Christopher Paul Curtis's The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963
Book review by Elizabeth Markoff
Grade 5 - Young Adult
Birmingham Beckons Bad Byron
Could a change in scenery reform a 13 year old whose life appears headed in the wrong direction? This is the premise of The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963, Christopher Paul Curtis’ acclaimed first novel from 1995. Although the title concentrates on their trip, action toward it really doesn’t begin until page 100.
Review - The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963
The first part of the book lets us get acquainted with the so-called Weird Watsons of Flint, Michigan, a family of very modest means. The family consists of Kenny, who narrates the book; Byron, the troubled teen; their kid sister Joetta and parents Daniel and Wilona. It sets up the scenario for their eventual lengthy trip to Alabama to try to save Byron. What makes the book fun is its ability to maintain a sense of humor about situations which clearly are no laughing matter. This starts at the very beginning.
When we first meet the Watsons, they all are snuggling together on the sofa under a blanket and wearing several layers of clothing in a desperate attempt to remain warm on a frigid Saturday. Daniel tries to reach their landlord for help with their furnace, but he is not available.
Soon, they are invited to visit the warm home of the children’s Aunt Cydney. After Daniel spends 5 minutes getting their infamous car, a 1948 Plymouth called the Brown Bomber, started, he gives the boys ice scrapers, telling them to clean off the car. Unfortunately, Byron decides to show his affection for an exterior rear view mirror by kissing it, freezing his lips. The only way to remove them is via a strong, painful yank from his mother’s hands.
This is just one of a variety of hilarious incidences in the book about Byron. Another takes place when his mother finds him lighting matches for the umpteenth time in the family bathroom. Wilona puts one near all five of Byron’s fingers, threatening to burn them if he does this again. Unfortunately, all are extinguished by Joetta, who blows them out as she is fearful of what might happen to Byron. Her saliva falls on her mother’s hand and Wilona gives up.
These scenes, among many others, show the genuine love the family has for each other within reasonable boundaries. I found the entire book to be somewhat reminiscent of the 1970s television program “The Waltons,” as it has similar gentle family warmth, albeit with an African American emphasis.
One good example is when Byron straightens out all of his hair. Following some ribbing from Kenny, posing as a reporter, which results in Byron hitting him hard in the ear, his mother teases about him looking like a Mexican when she tells his father. This causes Daniel to shave it all off in the bathroom sink.
Shortly thereafter, Wilona announces the family trip to Birmingham. They will take Byron down to stay with his Grandma Sands for the summer as his antics have simply become more than his parents can handle. If he does not improve, he will stay for the forthcoming school year.
The excursion proves to be a true adventure for the entire family and readers alike. The Watsons get to see areas of the country, such as the Great Smoky Mountains, which are new. In addition, the family observes the aftermath of a tragedy connected with the Civil Rights movement. This is presented in realistic fashion, without any attempt to sugar coat or satirize the situation. The reader gets the full effect of what has actually occurred as well as the feelings of those actually witnessing it.
Just like the family it depicts, readers of The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 will be glad they took the trip to Alabama. The laughs and very possible tears make it well worth the long ride.
Webmaster's note: Interested in this important place and time? Read our review of We've Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children's March.
The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 won a prestigious Newbery Honor as well as a Coretta Scott King Honor. See more Newbery winners, and more African-American children's books. The book also won an honor from The Jane Addams Book Awards.
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