmingham" written by Dudley Randall. I usually read this poem with my classes in January, around the time of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday. The
16th Street Baptist Church Bombing
September 15, 1963
poem was written in memory of the four girls killed during the bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. I thought the book would be more about this event; however, it was not. The church bombing was in the back of my mind as I read the book, but I kept wondering when and how it was going to connect with the story.

The book is about the Watsons, a fictional African American family who live in Flint Michigan: ten-year-old Kenny, the narrator; Daniel and Wilona Watson, Kenny's parents; Kenny's brother Byron ("By"); and his sister Joetta ("Joey"). The Watsons, affectionately referred to as the "Weird Watsons," are a typical, loving family with one problem: Byron, the oldest child, is getting into trouble, so they decide to drive to Birmingham so he can stay the summer, and perhaps the following year, with Grandma Sands, Wilona Watson's strict mother. What they don't realize is that they are heading towards a tragic historical event in history. The contrast between the way the family is portrayed and the tragic events that happen at the church are what really make this novel so compelling. The reader is drawn into the life of this rather ordinary family, while at the same time, understanding that racial unrest lies just beneath the surface. As the reader becomes familiar with each member of the Watson family, especially the children, he or she begins to realize the children who were killed in the church bombing also had families and lived ordinary lives as well. It humanizes the victims.

During the first part of the book, the readers get to know the Watsons as a family experiencing the ups and downs of family life and sibling rivalry. Because the book is narrated by Kenny Watson, a ten-year-old boy, the language and tone is often humorous. At times, I was reminded of the humor in the graphic novel Diary of a Wimpy Kid. One scene I found particularly funny was when Byron got his lips frozen to the mirror of their car, the Brown Bomber. Another humorous scene was when Byron got his hair "conked" and dad shaved his head bald. Other scenes include Kenny playing with his friends and Byron bullying his siblings.

One of the funniest scenes in the book begins with Byron trying to scare his brother and sister. "Even though I was in fourth grade I fell for a lot of the stuff Byron came  up with. He made everything seem real interesting and important" (52). Byron looks around to make sure no one is listening, and then he attempts to convince his brother and sister that "fake" garbage trucks go around the neighborhood picking up frozen dead people.

As Kenny and Joey listen intently, Byron explains:
You see, some of them trucks ain't real garbage trucks at all. Joey, you was right, every cold morning like this the streets is full of dead, froze people. Some of the time they freeze so quick they don't even fall down, they just stand there froze solid! . . . That's where them fake garbage trucks come in. Every morning they go round picking the froze folks off the street, and they need them big doors because someone who got froze don't bend in the middle and they wouldn't fit in no regular ambulance. . . . Both of you gotta swear never, ever to try and look in the back of one of them trucks. I did it once and I'ma tell you, there ain't nothin' more horrible than seein' hundreds of dead, froze up Southern folks crammed up inside a garbage truck. It's a sight that I'ma carry to my grave with me" (53).
     Joey begins crying; Byron turns to Kenny and says, "Give my regards to Clark, Poindexter" (54) and leaves him to wipe away her tears. These scenes help the reader identify with the characters; older siblings often antagonize their younger siblings.

Slightly more than halfway through the book, Dad begins to get the Brown Bomber ready for their trip
to Birmingham by cleaning it and fixing it up. He purchases an Ultra-Glide record player so they will be able to listen to anything other can country music on their long trip. Did this contraption really exist? . . . Once the family is loaded in the car, they drive through Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee and stop at rest areas along the way. The conditions are terrible; most have outhouses.

By the time they arrive at Grandma Sands, the reader is more than half-way through the book. I kept wondering how they were going to connect the church bombing to the story and was surprised how little the book focused on the event because of the strong emphasis placed on it in the reviews that I read.

Although I like The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963, I found it hard to read at times. I often found my mind drifting as I was reading it, and I was a little disappointed that the book didn't focus more on the Birmingham church bombing. Because of the book's dedication and the references in the book reviews, I kept waiting for a link to be made between the story and the historical event, and that doesn't happen until the very end of the book.

Nevertheless, this book is a good family book and reveals the Watsons as an ordinary, African American family experiencing life, and contrasts their lives with the racial tension and political upheaval going on in the background. This would be an excellent choice for students in middle school; I would consider it for struggling readers on the high school level as well.

Meet Christopher Paul Curtis
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