The Watsons Go To Birmingham
Christopher Paul Curtis
Laurel Leaf 2000
The Watsons Go To Birmingham renders a personal spin on a piece of history in a way I think kids can relate. The story of the Watsons connects one family to one of the most tragic events of the Civil Rights Movement, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four young girls: Addie Mae Collins, Carol Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair. I'm from Detroit and my family is from the south. Almost everyone I know, remembers or was told the story about the four little girls. Reading about the Watsons is like reading about my family.
I am impressed with Curtis’ ability to seamlessly weave a significant historical event with the intimate events of one family’s experiences. The bombing teaches Kenny and his siblings firsthand how fortunate they are. Until the trip, the Watson children had been insulated from the social turmoil of the day.
Curtis endears the reader to the family through Kenny, the narrator and Kenny is hilarious. I love his catch phrase: "Ready, aim, fire!" The dialogue rings true in my ears. The story reminds me of own family in many ways, and it connects me to my cultural roots. For many African Americans, we’ve all got an aunt, grandmother, cousin some family “down south.” Regardless if we actually have relatives like the archetypes, we identify with southern matrons with gardens, church services and going home.
Kenny is full of funny stories like when his brother gets his tongue stuck to a frozen car window or when he talks about how their mother puts so many layers of clothes on his sister that her hair sticks to her forehead by the time he pulls off her outerwear at school. He tells us about fun times listening to the earliest technology in car stereos with his dad.
The Watsons do have financial challenges and everyone who lives in Michigan knows about bitter winters. These are facts of life for many working class families I know. What’s impressive here is the closeness of the family, even with a rebellious oldest child. This family is very much intact, functional and loving. I can’t say how glad I am to see a family like the Watsons. Black children need to be exposed to more portrayals of families like this and so do others who see the black family too often portrayed as dysfunctional and riddled with strife.
I love the pacing and humor of the story. Curtis does a wonderful job introducing a piece of American history in an accessible and intimate way. This is the power of literature at its core: an examination of who we are and what we are capable of and hope for what we can be. Given the targeted age group, kids between eight and twelve, there is a good balance of history and fiction. For adults, we see this as an introduction to a part of history. For kids, they relate to Kenny and it just so happens that his story coincides with a piece of history.