The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963

by Christopher Paul Curtis. Novel. 224 pages. Grades 4-8.
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Teacher's Guide

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This is a very special book. It starts with humor and ends with tragedy. The Watsons: Mother, Father, older son Byron, next son Kenny and daughter Joetta live in Flint, Michigan. Most of the first part of the book is devoted to the high-jinks, many of them hilarious, of Byron who walks on the edge of delinquency. Often it's the tears and protests of the little sister that keeps Byron from being severely punished. Although his parents are loving and have great senses of humor, they are finally pushed into doing something drastic about Byron. The decision is made to drive to Birmingham, where Mrs. Watsons' mother lives and leave Byron with her for the summer, maybe even for the next school year.

The car trip to Birmingham brings the children to their first experience with segregation. After a warm welcome at their Grandmother Sands' house, it is Kenny, not Byron, who gets in trouble. He nearly drowns and it is Byron who saves him. The real climax, however, comes when the church Sunday school that Joetta is attending is bombed. Fortunately, she escapes injury but it is some time before the family realizes this. The horror of it all is too much for Kenny. The family, including Byron, come back to Michigan and, again, it is Byron who saves the day by helping Kenny accept the unfairness of the tragedy.



Things to Talk About and Notice

  • The Watsons Go to Birmingham has many funny parts. Then it turns from humor to tragedy. How does the author's writing manage to do that? Are there earlier hints that the tragedy is coming?

  • Notice the bullying that goes on in this story. How do you define bullying? Why does it happen? How do people in the story respond to it?


  • Compare Flint, Michigan with Birmingham, Alabama using specifics from the novel. A Venn diagram can be used to graphically show characteristics of Flint and Birmingham and where they overlap.

  • Once you're into the story to the point of the first exposures to the segregation of the south this is a good time to bring out nonfiction books about racial inequality and Jim Crow laws at that time. (See below)

  • This is a good book for charting the ways in which characters in the story change and what situations precipitated the changes.

  • During school desegregation in the South, Norman Rockwell painted a particularly poignant illustration of a young African American girl being escorted to school by US marshals. Find a copy of that picture. It is still creating controversy. How does that painting affect you? How do you think it might have affected people in America at the time?

  • Design a survey about the changes that people perceive to have occurred in racism over time. Conduct the survey. Tabulate your results.

  • Prepare a time line showing how and when changes in racial relations occurred. Include such matters as voting rights, career opportunities, desegregation, Jim Crow laws, and property rights.

  • Research the history of the Ku Klux Klan. How is it perceived today? Has our perception changed over the years? Is the Klan active in your community today? Why?


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