Friday, January 4, 2013

The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis

Image from
Scholastic Inc., 1995
Set against the background of the Civil Rights Movement, this story focuses on 10 year old Kenny’s experiences growing up in a middle class African-American family in Flint, MI.  Kenny deals with new friends and bullying, but it is the road trip his family takes to visit Grandma Sands in Birmingham, AL that changes his life. Book-smart, but gullible Kenny uses frank humor to tell readers about the members of the “Weird Watson family.” From his “cut-up” father and “Southern-style talking” mama to his tattle-tale little sister, Joetta. And then there's his older brother, Bryon, who has just turned 13 and thinks he is Daddy Cool. Unfortunately, Bryon has been cutting school and getting into too much trouble lately. So Mama and Dad decide it’s time to take a family road trip to leave Byron with Grandma Sands for the summer. Kenny expects strict Grandma Sands to change his brother’s attitude, but the lives of all the Watsons are affected when the church near Grandma’s house is bombed.

Based around the facts of an actual church bombing in Birmingham in 1963, this Coretta Scott King Award Winner and Newbery Honor Book addresses racial tensions, violence, and the Civil Rights Movement in a straight forward, yet sensitive and age appropriate way.  Young readers will identify with Kenny’s tribulations as he learns about friendship, bullying, and the world beyond his beloved Flint. Although the siblings squabble, there’s no doubt that the weird Watsons are a tight-knit and loving family. The book ends with an epilogue that discusses the historical setting of the story and provides more information about the church bombing.

Get a taste of Kenny’s humorous way of looking at the world by reading an excerpt of the book or listen to Levar Burton read a portion of the audio book.

*Before reading this book, set the mood by playing music popular from the 1960's. Songs mentioned in the book include Yakety-Yak by The Coasters and Under the Boardwalk and Save the Last Dance for Me by the Drifters. Other artists mentioned are Nat King Cole and Dinah Washington.

*Bring in a road map and figure out the route that the Watsons take from Flint to Birmingham. Learn about the differences in weather and climate in the two locations. Talk about other ways the two locations are similar or different.

*Read more about the family road trip that inspired this book in this author’s note by Curtis. Ask kids to write about a road trip or vacation they’ve taken with their family. Questions to get creative juices following include: Who sits where? Who drives? What do you listen to (the radio, music, books on tape, etc.)? What do you eat? What do you do to pass the time?

*After you read the book, read Dudley Randall’s poem, “Ballad of Birmingham,” about the church bombing that is featured in the book. Be prepared to discuss the civil rights events that led up to and surrounded the bombing.  

*Check out more connection ideas in the reader’s guide written by Amy Griffin and published by Scholastic.

Compare the ways the Watsons are affected by the events of the 1960’s to the characters in another book set during the same decade. Discuss the different attitudes toward race, war, and politics, as well as sibling and family dynamics.

           Glory Be by Augusta Scattergood
           Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai
           Countdown by Deborah Wiles
           One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

*More by this Author
           Bud, Not Buddy
           Elijah of Buxton
           The Mighty Miss Malone
Age 9+ / Grade 4+


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