In The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, Kenny and his siblings are part of a strong family unit that provides a secure home and high standards for behavior. The story is set in Flint, Michigan, during the winter of 1963 and moves down Interstate 75 to Birmingham, Alabama, and Grandma Sands' home for a few days in the summer of 1963.
1963 is the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Kenny's environment is secure and peaceful in his Flint home and school community with the exception of the abuse he receives from By and his bully friend, Buphead. Kenny is easy prey for bullies because of a lazy eye that always pulls in next to his nose, making it crossed.
The setting is integral to the story. It sets the stage for conflict in Flint and Birmingham, In Flint, there are gangs to entice Kenny and By. By is being pulled into the gangs through the influence of his friend, Buphead, much to the dismay of his parents, and Kenny is looking to By as an example of how a teenager acts.
The story progresses from a lighthearted, carefree tone to a more somber, tragic tone when Dad and Momma take the family to Birmingham. The trip to Birmingham provides the Watson children with their first real experience with prejudice and hate towards black people. A church bombing near Grandma Sands' home frightens and confuses Kenny, so much so that he goes through a period of withdrawal and hiding when the family returns to Flint.
(The entire section is 254 words.)
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Christopher Paul Curtis has written a first novel that speaks in a lively fashion. Through the eyes of Kenny we meet a delightful tight-knit family. Curtis employs some black dialect in his portrayal of By and Southern dialect to portray Momma when she gets worried and upset. After their arrival in Birmingham, Momma's speech is especially tinged with Southern flair, just like Grandma Sands' speech. His candid use of dialect, even poking fun at Momma from time to time, adds to the authenticity of the characters. Young people will find in Kenny a delightful friend whose approach to dealing with bullies, friends, and parents is one they can appreciate and understand.
Curtis very ably moves the reader from hilarity in the beginning chapters of the book to a sense of foreboding, danger, disaster, fear, and disquietude as the story builds to the bombing climax. Curtis's portrayal of the Watson family's ordeals is honest. He weaves a factual event, the church bombing, into his story without exploiting the horror.
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Kenny is growing up at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, and although his home is far from the marches, protests, and violence that ensue, Curtis weaves the two together seamlessly. The Watsons' reaction to the bombing is one of horror, confusion, and disbelief. By helps Kenny gain perspective on his feelings, and the statements he makes help the reader gain some perspective, too.
Kenny, things ain't ever going to be fair. How's it fair that two grown men could hate Negroes so much that they'd kill some kids just to stop them from going to school? How's it fair that even though the cops down there might know who did it nothing will probably ever happen to those men? It ain't. But you just gotta understand that that's the way it is and keep on stepping.
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Topics for Discussion
1. How would you help By defrost his lips when they become stuck to the "Brown Bomber'"s side-view mirror?
2. Why would Mrs. Henry, Kenny's teacher, set Kenny up as an example for other kids to emulate? How does that affect any friendships Kenny might have with students in his school?
3. What qualities do you look for in a best friend? Why was it hard for Kenny to make friends? What advice would you give him about being a friend?
4. In chapter five, By plays with matches again. Momma is following through with her threat to burn By the next time she catches him playing with fire. Joey is in a panic and trying to stop her. Is she really going to burn him? What does she plan to do? What will her action accomplish? How would you convince By of the danger of his actions?
5. Why does By think they are going on welfare when Momma sends him to Mitchell's grocery for food items? Why would he go on his own and sign for food items without Momma's knowledge?
6. By seems to have no feelings when he is mean to Kenny and other little kids, but when he hits the bird with a cookie and kills it, he seems filled with remorse. By's reaction perplexes Kenny. Explain By's behavior.
7. In chapter nine, Dad explains to Kenny why By needs to go to Birmingham. Kenny tries to understand what Dad is saying but without much success. Explain what Dad is saying about By, By's world, being in Flint, and being with Grandma Sands...
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Momma did not really know anything about the cold. After fifteen years in Flint, she still believed cold weather could kill you in a flash. Find out about truly cold weather. Is there a place on earth where the cold could kill you in a matter of seconds or minutes? Create a chart or a method of your choice to record your findings so you can share them with your classmates.
2. The Watsons call their car the "Brown Bomber." Using some descriptive information given early in the novel and in chapter eight, find pictures of a car like it. From the descriptions, try to determine the year it was made. Research into how much the car cost when it was new.
3. Momma has planned their trip down to the last detail. Use a road map of the United States and chart their trip. Use map pins to mark the stopping places Momma had planned. Display the map on a bulletin board featuring The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963.
4. Momma even has the food and snacks planned for the entire trip. Using Momma's choices of foods, plan a picnic to enjoy during the reading and discussion of the trip portion of the book.
5. By frightens Joey and ultimately Kenny with his fabrication of the "Wool Pooh", Pooh Bear's evil twin. Chapter thirteen gives a good description of what Kenny thinks he sees when he is caught in the whirlpool. Create a picture of it. Think about how different art mediums work and choose one that best fits the situation:...
(The entire section is 488 words.)
The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, Curtis's first book, is set in Flint, Michigan, in 1963. His second book, Bud, Not Buddy, is also set in Flint but during the Great Depression. In The Watsons Go to Birmingham- 1963, Curtis has created a strong family unit, while in Bud, Not Buddy readers meet ten-year-old Bud, a motherless boy, who escapes from a bad foster home situation and sets out to find his father.
With LeVar Burton reading the story, The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 is also available on audio cassette from Bantam Books-Audio.
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For Further Reference
"Curtis, Christopher Paul." In Something About the Author. Volume 93. Edited by Alan Hedblad. Detroit: Gale, 1997. A biobibliographical entry detailing Curtis's life and work.
Parravano, Martha V. Review of The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963. Horn Book (March-April 1996): 195-96. Parravano calls this an impressive first novel and speaks enthusiastically of Curtis's writing style and sense of story.
Rochman, Hazel. Review of The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963. Booklist (August 19, 1995): 1946. Rochman feels there are several family stories that are self-conscious, but later calls The Watson Go to Birmingham— 1963 a compelling first novel.
Review of The...
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