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.