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The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963

Written by Christopher Paul CurtisAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Christopher Paul Curtis

· Laurel Leaf
· Paperback · Ages 8-12 years
· December 12, 2000 · $7.99 · 978-0-440-22800-4 (0-440-22800-X)

The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963
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The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963 is a hilarious, touching, and tragic novel about the civil rights movement and its impact on one African American family. Teachers coast to coast have embraced the critically acclaimed book that has already been nominated to 24 state award lists! Share the touching journey with your students . . .


Enter the hilarious world of 10-year-old Kenny and his family, the Weird Watsons of Flint, Michigan. There’s Momma, Dad, little sister Joetta, and brother Byron, who’s 13 and an “official juvenile delinquent.”

When Momma and Dad decide it’s time for a visit to Grandma, Dad comes home with the amazing Ultra-Glide, and the Watsons set out on a trip like no other.

They’re heading south to Birmingham, Alabama, toward one of the darkest moments in America’s history.


Christopher Paul Curtis grew up in Flint, Michigan. After high school he began working on the assembly line at the Fisher Body Flint Plant No. 1 while attending the Flint branch of the University of Michigan. His first novel, The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963, was named a Newbery Honor book and a Coretta Scott King Honor book, making it one of the most highly acclaimed first novels for young readers.
Curtis’s second novel, Bud, Not Buddy, made history when it received both the Newbery Medal and the Coretta Scott King Author Award; it was the first time these two medals went to the same book. It was also named an ALA Notable Children’s Book and an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, and received the IRA Children’s Book Award.

May 10 in Flint, Michigan

Currently lives
Windsor, Ontario, Canada

Previous jobs
Factory worker, campaign worker, maintenance man, customer service representative, warehouse clerk, purchasing clerk

Playing basketball, collecting old record albums, writing

Inspiration for writing
I believe that young people are often blessed with the best ears for detecting what rings true or what feels right in a particular piece of writing. To me the highest accolade comes when a young reader tells me, “I really liked your book.” The young seem to be able to say ‘really’ with a clarity, a faith, and an honesty that we adults have long forgotten. That is why I write.


Thematic Connections

Humor–Humor is woven throughout the book. Examples include Byron’s lips getting stuck to the side mirror of the car (pp. 12—14), Daniel mimicking Moses Henderson (pp. 4—5), and Byron’s frozen people story (pp. 51—54). Have students reread what they feel is the funniest passage. Then have them write a funny passage they would like to add to this novel.

Friendship–Kenny becomes a real friend of Rufus, but realizes that he has damaged their relationship when he joins in laughing at Rufus on the bus (pp. 43—46). Have students write about a situation in which they slighted someone without just cause, how they felt afterward, and what they did about it. How does Kenny’s acknowledgment of his injustice help to correct it (p. 45)?

Sibling Relationships–Have students compare and contrast the three Watson children by using a Venn Diagram or a web. What are the class’s impressions of the three? How would you describe Kenny and Byron’s relationship? How does it change? Have students write about their own sibling relationships and compare them to the Watsons.

Family/Parental Relationships–Byron’s mother threatens to set him on fire if he continues to play with matches (pp. 66—74). This is an unbelievable punishment that she almost carries out. Was it right of Byron’s mother to choose such a harmful punishment? Was she bluffing to frighten Byron? How would it be viewed today?

Getting Along With Others–Have students examine Kenny’s passage about bullying (pp. 58—63) and discuss alternatives to bullying. When should mediation intervene? How do you avoid such situations? Brainstorm to develop solutions.

Interdisciplinary Connections

History/Civil Rights–Life in 1963 was quite different for African Americans than it is today, especially in the South. Have students find inferences that blacks and whites were treated differently (pp. 5—6). Check reference books for historical details of the Birmingham church bombing and look for the names of the young girls listed on the “In Memory of” page. Probe the question raised by Kenny (p. 199), “Why would they hurt some little kids like that?” Have students create a class book on What America Was Like When the Watsons Went to Birmingham in 1963.

Language/Language Arts–Kenny often refers to his mother and father as “talking Southern.” Consult your media center to secure tapes of language patterns of various regions. Have students tape-record the speech of relatives with regional accents. Provide a preset passage for each speaker to read. In a listening activity, play the tapes for your students and see if they can detect the different speech patterns.

Geography–Wilona plans to discuss all the states she and her family drive through on their trip from Flint, Michigan, to Birmingham, Alabama. Use pushpins and yarn to chart the trip on a class map, down I-75 beginning in Flint and ending in Birmingham. Have students research each state that the family passes through and the major cities along I-75. Discuss what the Watsons might have seen.

Science–Throughout the novel there is a continuous discussion among family members about the merits of Michigan and Birmingham winters. As the novel opens, Kenny describes the day as being “a zillion degrees below zero” (p. 1). In a funny episode, Byron gets his lips stuck to the side-view mirror of the car in subzero weather. Discuss what could have caused Byron’s lips to stick to the mirror. How does skin freeze to ice? Have a dialogue with students about some of the properties of water–i.e., its freezing point being 320 F (00 C) and its expansion as it freezes. Have students conduct the following simple activities:

The Sticking Ice Tray–Needed: a tray of ice just out of the freezer. Note that the tray will stick to your fingers. Here’s why: If the tray and ice cubes are below the freezing point of water, the warmth of the hand will melt a thin layer of frost. Then, as the hand is cooled, the layer of water will freeze again. It is possible that the hand or finger can freeze so tightly to the tray that a little skin is torn as it is pulled loose.
Freeze with Fingers–Needed: two ice cubes. Press the cubes together, one flat surface tightly against the other. They will freeze together. Here’s why: The increase in pressure lowers the melting point and some of the ice melts where they are in contact; then the water freezes again as the pressure is reduced.


Pre-reading Activity

Recreate the time period of the novel, having students list what they know about the early 1960s (how people dressed, the mood of the country, people who were in the news, music that was popular, etc.). Then have them create a time line of events that took place from 1960—1970 so a historical connection can be made to the time during which this novel takes place. Ask students who have records or tapes of 1960s music (especially African American music) to bring them in to share with the class. Later, compare that music to music mentioned in the novel. (“Yakety Yak” is Kenny’s favorite!)


Vocabulary/Use of Language

Some expressions in the novel may not be familiar to today’s students. Have students use the context of the story to provide clues or consult a dictionary or a slang dictionary to determine the meaning of terms and phrases–“panning on folks” (p. 30), “conk” (p. 87), “crackers” (p. 146), etc.


• A Newbery Honor Book
• A Coretta Scott King Honor Book
• An ALA Top Ten Best Book/Quick Pick
• An ALA Best Book for Young Adults
• An ALA Notable Book for Children
• A Booklist Top 25 Black History Picks for Youth
• An IRA Young Adult Choice
• An NCSS—CBC Notable Children’s Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies
• A Bank Street Child Study Association Children’s Book Award
• A New York Times Book Review Best Book
• A Publishers Weekly Best Book
• A Horn Book Fanfare
• A Bulletin Blue Ribbon
• A Golden Kite Award for Fiction
• A Publishers Weekly Flying Start Author
• A Notable Book for a Global Society

Children Across the Country Are Reading The Watsons!

~Nominated to 24 State Award Lists~

• California Young Reader Medal Winner
• Hawaii Nene Award
• Illinois Rebecca Caudill Award
• Indiana Department of Education Read-Aloud List
• Indiana Young Hoosier Book Award
• Kansas William Allen White Children’s Book Award
• Maine Student Book Award
• Michigan Reading Association Children’s Choice Award
• Minnesota Maud Hart Lovelace Book Award
• Missouri Mark Twain Award
• Nebraska Golden Sower Award
• Nevada Young Readers Award
• New Hampshire Great Stoneface Book Award
• New Mexico Land of Enchantment Reading List
• Oklahoma Sequoyah Young Adult Book Award
• Pacific Northwest Young Reader’s Choice Award
• Pennsylvania Young Reader’s Choice Award
• South Carolina Book Award
• Tennessee Volunteer State Award
• Texas Lone Star Reading List
• Vermont Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award
• Virginia Young Readers Program
• West Virginia Children’s Book Award
• Wisconsin Golden Archer Book Award


by theme

Under the Blood-Red Sun
Graham Salisbury
Prejudice, Friendship, Family Relationships
Grades 5—8 / 0-440-41139-4

Cat Running
Zilpha Keatley Snyder
Prejudice, Friendship
Grades 4—8 / 0-440-41152-1

Mississippi Bridge
Mildred D. Taylor
Prejudice, Civil Rights Movement
Grades 4—7 / 0-553-15992-5

Spite Fences
Trudy Krisher
Prejudice, Friendship, Family Relationships, Civil Rights Movement
Grades 6—10 / 0-440-22016-5

The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963
(Also available on Audio!) Performed by LeVar Burton,
this production contains the complete text of the original work.
Four Cassettes, Unabridged


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