Sunday, December 20, 2015

Reading Through History: The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis (1995)

Kenny Watson is the middle child of the "Weird Watson" family, between sweet younger sister Joetta and delinquent older brother Byron. As Byron's out-of-control behavior escalates, his parents decide the family will make a trip south to Birmingham where Byron will spend the summer - and perhaps longer - with his grandmother, learning how to behave properly and to better appreciate the problems he will face as a young black man. The plans for the trip and the trip itself are fun for Kenny, leaving him completely unprepared for the terrible thing he witnesses while in Alabama, and how deeply it affects him.

Christopher Paul Curtis is one of those authors who can be trusted to tell any story. If his name is on the cover of a book, I always know it is going to be a bittersweet story, filled with great humor, wonderful descriptions, important historical facts, and lots and lots of heart. This book is no exception. As in his other novels, specifically Elijah of Buxton and The Madman of Piney Woods, Curtis brings to life all the minor details of the characters' lives and the time period in which they live. Details of the kids' lives at school, their favorite records to listen to, their mother's obsession with making sure they are warm enough in the cold of winter - all of these build up a full picture in the reader's mind, not just of the historical event that provides the story's climax, but of what their own lives might have been like if they had been raised in Flint in the 1960s.

On its own, this book does not provide a complete study of the civil rights movement. Rather, because of its strong characters, many funny moments, and kid-friendly tone, it is a great jumping off point for beginning to understand the significance of the civil rights movement and of many of the great leaders whose names are so commonly mentioned in elementary school classrooms during this unit of study. The tragedy portrayed near the end of the story is upsetting, and many readers will react just as Kenny does, with great shock and sadness, but it is also an event on a small enough scale that readers can internalize the turbulence of this time period on an emotional level first, and then begin to work out the greater implications of the movement as a whole. And even without a specific lesson to back it up, this is just a great book that deserves to be read and enjoyed by as many kids as possible. (I really wish Christopher Paul Curtis would write some contemporary realistic fiction. I would eagerly read it all!)

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