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The Watsons Go To Birmingham - 1963
Transcript of The Watsons Go To Birmingham - 1963
By Christopher Paul Curtis
Conclusion: Sentiment vs. Significance
Setting & Synopsis
K. Jenisha Hasselberger
The Watsons Got to Birmingham – 1963
Author: Christopher Paul Curtis
Publication Date: 1995
Publisher: Bantam Doubleday Dell Books for Young Readers
Christopher Paul Curtis - Author
Born in May of 1953
Parents: Dr. Herman Elmer Curtis, a chiropodist, and Leslie Jane Curtis, a teacher
Second oldest of five siblings
Raised in Flint, Michigan (the same setting as our story and many of his stories)
Mother Leslie was very supportive of Curtis' writing
An elementary school teacher and a teacher in high school provided a great deal of encouragement for Curtis to pursue writing
The Early Years
After High School
Went to university part time and worked for Flint’s infamous GM Motors Assembly installing doors on Buicks.
Convinced a coworker to work every 30 minutes instead of every other car. Allowed Curtis to do other things like read novels, and eventually write.
Began sketches for his future novels on the line for 13 years.
Worked other odd jobs and hard labor until taking one year off to write
Graduated from the University of Michigan – Flint in 2000
Married three times. Currently married to Habon Aden
Has four children: Steven, Cydney, Ayaan, and Ebyaan
Presently lives with his family in Detroit, Michigan
Curtis’ son became the first reader of
The Watsons Go To Birmingham -1963
after typing the novel from his father’s longhand
Took a year off from factory work to finish his first novel. He was 42 years old.
First book was very well received, receiving a Newbery Honor and Coretta Scott King Honor.
Second novel, three years later, was the recipient of both the Newbery Medal award and Coretta Scott King Author award in 2000 for
Bud, Not Buddy
Published eight books which have received more than 100 awards, honors or nominations.
Most of his novels take place in Flint and feature a 10 year old boy.
In a more recent title Curtis successfully narrates through the eyes of a 12 year old girl Deza Malone in
The Mighty Miss Malone
The Watsons Go To Birmingham (1995)
Bud, Not Buddy (1999)
Bucking the Sarge (2004)
Elijah of Buxton (2007)
Mr. Chickee’s Funny Money (2007)
Mr. Chickee’s Messy Mission (2008)
The Mighty Miss Malone (2012)
The Madman of Piney Woods (2014)
Curtis' Advice to Young Writers
1. Write every day.
2. Have fun with it.
3. Be patient with yourself. It’s one of few arts where there
are no prodigies.
4. Ignore all rules – find your own voice and your own style.
What makes writing interesting is when an author does
things a little bit differently and can bring a new perspective
to a story.
It is Flint, Michigan in the dead of winter, temperatures 15 degrees below zero, and Momma has bundled everyone up with so many layers they can hardly walk to school. It is the 1960s in the North where life is relatively stable for Black Americans.
Dad works for an automobile factory and drives a Brown Bomber. The three children and Momma are pretty happy with their lives, their two-story house, their toys and teachers until the oldest son Byron starts causing trouble. Dad splurges on an Ultra-glide record player for the car, and they all hop in for the road trip of their lives to Birmingham, Alabama where the Civil Rights movement is brewing.
The kids are surprised to learn that Birmingham is not all that different from Flint, on the surface. A closer look soon confronts the children with the cruelties of the Jim Crow South, protests in the streets, and an actual historical event that changes their lives and the lives of Black Americans forever.
The family returns home to Flint with new perspectives, where brothers recommit to each other and learn to cope with their own mortality and fear.
(By aka Daddy Cool)
Kenneth Watson (Kenny)
“I had two things wrong with me that would have gotten me beat up and teased a lot more than I did if it hadn’t been for By.” (Curtis, 20)
10 years old, Book smart, self-conscious, a great reader, tired of being bullied about his lazy eye, has a love-hate-love relationship with his brother By, loves and cares for Joey and his parents.
“I should have known the only reason Buphead and By would want to play with me was to do something mean.”
A thirteen year old wise guy, an official “juvenile delinquent” as Kenny says. He is the local school bully and gets in trouble a lot both at home and at school. Shows his true colors when he saves his brother from the “Wool Pooh” and a deep depression.
[To Kenny]“You know what, square? I must be adopted, there just ain’t no way two folks as ugly as your momma and daddy coulda give birth to someone as sharp as me!”(Curtis, 8)
"Ain’t no genies in this world, Kenny, ain’t no magic powers, there ain’t even no angels, not in this neighborhood anyway. Man, I just don’t get you, you supposed to be the one who’s smart. How can you believe in something as stupid as magic powers and genies living behind the couch but not believe it was a part of you that took Joey outta that church?” (Curtis, 202)
Loves her family. Is boundlessly protective, loyal, faithful, and forgiving.
"'This is just like that horrible story Kenny read me about that guy Nar-sissy who stared at himself so long he forgot to eat and starved to deth. Mommy, please save him!’ She went over and hugged her arms around stupid Byron’s waist.” (Curtis, 15)
Tough, organized and responsible. She makes great sandwiches and cares deeply for her children. She misses her home and mother in Birmingham, Alabama.
“Momma started talking Southern-style when she got worried. Instead of saying “here” she said “he-uh” and instead of saying “you all” she said “y’all.” (Curtis, 14)
Resourceful, silly, optimistic, concerned, and diligent. He loves his car and his children. He is also a great driver.
“Dad cracked up all over again. ‘Well, lover boy, I guess this means no one can call you Hot Lips, can they?” (Curtis, 15)
Rumored to be a hard disciplinarian.
"Joey said, 'Uh-uh, Kenny, you heard Grandma Sands tell about that little boy getting lost in the water. What was that thing called that she said got him?'" (Curtis, 169)
"Daddy Cool said, 'She said he got caught by the Wool Pooh [...] Winnie's evil twin brother.'" (Curtis, 170)
"You don't think so, Dad. Well, judging by the condition of your hair I wouldn't say thinking is one of your strong suits, is it." (Curtis, 95)
"'Dad, how come you always hide your toothbrush, why don't you keep yours with ours?'"
"'You see, Kenny, I know that in a little boy's eyes there isn't anything in the world that is better for general cleaning than a toothbrush, and the greatest thing about it is that with a good rinse no one can tell what it was used for.'" (Curtis 104)
A trouble-maker, bully, Byron’s best partner-in-crime.
Loyal, forgiving, Southern, poor, a good friend to Kenny. Ridiculed at school for being poor, sharing clothes with his brother and for his heavy Southern accent.
"Byron never looked at me the whole time, but Buphead was giving me enough dirty looks for the both of them." (Curtis, 24)
"'Who did this to you, By?'
She didn't have to ask. There was only one other fourteen-year-old in neighborhood who had a conk.
I answered for him. "It was Buphead." (Curtis, 91)
Fear of Death
“The Wool Pooh” a square-footed, faceless grey monster came to symbolize fear, evil and death for Kenny.
Kenny’s first encounter with the Wool Pooh was in the swimming hole in Birmingham, the one Grandma Sands had warned him not to trust because of a strong whirlpool that could pull you under and drowned anyone that wasn’t a strong swimmer.
Kenny tries to convince By and Joey to join him, and when they won’t he defiantly goes by himself. He tries to catch a turtle in the water when he finds himself caught in the current. This is when he first sees the creepy faceless “Wool Pooh”.
Kenny frantically grabs for dry land and his life, but the “Wool Pooh” holds him under. This is when Byron saves him from drowning.
“Byron dropped me on the ground right on top of all the water and junk that I’d thrown up. I knew he was going to make a stupid joke about me landing face-first in all that mess but he didn’t, he just wrapped his arms around my shoulders real tight and put his mouth right on top of my head! Byron was shaking like he was getting electrocuted and crying like a baby and kissing the top of my head over and over!”
Kenny says later that the “Wool Pooh” was who attacked him, but no one pays much attention. He doesn’t tell Momma and Dad about the drowning incident.
After Joey’s near death experience in the church, Kenny, while relieved that his sister was safe, struggles to make sense of what had happened that day; that four other young girls were killed, and others injured; that, whoever did it is managing to get away with it without being punished. Kenny is also convinced that he saw the “Wool Pooh” in action that day, and that he is partially responsible for the event.
The “Wool Pooh” in this scene is a physical representation of Kenny's realization of his mortality and fear of death.
in the face of
Humor is used in very purposeful ways to provide enjoyment to the reader, to help make the characters of this story relateable, and to lighten darker themes addressed in the plot, such as racism and death.
Curtis confronts many of the racist realities of being Black in America using humor and joke to make a point. "Jokes can function as narratives and counterstories that provide insights into the silenced perspectives of marginalized groups." (McNair, 203)
Byron and his best friend Buphead bully Kenny but Byron often comes to Kenny’s rescue, such as when he confronts LJ about stealing Kenny’s dinosaurs, or when he teaches Larry Dunn, one of many school bullies, a lesson.
Larry Dunn bullies Kenny and the rest of the school for lunch money, Byron “teaches him a lesson”.
Dad bullies Byron when he gets himself a “conk” hairdo without parental permission. Dad bullies Byron into submission by shaving his head.
Mom attempts to bully and intimidate Byron by burning him when she finds him playing with matches in the house for the zillionth time. Joey begs Momma not to hurt him as she attempts to blow out all of the matches just before they reach Byron’s skin.
The kids at school bully and make fun of the new kid and Kenny’s school friend, Rufus Fry. When Kenny finds himself participating in the remarks and Rufus overhears, and stops hanging out with Kenny but doesn’t confront him. Kenny, as perceptive as he is, knows what he has done was wrong and hurtful, so, full of remorse and shame, he apologizes to Rufus.
White people and whites in power bully African Americans in Birmingham by maintaining Jim Crow law segregation including Colored Only fountains and restrooms, refusing service to black customers in restaurants and generally intimidating Black members of the community. The Black community of Birmingham begins to peacefully rebel, holding marches, sit-ins and involving young people in non-violent resistance. This leads to a horrible event, the 16th street Church bombing, but it is this devastating event that finally leads many prominent White people of power to say “enough is enough”.
Even though it is Momma and Dad’s idea to take the kids to Birmingham where Grandma Sands was going to save Byron from himself and from destroying the family, in the end it is the kids who help each other mature and grow and save each other from the dangers of fear.
Even though Byron refuses to risk it and go to see the Wool Pooh at the swimming hole with Kenny, he manages to rescue Kenny from drowning just at the last minute.
Joey’s hallucination about Kenny coming to the church, somehow coerces her into stepping outside of the church just before the bomb explodes and kills the four little girls.
It is Byron who talks Kenny out of his deep depression, and his feelings of shame and guilt after the church bombing. Kenny hides behind the living room couch in the Watsons’ Pet Hospital convinced that it will magically cure him of his guilt, fear and sadness.
Kenny spends weeks in this place behind the couch that their pets used to go to for refuge when they were sick and the family couldn’t afford to pay for a visit to the vet. Byron sleeps on the couch to keep Kenny company, encourages him to go outsides, watch tv, and eat.
Finally Byron has a heart to heart with his brother and Kenny is finally able to release what he had been feeling, so that he could move on.
Historical and Social Context
The life of a factory worker, a job that was open to all races in the North provided an opportunity to make a stable living without much education.
Dad buys the Brown Bomber a record player called the Ultra Glide so that they can listen to music they prefer on their road trip. He wants to avoid having to listen the only thing available on the radio between Flint and Birmingham: country western music, aka hill billy music.
Kenny’s favorite single, the playlet “Yakety Yak” by the Coasters, a humorous song featuring a conversation between parent and teen about chores. Some would argue the song is a commentary on how blacks perceive white society during this time, the late 1950s–
“Just put on your coat and hat
And walk yourself to the laundromat
And when you finish doin' that
Bring in the dog and put out the cat
(Don't talk back)”
This allowed many African Americans to purchase nice things like fancy cars. Black families in the North were able to find a small piece of the American Dream. Cars represented progress and status for African Americans because it was one thing all people were allowed to own.
Black Life in America
Jim Crow Segregation
Civil Rights Protests
Harsher conditions in the South and parts of the North
Jim Crow/Segregation laws and the unequal treatment of African Americans in the South was a shock for the Watson kids who had never experienced such blatant racism.
Their trip to Birmingham forced the Watson children and even the parents to face the ultimate bully: Discrimination.
This scene from the film
Men in Black III
is a good illustration of the use of humor when dealing with a situation of injustice.
Will Smith's character, Agent J, is able to overcome his immediate irritation by employing humor as a coping mechanism.
A 1996 The Newbery Honor Book Book
A 1996 Coretta Scott King Honor Book
An ALA Top Ten Best Book
An ALA Best Book fro young Adults
An ALA Notable Children's Book
An IRA Young Adult's Choice
A Publishers Weekly Best Book
A Horn Book Fanfare
The famous psychologist, Sigmund Freud, explains jokes as pinpointing the psyches innermost desires and fears. (McNair, 204)
Momma says, "You know Birmingham is a good place, and I don't mean the weather either. The life is slower, the people are friendlier." Dad responds, "Oh yeah...they're a laugh a minute down there. Let's see where was that 'Coloreds Only' bathroom downtown?"
Dad's use of sarcasm in response to Momma's nostalgic memories of her hometown in the deeply racist and segregated South, illustrates Freud's point. While Dad agrees to take the family there to save By, he is deeply concerned about how everyone will be treated.
McNair 2008 identifies four specific types of humor Curtis uses to subtley confront racism:
lies or tall tales
the use of sarcasm to expose the hypocrisy of American racism
poking fun at Whites
anticipation of racism
Momma meticulously and strategically planned everything the Watsons' would need on their trip to Birmingham. She had everything from who would eat what sandwich on what day to where they would stop for the night. Everyone made fun of her for this "anal" planning, but she was simply "anticipating the racism" they might encounter on their journey.
Dad explains in his put-on Southern drawl, "[T]his he-uh is the deep South you-all is gonna be drivin' thoo. Y'all colored folks cain't be je' pullin' up tuh any ol' way-uh an be 'spectin' tuh get no room uh no food, yuh heah, boy?" (Curtis, 32-133)
Kenny is bullied at school. He then becomes friends with a new kid at school named Rufus Fry.
Byron, the older brother, bullies Kenny in addition to others at school. Sometimes By actually comes to Kenny's rescue against other school bullies.
Momma and Dad find out that By gets a "conk" hairdo without their permission. In his anger and frustration, Dad shaves By's head.
Dad buys an Ultra Glide record player for the Brown Bomber and Momma packs the car, so the family can head to Birmingham to get saved by Grandma.
Momma and Dad are at their wits end with Byron causing trouble.
"Humor gives you strength, I think. It allows you to build up antibodies to all the horrible things in the world" (http:// www.teachingbooks.net/content/Curtis_trans.pdf).
Curtis uses humor to not only give to strength to his characters, but to help his readers prepare for the difficult event at the end of the story: the bombing of the 16th Street Church that killed four small girls.
Almost immediately after it's publication,
The Watsons Go To Birmingham
gained notoriety in the literary world receiving a Newbery Honor and Coretta Scott King Honor award. Numerous awards and twenty years later, this book is still talked about and written about by scholars of children's literature. It has been praised as an important book, a Classic, for it's character development, clever use of humor as a literary tool, while also being an important book especially for African American young people due to it's use of "universal themes such as love and friendship...addressed within an authentic African American context" (McNair, 2010).
Today this book is very popular in elementary and middle grade classrooms because of it's relateable story and characters in the face of a difficult topic. Experts stress the importance of scaffolding this book with lessons on the historical context and a close examination of the "complexity of African American humor", otherwise much of the depth and uniquely Black American experiences will be lost on readers (McNair, 2007). Barker 2010 affirms the importance of discussions of race identifications in books like The Watsons Go To Birmingham because they help both Black and non-black readers empathize with the characters, understand their experiences and ultimately reject racism by "reaffirming the common humanity of all races."
This story is so relateable, but at the same time has become such a widely recognized story in the literary community amongst librarians, teachers and scholars this leads me to conclude that it ultimately straddles the canon of significance and the canon of sentiment. On one level you could read this book for pleasure, lightly, and really enjoy the wonderful character development and storyline. You could read the story more critically, analyzing the use of humor, the commentary on black life in white America in the 1960s and not be disappointed. You could even read this book for its clever use of dialogue and sensoral imagery, or only for it's historical context and the relevant Civil Rights information.
Personally, I have found myself loving this book the more I work with it, discovering new things about the cleverness of the author and the touching growth of the characters. I did not love the characters at first, but midway through the book I was hooked and I can confidently say that this book will remain in the hearts and minds of readers for years to come.
Byron saves Kenny from drowning Collier's Landing.
SPOILER ALERT: Joey hallucinates seeing Kenny, and as she follows him out of the church is saved from the bomb which kills four other girls her age.
Kenny is devastated by the bombing and falls into a deep depression.
A Bulletin Blue Ribbon
A Golden Kite Award for Fiction
The Jane Addams Peace Award Honor Book
A Booklist 25 Top Black History Picks for Youth
An NCSS-CBC Notable Children's Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies
Bank Street Child Study Association
Children's Book Award
A New York Times Book Review Best Book
The Watsons Go To Birmingham (2013)
The Watsons Go To Birmingham
Also available on OverDrive through your public library.
Kid Reenactments and School Projects
Barker, J.I. (2010). Racial identification and audience in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and the Watsons Go To Birmingham-1963.
Children’s Literature in Education, 41, 118-145. doi: 10.1007/s10583-010-9101-4
Bechtold, J. (Producer), Grieci, L. J. (Executive Producer), Holcomb, J. (Co-Producer), Kleinhart, P. K. (Producer), Lee, T. L. (Executive
Producer), Morrison, J. M. (Executive Producer), Silver, N. (Executive Producer), Wells, B. (Producer), & Leon, K. (Director). (2013). The Watsons Go To Birmingham [Motion Picture]. USA: The Hallmark Channel.
Curtis, C. P. (1995).
The Watsons Go To Birmingham - 1963.
New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Books for Young Readers.
Curtis, C. P. (2009). Drawing back the curtain: Momma’s inspiration…and the making of a writer. Children & Libraries: The
Journal of the Association for Library Service to Children, 7(2) Summer/Fall 2009, 21-28.
Garza, M. M. (2008, December 30). Blacks, Hispanics are rare heroes with Newbery kids books medal. Bloomberg. Retrieved
Leiber, J., Stoller, M. (1958). Yakety Yak [Recorded by The Coasters]. On Yakety yak [Record] Location: Sony/ATV Music Publishing
LLC, IMAGEM U.S. LLC.
McNair, J.C. (2007). “I may be crackin’, but um frackin’”: Racial humor in The Watson Go To Birmingham-1963. Children’s Literature in
Education. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1007/s10583-007-9049-1
McNair, J.C. (2010). Classic African American Children’s Literature. The Reading Teacher, 64(2), 96-105. doi: 10.1598/RT.64.2.2
Morgan, P. E. (2003). History for our children: An interview with Christopher Paul Curtis, a contemporary voice in African
American young adult fiction. State University of West Georgia.
Sacheli, S. (2012, December 20) Acclaimed children’s author harassed by ex-wife, court hears. The Windsor Star. Retrieved from
Stevenson, D. (1997). Sentiment and significance: The impossibility of recovery in the children's literature canon or, the drowning of
the water-babies. The Lion and the Unicorn. 21(1), 112-131.
The New Jim Crow Museum (Ferris State University). (2013). The New Jim Crow Museum [Video file]. Retrieved from
"He was yakking a mile a minute, saying stuff like 'Your momma sure can make a good peanut butter sandwich' and 'How come these kids is so darn mean?'" (Curtis, 34)
Byron plays with matches and gets caught by Momma in an uncomfortable and scary encounter. Joey tries to protect him.
Byron is the one who pulls Kenny out of his depression. By convinces him that despite his two near death experiences, everything was going to be okay.