THE WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM–1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis

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Kenny has never been one of the popular kids, in part because of his lazy eye that makes him look kind of funny, but mostly because he is smart and good at school–which automatically makes him uncool.  It is both a blessing and a curse that he has the very cool troublemaker Byron as his older brother.  While Byron and his friends often bully Kenny, Byron can also get Kenny off the hook with some of the other school bullies.  But when Byron crosses one-too-many lines, their parents make a big decision: the whole family (including Byron and Kenny’s little sister Joetta) will be leaving their home in snowy Flint, Michigan and traveling down to Birmingham, Alabama where their grandmother lives.  Byron will be spending the whole summer with Grandma Sands, and if he doesn’t get his act together, he’ll be stuck there for the whole next school year.  Kenny is excited about his first adventure to the South, but there are some things he couldn’t quite prepare for. 

Dedicated to the four young victims of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963 is undeniably a Civil Rights story.  But the approach that Curtis takes in his novel is somewhat unique.  The majority of the story is not about politics, racism, or hatred.  The focal point of the story is the family relationships.  Curtis focuses on characters, rather than events, making this family living in the past seem real and relatable to modern readers.  When the Civil Rights issue finally enters toward the end of the novel, the reader’s understanding of the events is framed by the reader’s intimacy with the characters.  While Curtis does not shy away from describing events that are both frightening and tragic, the strength and resilience of his characters and the message of his epilogue will leave readers with a sense of hope and closure.  This is a phenomenal book, and I highly recommend it!

If you liked The Watsons Go To Birmingham–1963, you might like The Rock and the River by Kekla Magoon.

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