The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963

A Newbery Award winner by Christopher Paul Curtis, the story is told by Kenny Watson, a preteen black youth living in Flint, Michigan.  Kenny lives with his parents, Daniel and Wilona, big brother, Byron and little sister, Joetta.  They live a nice life; mom stays at home, dad works at the auto plant and the three children go to school.  Mom is from Birmingham, where the winters are not so brutal as Flint.

When Byron is deemed uncontrolable and a trouble maker, his parents decide to send him south to spend the summer, hoping Grandma can straighten him out.  After careful planning by mom, the family loads into the “Brown Bomber”, dad’s big car and start the trip south, deciding not to take the 3 day trip but to drive straight through.  On the trip, the parents give the children a warning that they are going is nothing like where they are from.  “Separate but equal” still exists in the south.  The black population must keep in their places.  Civil rights is a very hot topic.

When the family arrives, the children find that the warnings their parents have given are true.  Kenny sees a big differece in what is acceptable here as apposed to Michigan.  It is also so hot that the children can’t sleep.  They have a few adventures.   One scary adventure Kenny has is a battle with the “Wool Pooh”,at Collier’s pond, where he almost drowns until Byron saves him.  The next day is Sunday and Joetta goes to Sunday School. Kenny stays home, worn out from his near drowning that neither his brother nor he told their parents about.  Kenny goes outside to rest under the large magnolia tree, but before he rests much he is shaken awake by a loud noise and then frantic cries and running toward the church.  Kenny is fearful and heads toward the church himself, worried about little sister Joetta.  He sees bodies pulled from the bombed church and thinks one may be Joetta.

Fortunately, Joetta is safe and she tells Kenny that she thought she saw him motioning for her to come back home so she didn’t go to church at all.  Kenny is puzzled but so shocked about 2 terrible events in several days that he withdraws from life.  Mom and Dad now decide that Byron can’t stay so they load up the car and drive back home.

Kenny is still withdrawn.  He does not talk to anyone, quits spending time with his friends and retreats behind the sofa in the living room.  His only hope, he feels, is the healing power of “The Watson World Famous Animal Hospital” where the family’s pets go when they are sick or injured.  He remains there hoping to feel better.  It takes some consideration from his parents and his brother to lure him out, and finally Byron is able to get him back to his regular life.

The book is about social change and how you deal with it, as seen through a small boy’s eyes.