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The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963 Paperback – September 8, 1997

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Editorial Reviews Review

The year is 1963, and self-important Byron Watson is the bane of his younger brother Kenny's existence. Constantly in trouble for one thing or another, from straightening his hair into a "conk" to lighting fires to freezing his lips to the mirror of the new family car, Byron finally pushes his family too far. Before this "official juvenile delinquent" can cut school or steal change one more time, Momma and Dad finally make good on their threat to send him to the deep south to spend the summer with his tiny, strict grandmother. Soon the whole family is packed up, ready to make the drive from Flint, Michigan, straight into one of the most chilling moments in America's history: the burning of the Sixteenth Avenue Baptist Church with four little girls inside.

Christopher Paul Curtis's alternately hilarious and deeply moving novel, winner of the Newbery Honor and the Coretta Scott King Honor, blends the fictional account of an African American family with the factual events of the violent summer of 1963. Fourth grader Kenny is an innocent and sincere narrator; his ingenuousness lends authenticity to the story and invites readers of all ages into his world, even as it changes before his eyes. Curtis is also the acclaimed author of Bud, Not Buddy, winner of the Newbery Medal. (Ages 9 to 12) --Emilie Coulter --This text refers to the Mass Market Paperback edition.

From School Library Journal

Grade 6 Up?Kenny's family is known in Flint, Michigan, as the Weird Watsons, for lots of good reasons. Younger sister Joetta has been led to believe she has to be overdressed in the winter because Southern folks (their mother is from Alabama) freeze solid and have to be picked up by the city garbage trucks. Kenny, the narrator, does well in school and tries to meet his hard-working parents' expectations. After a string of misdeeds, Mr. and Mrs. Watson decide that tough guy, older brother Byron must be removed from the bad influences of the city and his gang. They feel that his maternal grandmother and a different way of life in Birmingham might make him appreciate what he has. Since the story is set in 1963, the family must make careful preparations for their trip, for they cannot count on food or housing being available on the road once they cross into the South. The slow, sultry pace of life has a beneficial effect on all of the children until the fateful day when a local church is bombed, and Kenny runs to look for his sister. Written in a full-throated, hearty voice, this is a perfectly described piece of past imperfect. Curtis's ability to switch from fun and funky to pinpoint-accurate psychological imagery works unusually well. Although the horrific Birmingham Sunday throws Kenny into temporary withdrawl, this story is really about the strength of family love and endurance. Ribald humor, sly sibling digs, and a totally believable child's view of the world will make this book an instant hit.?Cindy Darling Codell, Clark Middle School, Winchester, KY
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Age Range: 8 - 12 years
  • Grade Level: 3 - 7
  • Lexile Measure: 1000L (What's this?)
  • Paperback: 210 pages
  • Publisher: Yearling (September 8, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0440414121
  • ISBN-13: 978-0440414124
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.5 x 7.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (999 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #64,192 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Photo © 2003 James Keyser
author spotlight
"To me the highest accolade comes when a young reader tells me, 'I really liked your book.' The young seem to be able to say 'really' with a clarity, a faith, and an honesty that we as adults have long forgotten. That is why I write."--Christopher Paul Curtis

Christopher Paul Curtis made an outstanding debut in children's literature with The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963. His second novel, Bud, Not Buddy, is the first book ever to receive both the Newbery Medal and the Coretta Scott King Author Award.


Born in Flint, Michigan, Christopher Paul Curtis spent his first 13 years after high school on the assembly line of Flint's historic Fisher Body Plant # 1. His job entailed hanging car doors, and it left him with an aversion to getting into and out of large automobiles--particularly big Buicks.

With grandfathers like Earl "Lefty" Lewis, a Negro Baseball League pitcher, and 1930s bandleader Herman E. Curtis, Sr., of Herman Curtis and the Dusky Devastators of the Depression, it is easy to see why Christopher Paul Curtis was destined to become an entertainer.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963 tells the story of 10-year-old Kenny and his family, the Weird Watsons of Flint, Michigan, and their unforgettable journey that leads them into one of the darkest moments in American history. It is by turns a hilarious, touching, and tragic story about civil rights and the impact of violence on one family.

Curtis's novel Bud, Not Buddy focuses on 10-year-old Bud Caldwell, who hits the road in search of his father and his home. Times may be hard in 1936 Flint, Michigan, but orphaned Bud's got a few things going for him; he believes his mother left a clue of who his father was--and nothing can stop Bud from trying to find him.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

52 of 58 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 17, 2000
Format: Paperback
The Watsons Go to Birmingham -1963 By:Christopher PaulCurtis
If you're looking for a great book that you never want toput down, The Watsons Go to Birmingham is perfect. It is written by Christopher Paul Curtis. It's full of adventure, comedy, and tragedy. This book is based on the life of a black family in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement. The book is narrated by one of the young family members, Kenny.
The family goes through many problems with Kenny's big brother Byron. Byron thinks he's so cool and thinks he can do whatever he wants including dying his hair, play with matches, and he does other stuff like kissing himself in the mirror. Kenny also has a mom who is very strict and a dad who is always positive. One more family member is Joetta. She is Kenny's younger sister and is very caring.One of the things we really enjoyed about this book was, that the author really expresses the character's characteristics.
The theme of this story is based on the Civil Rights Movement and family. The book goes through problems in both of these categories. Such as, bombings during the Civil Rights Movement, problems with Byron and Kenny, and so many more usual, and some unusual, problems. Many of the Watson family members change during the story. An example of this is, Byron changed from a disobedient child, to a mature, young man full of respect. The theme of this book really expresses the authors feelings on family and the Civil Rights Movement. Christopher Paul Curtis is a great author and uses many different "secrets" to make his writing as good as it is. First of all, he tells things like they are. There isn't any fantasy in this book and you can relate to the story. The Watsons are just like any family. They go through difficult times and good times.
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187 of 222 people found the following review helpful By That'sMissToYou on February 4, 2009
Format: Mass Market Paperback
I bought a whole set of the Watson's Go To Birmingham to share with my students. Knowing it was an award winner and covered the topic of racism, I was counting on a delightful read. By the end of the first chapter, I felt like I had a gem. The writer is clearly a master story teller. I laughed along with the characters as the two brothers and little sister tortured, tricked, and mocked one another in the typical way siblings do. I loved Mamma and Daddy's playful comments and the way the entire family was portrayed as colorful, real, and multidimensional.

Therefore, it may surprise you that I don't read this book in class. I was overwhelmed and disappointed that a gifted writer chose to use so many curses throughout the book and so many sensitive topics. There are over ten examples of the children using foul language. Two ten year old boys get excited about going to the club house to look at books of 'nekkid' ladies and remark that the older brother keeps some copies of such materials in his own bedroom for he and his friends. Also, Dad puts his hand on mom's chest when he think his children don't see (which Kenny does).

I'm a teacher. I work with children every day. I'm not blind to the fact the our children see these things on TV, encounter them in the home, and even come across them on the school field. However, as one who believes we should do better by our children, I am disappointed by the material Curtis has chosen to include in his work. Seeing descriptions in print and visualizing the pictures in the mind (which is a great aspect of books) is very powerful - even more so, I believe, than on TV, which children have learned to tune out. As an educator, I refuse to have my students visualize the things Curtis includes.

Too bad because it would have been a great book.
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67 of 81 people found the following review helpful By X. Libris on July 25, 2001
Format: School & Library Binding
In 1963, I was a white kid attending a predominantly black junior high school in Seattle. "The Watson's Go To Birmingham-1963" rings true to what I saw and experienced in those days.
It's true that this story doesn't have much of a plot in the usual sense, but then how many families have lives that are neatly plotted out? Instead we see episodes in the life of nerdish Kenny Watson, his older brother Byron who is always getting into trouble, his little sister "Joey" who is a little angel, their Momma who still has some of the old South in her, and Dad, a loving, but sometimes stern, man.
This is an important piece of historical fiction. It shows an intact African-American family, struggling with many of the same things families of other races were dealing with in those days, however one is given a taste of their fear of racial violence as Momma and Dad plan--and take--their trip into the deep South to visit Grandma Sands during those turbulent times.
This is an important book, but one I can only recommend with reservations. Some of the situations, and more especially some of the crude language used by Byron and his friends, would cause me to give it a PG rating. I think it's unfortunate that some authors of children's books think it's OK to use language that most educators are otherwise discouraging students from using.
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful By E. R. Bird HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on January 31, 2004
Format: Paperback
Much like Curtis's other hit, "Bud, Not Buddy", "The Watsons" explores the everyday life of African Americans in Flint, Michigan. Also like "Bud", the book has probably garnered some criticism for its portrayal, or lack thereof, of active racism. No character in this book ever confronts an actual racist personally. Though the boys attend public school, there isn't even the slightest indication that Flint was any different then than it is today in terms of racial strife. The family does stop briefly in Appalachia, fearing unseen racists in the woods about them, but that's the closest any plot point comes to it. Just the same, the action in these stories is concerned primarily with the interactions between family members, and I am reluctant to criticize Curtis's choice of dramatic tensions. This is a story I've never seen told in a children's novel, let alone told so well. The character of By is more than just a two-dimensional bully, and the stories are downright fascinating in a couple instances. Finally, I appreciated that the narrator is affected realistically in reaction to the 1963 Birmingham church bombing. His nervous breakdown is done with dignity. I've only a small qualm with the unexplained event of the boy's sister claiming he drew her out of the church before the bombing. What does this mean? It's left unclear, though By makes it perfectly obvious that no supernatural occurrence has taken place. This book would either pair well with other stories taking place in 1963, "Through My Eyes", being only one example. It would also pair well with some sort of a buddy story like the "Soup" books. Or it would go well with "Stories Julian Tells", as a series of tales that take place between brothers. Reading this book aloud would also work very well. Because of its humor, it's a wonderful story.
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