Coming in quite high on the 100 Best list (#25) is The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis. It is a Coretta Scott King Honor book and a Newbery Honor Book. I had not read it before but when I mentioned it to Z’s school librarian, she became very excited that I was going to be reading it. In turn, this made me excited to read it. And once I started, well frankly, I wasn’t able to put it down. It is a powerful and well-written story with a strong sense of humor and of authenticity.
Though written relatively recently in 1995, this book immediately transports the reader back to 1963, to Flint, Michigan where the Watson family lives. As fourth-grader Kenny Watson struggles with a self-absorbed older brother (Byron) and a tattle-tale younger sister (Joetta), he also begins to learn about the world outside Flint when the family travels to Birmingham, Alabama at the height of racial tensions. You see, the Watsons are African-American with a mother from the South and a father from the North. They seem to live in a predominantly black neighborhood but, apart from Byron’s misguidedly attempts to straighten and color his hair, it seems that they are able to live a life that’s relatively free from racial issues. Kenny’s biggest concerns are hiding his lazy eye and trying not to get beat up by the school bully. But when they begin their road trip to grandma’s house in Birmingham, the first glimpses of what life was like in other parts of the country for African-Americans begin to come to light. We see it in the way their mother schedules for them to only stop in rest-stops and major cities. We see it in Byron’s comments about what sort of people live in Appalachia and what they would think of the Watsons. And finally, we have it thrust onto us when a “colored” Birmingham church is bombed on a Sunday morning and children’s bodies are pulled from the rubble. As this part of the story mirrors an actual historical event from September 1963 where four girls were killed, it is hard to deny this dark part of our country’s history.
The writing in this book is wonderful. It reminded me a bit of Jean Shepherd’s A Christmas Story in the structure and setting of the story. It has a very easy flow and the characters seem very alive and real. This was a strong portrait of one family’s experience during a turbulent historical period. I hope that many children now and in the future pick up this book. While I was reading it, Z actually leaned in and asked if he could read it next. I’m sure he’s not mature enough to understand everything that happens in this story but I would have no problem guiding him through reading it and discussing any parts that disturbed or puzzled him. Bottom line, The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963 is a first-rate story.
After a couple of books that underwhelmed me, this was a strong story that renewed my excitement about this project. Hopefully The Diamond in the Window is everything I’m hoping it will be too!
Schedule – February through June
note: dates are not necessarily set in stone – posts may go up a day or two before or after
February 28 – #97 The Diamond in the Window by Jane Langton (1962) — out of print
March 15 – #12 Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling (1999) — 3rd in a series
March 31 – #83 Ozma of Oz by L. Frank Baum (1907) — 3rd in a series
April 15 – #33 Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien (1971)
April 30 – #9 The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin (1978)
May 15 – #17 Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (1964)
May 31 – #38 Frindle by Andrew Clements (1996)
June 15 – #58 Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome (1930) — 1st in a series