illustrated close-up of Kenny Watson with fire in the background behind him

The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963

by Christopher Paul Curtis

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Themes and Characters

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Curtis writes mainly about the theme of relationships, especially those relationships between parent and child and between siblings. Kenny has a close and open relationship with his parents and senses when it is appropriate to ask them questions and go to them with problems. Dad and Momma respect Kenny and his questions, giving him simple, truthful answers. When Kenny offended his only friend, Rufus, Momma was sensitive to the subtle change in Kenny and helped him talk about what was troubling him. He even asked for her advice. After discerning that Kenny had tried to apologize to Rufus, she advised Kenny to try again and give Rufus time to forgive him. Without fanfare, she interceded on Kenny’s behalf with Rufus, and the two boys were able to make amends.

In the relationship between Kenny and By, Kenny alternates between fear of and fascination for By. By is a bully, and Kenny is frequently the object of his bully tactics. Kenny tries to avoid By but likes to get his licks in, too, when he knows By cannot retaliate. By demonstrates a teen role model that both fascinates and scares Kenny and disappoints his parents. They do not want Kenny following By’s path into gang activities and disobedience. Unlike Kenny’s, By’s relationship with his parents is one of rebellion.

There is a strong love between the parents, and they agree on matters of discipline in raising their children. They practice what we call today a “tough love” with By. They are determined to rescue By from himself and the influence of his tough “gang”-type friends, willing to take drastic measures, even if it means shipping him South to Birmingham where the low rumble of the Civil Rights Movement is beginning. In rescuing By, they hope to set a strong example for Kenny, guiding him in a different direction toward independence and responsibility.


Ten-year-old Kenneth (Kenny) Bernard Watson is a boy with two problems: a lazy eye that turns in toward his nose in spite of everything his parents have tried to correct it and a quick, intelligent mind. Because of his reading ability, he is used as an example before other students and as a result becomes the butt of their jokes and abuses. In addition, Kenny feels a bit out of place at home, being the middle child, not old enough to do By’s “fantastic adventures” and too old to play pretend games like Joetta, his five-year-old sister. Although he knows By is frequently getting himself in trouble, it seems to Kenny some of those “fantastic adventures” would be enough fun to be worth the punishment meted out by his parents.

Kenny’s only friend turned out to be a thief, so he has been without a good friend for some time when a new boy boards his bus and joins Kenny’s fourth grade class. He is as much an outcast as Kenny, and Kenny sees him as his “saver,” thinking the kids will stop making fun of him when they direct their taunts toward Rufus, the new boy. At first Kenny joins the school crowd in teasing Rufus, but he soon decides it is okay to be different. It is not long before Kenny learns about friendship and the price one pays to be a friend.

Kenny is a thinker and asks his dad some serious questions. Kenny fears he does not know all the answers and, when the time comes, will not know how to be a good parent like his parents. His emotions run deep for his family, and learning to handle them helps Kenny change and grow. Because he is a thinker, he frequently sees through By’s frightening stories, and although he has a strong sense they are just that, stories, he still finds himself more like Joetta, believing By’s stories against his better judgment.


Byron (By) Watson at thirteen is an “official juvenile delinquent,” a status he works to maintain. He wants everyone to think he is tough and “Mr. Cool.” He is determined to rebel against his parents and teachers and does so by skipping school, refusing to study, starting fires, and straightening his hair. By is an all-around bully, making life miserable for Kenny, keeping Kenny on the edge between fear and admiration. He fabricates frightening stories which he tells to Kenny and Joetta. He takes advantage of his parents’ love and pushes their patience to the limit. By finds gang life exciting and enjoys harassing younger children.

Dad and Momma have tried over and over to get By to change his ways, threatening to take him to Grandma Sands’s house in Birmingham. When Momma threatens to burn By the next time she catches him playing with fire, By promises to change but always backslides. Eventually, Dad and Momma make good on their threat and take By to Birmingham to Grandma Sands’s home. By drops the tough boy attitude when, after nine years, he sees Grandma Sands, a petite lady with white hair and a cane. A near tragedy with Kenny and the church bombing near Grandma Sands’s home turns By around. He even becomes protective of Kenny, helping him pull out of a depression following the bombing.


Joetta, often called Joey or Jo, is a typical five-year-old, attending kindergarten and trying to keep up with her two older brothers. She adores both of them and frequently tries to intervene on their behalf, especially By’s, with Dad and Momma. She is a happy, carefree little girl who easily believes the tales By makes up about fake garbage collection trucks that pick up all the frozen bodies of dead people every morning and his story about the “Wool Pooh” in the water.

Momma and Dad

Both Momma and Dad play crucial roles in the The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963. Dad is from Michigan and works hard at his factory job. He loves and provides for his family, having a wonderful sense of humor as well as a determination to instill strong character traits and high moral values in his children.

Momma moved from Birmingham to Flint fifteen years ago when she married her husband. She is an independent spirit, loves her children fiercely, and along with her husband is determined to raise her children with lots of love and a firm hand.

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Chapter Summaries