This week on my top 2020 reads we have the charming and heartfelt children’s book The Watsons Go to Birmingham- 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis. Curtis is a fantastic author of children’s fiction whose work is equal parts hilarious and poignant. I’ve previously written about Curtis’ book Bud, Not Buddy, and The Watsons Go to Birmingham- 1963 is just as much a powerhouse of children’s fiction. Sidebar, if you’re more of a listener than a reader, I can’t recommend the audiobook version of this book enough. It’s incredibly well performed and delivers all of the heart that Curtis is known for.
What’s the Book?
The Watsons Go to Birmingham introduces us to the Watson family of Flint, Michigan as they freeze on their couch in the cold winter of 1963. The book is narrated by Kenny Watson, the middle of the three Watson kids, and follows his observations as his life unfolds around him. Kenny is a hilariously unreliable narrator and is often fooled or manipulated by his troublemaking older brother, Byron, or annoyed and irritated by his little sister, Joetta. His parents, Daniel and Wilona, are a sweet but funny pair, always going back and forth between practicality and fun.
Kenny’s world is going just about as well as it can for a shy, young boy. His family is lively, and he has his best friend Rufus to play with and rely on. But as Kenny’s brother Byron begins to get in more and more trouble, Kenny’s parents decide that the time has come to straighten him out. To the shock of the children, they announce that they will be traveling to Birmingham, Alabama to visit their Grandma Sands, the only person who can turn a near delinquent into a respectable boy. If Grandma Sands can’t straighten Byron out, no one can. But as the family embarks on their trip, it soon becomes clear that there are far greater risks and concerns swirling around the Watsons. Risks that will not be ignored or avoided.
A small detail that stands out in this book is that the Watsons are always on each others side. While Byron may be a source of trouble and bordering on delinquency he still defends Kenny against anyone outside the family, a true older sibling to the core. Kenny’s parents aren’t obliviously detached parents and they are always ready to handle trouble and act in their children’s best interests. The conflict of the story never originates from the family towards Kenny and vice versa which is so incredibly refreshing in children’s literature. All differences aside, whatever the Watsons face, they face together.
Why It’s a Top Ten
It can be tricky to find historical fiction that balances its historical context with a complete and well-done story but that’s never a problem for Curtis. This book is a ripe historical fiction read that can really introduce young readers to what life was like in another time. Scattered throughout the pages are little beats that mark the time, such as the Watsons upgraded radio and each of the family taking turns playing their favorite song for the big trip. It highlights life in 1963 with a simplicity that keeps the reader engaged and the story moving forward.
But the greatest strength of The Watsons Go to Birmingham- 1963 lies in Curtis approach to some hard concepts to talk about, let alone at a level for children. Curtis’s writing is straightforward in discussing racism and discrimination without dumbing down any of the information but still making it accessible. His writing is the epitome of looking at big issues through a small lens which is a fantastic method for introducing hard to discuss topics. The book is set against a backdrop painful to dwell on and the ramifications of the period it’s set in are far-reaching and vast. Curtis doesn’t make light of these issues or avoid them for a moment. Instead, he charges headlong into the topic and frames it in a way children can understand and learn from.
In the midst of addressing these issues, Curtis never loses sight of the heart of his story and keeps the reader’s strong connection to the Watson family as a tether to the harsher reality. His use of lighthearted moments from earlier in the book are then turned on their heads to make the hard moments digestible. Like the brilliant writer that he is, Curtis trusts young readers to tackle big topics and doesn’t shy away from them. He tells the bad along with the good, giving readers a relatable picture of the simplicity of childhood violently colliding with the harsh world children can so often find themselves in.
Furthermore, Curtis’s handling of trauma in children is spot on and at several points moved me to tears. It’s not convoluted or overdramatic. He simply introduces the weight it places on a child and the simple understanding and compassion it takes to bring them into some new sense of normal. It’s a final, masterful note in Curtis’ storytelling and brings the whole book home. It’s rare for an author to successfully blend charm, hardship, humor, and heartache all against the backdrop of important issues, but Christopher Paul Curtis does so with ease. The Watsons Go to Birmingham- 1963 is an entertaining and valuable read for readers of all ages.
Let’s find some joy,