The Watsons Go To Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis

The Watsons Go To Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis, is a story about a family going through the good and the bad together. A true coming of age story, it also offers a view into the historical events going on in the country at the time (Civil Rights Movement). The characters are identifiable, and their experiences relatable to middle schoolers all over the world. Kenny, the protagonist, experiences bullying, friendship troubles, learns how to share and be compassionate, learns right from wrong, and the importance of family, through his experiences with his brother Byron, who is a notorious bully. It is because of Byron, that the family decides to travel to Birmingham to drop him off to stay with his grandmother for the summer. The grandmother is considered super strict, and the father believes that this experience will whip Byron into shape. They travel from the extremely cold Michigan to Alabama. When they are there Byron’s act changes, but that is not the most important thing that occurs; while at church Kenny is a firsthand witness to the bombing at the church, killing four girls. This experience changes Kenny and forces him to grow up. He no longer wants to play with toys, or hang out with his friend Rufus. He has witnessed an unfortunate reality of his life, and this has cased him to lose some of his childhood innocence.

What is great about this book are the characters. They are so well described they seem animated. I could see the events they experienced as I was reading. They are written realistically, but also humorous at times, making the story a better read. Of course, it is important to note the historical relevance of the Watsons going to Birmingham. Like Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, this book can easily be taught in correlation with a social studies curriculum. But I would also use the text for a character study and analysis. The characters in the story are always acting in result of a certain motivation; Kenny doesn’t want to be bullied and so ignores Rufus initially, Byron doesn’t want to be in trouble and begins to clean up his act, the father doesn’t want his son to be a delinquent and so decides to take the whole family to Birmingham. An activity that I would incorporate is a “Body Biography” where the students would be able to choose a character from the story, and map out his traits and experiences on a drawing of a body, representing the character. It a way to engage students of all learning styles, and gives the students the opportunity to truly understand character motivation.

AH

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Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

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Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson is a beautifully written memoir. Woodson writes her story in verse, giving the entire book a dreamlike musicality. Each chapter, that is given a title and not a number, is like its own entity, and can be studied on its own. Each one provides an image, a thought, a feeling that Woodson reveals through her language, and through the naïve eyes of her younger self.

The story begins with the author telling us how her parents represented the two views on segregation at the time. Her father would not accept it, and refused to go visit his in-laws in South Carolina, and her mother was caught in between, did not like how things were down South, but understood the reality. Woodson foreshadows her parents’ eventual split, by telling the story of how she got her name. Her father insisted that she be named Jack, after himself, but her mother, Mary Ann, wrote Jacqueline on her birth certificate when she was alone. The eventual compromise is that everyone calls her Jackie. The story moves on with Jackie’s description of moving to the South after her parents separate with her mother, sister and brother. They go to live with her grandparents, that were people who believed in peace and living in harmony. The grandfather, Gunnar Irby, a heavy smoker, works hard for a living, and does not make waves at his employment to cause any trouble when others with less experience are promoted, or when those who are beneath him treat him with disrespect. Jackie begins to learn the ways of the South, how to behave in public, how important church was to her grandmother. Mary Ann leaves her children for a little bit, and goes to New York to set up a new life for her family. While staying with her grandparents, Jackie understands the importance of family, of respecting others, and learns that sometimes things don’t always go according to plan.

The Woodsons eventually move to New York, where Jackie becomes friends with a Puerto Rican girl, and discovers her true love of writing. Although I would recommend it in an instant, I feel like the ending remains a bit unresolved in terms of her father. I know that it is a memoir, and the author writes things as they happened, but I wish that they could reconnect before the book ended.

What I love about the book is its ability to be taught in a classroom setting. There are so many literary elements that are accessed in the book. Some teachable elements are the use of verse to introduce poetry, the point of view of the author, the genre of memoir itself. But also the ability to be used as a text for cross content planning. The story takes place during the tumultuous times of the 60’s and 70’s, with historic events taking place as the story is told. A carefully planned Unit that crosses into he social studied class would give the students a better understanding of the story, and also the history that Woodson lived through. I definitely recommend this book.

AH