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.
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.
(The entire section is 785 words.)