Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Watsons go to Birmingham - 1963

Author:  Christopher Paul Curtis
Published:  1995
Newbery Medal Winner
Coretta Scott King Award
My son had to read this book prior to entering the 6th grade.  I remember that he laughed during parts and asked me lots of questions.  He was affected by the story and interested in learning more about the history. 

This story starts in Flint, Michigan and ends in Flint, Michigan with a trip to Birmingham, Alabama in the middle.  It is the story of an African-American family with 3 children, Kenneth is the main character, Byron is his older brother, and Joetta (Joey) is the younger sister.  Wilona, the mother, was from Alabama originally, but soon after the boys were born she and her husband Daniel moved with the boys to Michigan.

The story starts with the family suffering in their cold house in the middle of winter and the parents reminiscing of their youth and warmer days in Alabama.  Joey and Kenneth laugh at their parents' antics, but Byron is too cool to react.  Byron is in the 6th grade and is friends with a "juvenile delinquent" named Buphead.  Byron and Buphead spend their time getting in trouble.  The way that Byron speaks does not seem to fit a 6th grade child, he seems older than he is, but then I realized that Byron had failed some grades in school.  He was in 5th grade at least two times.

Wilona and Daniel are at their wits' end and do not know what to do with Byron, so they agree to send him to Birmingham for the summer and if he doesn't straighten up during the summer, then he'll spend the school year there too.  Wilona's mom, Grandma Sands, is the one who lives in Birmingham.  The stories the children hear about Grandma Sands scares them and they know that she'll straighten Byron out, if anyone can.

Kenneth is in the 4th grade and very smart.  He is a very good reader and a good student.  The children at his school call him Poindexter and teachers always use him to represent the ideal student.  Kenneth has a lazy eye and he considers this to be one of the reasons he gets picked on in school.

Joetta is the angel in the family.  She defends Byron when he gets in trouble so his punishment isn't as severe and she keeps an eye out for Kenneth when he is about to get hurt.  She seems to be the only one in the family that everyone will do anything for.  That is, until we realize how close and loving the entire family is with each other.  Byron, Kenneth, and Joetta protect and love each other.

Now back to my son.  I thought it was wonderful that he had to read this book for several reasons.  First of all, he was really affected by the history in this story.  He read this book last summer after seeing The Butler at the movies.  Then, after he read this book, there was an article in the paper about the 50th anniversary of the bombing of the church in Birmingham that killed four little girls and blinded and wounded others.  We read articles together about the event and he printed articles out to share with his classmates at school.  I cannot find the article we read together, but here is a clip from PBS and an article from ABC.

Reading the article helped my son empathize with Kenneth and his family and their experience driving down to Alabama and the terror they experienced at the 16th Street Baptist Church.  Joetta went to the church that morning to attend Sunday school.  The Watsons had not yet acclimated to the hot weather in Alabama and she got up to cool off during her class.  Joetta thought she saw Kenny waving her out and she followed him home.  It was on her way home that the church was bombed and four girls lost their lives.  The rest of the family dressed quickly, ran to the church to search for Joey, but thankfully, Joey was safe at home. 

I have to admit that I kept falling asleep as I read the book.  It didn't move quickly enough for me, but that's just me.  My son who is in high school spoke up and said, "Oh yeah, I remember that book.  It had some good parts."  So, it has been about 4 years since he has read it, but he too remembered it.  So, it gets two thumbs up from the boys in the correct age group for this book.

I did enjoy the jokes the family played on each other, I enjoyed reading about the closeness of the family, and I enjoyed reading the mom's language with a southern accent.  I especially enjoyed the figurative language.  There were adults who were kneeling next to the girls who died at the bombing and "the adults' hands fluttered down toward the little girls, then, before they touched anything, fluttered back up, over and over.  Their hands looked like a little flock of brown sparrows that were too nervous to land."  The image of the sparrows is referred to again later in the book.  I did some research online about what the sparrow could represent and I found that the sparrow is a sign for freedom and loyalty.  The sparrow was an appropriate choice for this description considering this was set during the Civil Rights Movement.

Throughout the book there are also references to angels.  Kenneth describes Byron as "a god" of the school and that should make him a "strong angel," but he was just "another fourth-grade punk."  There are 22 more references to angels in the story.  The character most often described as an angel was Joey.  A neighbor gives Joey a doll that is an angel and reminds her of Joey and when Kenny is drowning, he sees an angel calling him to swim.  The angel was Joey and then Byron is able to drag Kenny back to the bank of the river.  I believe there is a reference to another angel as well.  I spent a lot of time thinking about when Joey left the church.  We, the readers, know that Kenny was at home when the bombing occurred, but Joey claimed to see Kenny at the church.  Kenny was laughing and asking Joey to follow him.   It seems that these children were each others' guardian angels.

I appreciate my sons' teachers having my children read this book.  6th grade is the appropriate age.  6th grade is such a big transitions year for children and for parents.  The kids go to a new school, they have multiple classes, start transitioning into young adults, have more concerns.  This book helped the children see how children might treat each other,  (Kenny was bullied at school for his eye and his smarts.) they are reminded that their parents love them even if we do seem goofy to them, and they learned about history in our country.  Middle school is a good time to remind children that we need to accept each other despite our differences.

Check this book out at your library!

1 comment:

Mrs. Nagle said...

I didn't pick up on the fact that there were so many references to angels! I agree that the kids were each other's gaudian angels. They were there for each other as family is suppose to be and helped each other through several problems. Nice catch!