The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963

My girls and I had a rip-roaring time with “The Watsons Go To Birmingham – 1963” by multi-award winning author, Christopher Paul Curtis.

The story is about the “Weird Watsons”, a middle-class black family’s life in Flint, Michigan and their journey to the Deep South. Kenny, the narrator of the story, is an intelligent 10-year-old boy whose geekiness and lazy eye often cause him to be bullied. Father Daniel loves “cutting up” and has an irrepressible sense of humour. Mother Wilona is loving but formidable enough to strike terror in her children’s hearts when laws are breached. Her Southern background is often fodder for her husband’s hillbilly jokes. Byron, the cocky (eldest) teenaged son, is on his way to being an “official delinquent” while Joetta, the youngest, is a loyal girl who snitches on her siblings at times, but hates to see them punished.

Byron, by far the most colourful character, is the reason for the family’s journey to Birmingham, Alabama. Daddy Cool’s misdeeds include getting his lips frozen on the car’s mirror (it was cold and he was kissing his oh-so-handsome reflection), cutting school, using his parents’ credit at the store without permission, getting a conk (straightening his hair), playing with fire and assault. His parents make a desperate bid to save him from his self-destructive tendencies – they hope that a stint with Grandma Sands in Birmingham, away from the temptations and negative peers in the city will straighten him out.

The family makes preparations for the trip like refurbishing the car and installing the Ultra Glide (a record player) to avoid country/hillbilly music.. Mom meticulously jotted dow nall rest stops and expenses carefully and precisely in her notebook entitled The Watsons Go To Birmingham – 1963. Dad however has other plans and saves money by driving practically non-stop.

In Birmingham, the family are caught up in the turbulent events of the emerging Civil Rights Movement. Things take a tragic turn when a Black church is bombed – this is a true event in US history when a racially instigated bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church led to some 14 to 22 people injured. Four teenage girls perished. Martin Luther King, Jr described it as “one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity”. The book is in fact dedicated to those girls – Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair.

This is where you see the sheer dexterity and verve of Christopher Paul Curtis. He isn’t just wickedly funny – he tackles difficult and emotionally wrenching issues with a lot of heart. His stories often take sad and painful turns, but he skillfully navigates you through it and you are never left without hope. This was true of his other books that I enjoyed tremendously – Elijah of Buxton and Bud, Not Buddy. (You know I’ll talk about them soon!)

The Watsons deals with issues like sibling rivalry, adolescent rebellion, friendship and bullying and racial prejudice, so do look through it and be prepared if you choose to read it with your children. I had a few reservations – there are some cuss words, Byron’s unnamed trouble with a girl and references to ‘adult’ books. Since I was reading this to my then 9-year-old and 6-year-old, I was able to tackle these bits. I also glossed over the part about Grandma Sands’ ‘friendship’ with a Mr Robert.

I found this a powerful tool to begin tough conversations about race, discrimination and civil rights. A very satisfying read – so very humorous, but also deeply moving.