The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963
by Christopher Paul Curtis
Kenny seems like a pretty typical fourth grader. He gets picked on by older kids and hassled by his big brother. He's kind, a little shy, but a good friend once you get to know him, and he loves to play with his collection of little plastic dinosaurs. Kenny tells us he's "just another fourth grade punk" (2.4), but he has a bad habit of underestimating himself, so we're not buying that.
Kenny is a pretty smart dude. He tries to tell us that people only think he's smart because he loves to read, but we're not buying that either. Kenny does well in all his school subjects, and he reads so well that his teachers make him show off his skills in front of the older classes at school. The kid can even read upside down.
But Kenny's not just book smart; he's people smart too. He's perceptive, which means he's good at figuring out how other people are feeling by just watching them closely. For example, Kenny knows that Momma repeats herself when she's irritated, and he can always tell when Byron is about to get into trouble or pull a trick. Plus, take a look at this insight Kenny has for us about Momma and Dad's relationship:
I knew Dad was kind of disappointed by the way Momma had acted. She really hurt his feelings by walking off like that. Some of the time I think she forgot how sensitive Dad was. Even though he acted cheery with us I knew it wasn't the same for him now. I knew if Momma had stayed and hadn't gone off mumbling about money we would have been having a lot more fun. (8.102)
Not many ten-year-olds have that kind of understanding about their parents. Not many kids would be perceptive enough to see that even though Dad is joking around just like before, he feels differently now that Momma's not there to join in. As readers, we're lucky to have a narrator with this kind of smarts. He makes sure we don't miss any of those juicy little details.
In a World of Pure Imagination
Even though Kenny is smart, he's still a kid at heart—and this kid has one wild imagination. We see Kenny's imagination in the way he exaggerates about things. For example, when Momma pulls Byron's lips off the car, Kenny says, "I didn't see it, but I bet Byron's lips stretched a mile before they finally let go of that mirror. I bet his lips looked like a giant rubber band before they snapped away from that glass!" (1.144). Kenny's imagination also allows him to believe almost every crazy thing Byron tells him, even when his more rational side knows it can't possibly be true: "Even though I was in fourth grade I fell for a lot of the stuff Byron came up with" (4.36).
The best example of this? Why, the Wool Pooh, of course Byron tells Kenny and Joey that the Wool Pooh is Winnie-the-Pooh's evil twin brother who lives underwater and waits to snatch kids down with him. Kenny says, "Byron must have thought I was stupid. Whoever heard of something called a Wool Pooh? I wasn't sure what the lie was, but I knew Byron had made that junk up" (13.28). But then again, Kenny's not so sure. As he heads toward Collier's Landing, his imagination starts to get the better of him and he even starts looking down in the water to see if the Wool Pooh is hiding somewhere.
Later, when Kenny is being pulled under the water by the whirlpool current, he really believes he sees the Wool Pooh swim up and grab him: "he was big and gray with hard square-looking fingers. [...] He grabbed my leg and started pulling me down" (13.50). Kenny believes that Byron saves him by fighting off the Wool Pooh underwater. And when the bomb goes off at the church, Kenny believes that he was supposed to fight the Wool Pooh in order to get Joey back.
How's that for a wild imagination?
All We Need is Love
What Kenny wants more than anything is to have a loving relationship with Byron. Think about it: the few times throughout the book that Byron is friendly toward Kenny clearly light this kid up. The sad thing is these instances are so rare and short-lived that Kenny can't even really enjoy them:
• "Byron was being too nice, so I knew something bad was about to happen" (6.57).
• "I wasn't used to being this friendly with Byron so I guess I was kind of nervous and 'didn't really know what we should talk about" (6.61).
• I got a huge smile! This was a perfect day! But like always, By ruined it" (6.63).
Poor Kenny. Byron has been such a bully to him for so long that neither of them really knows how to be friends. Then again, don't go thinking Kenny's a perfect angel in all of this. He's learned a few tricks from Byron, and he takes advantage of any opportunity to make fun of his brother, especially when he's in trouble.
Underneath all this tomfoolery though, Kenny really does want to understand Byron and get along with him. Unfortunately, it's not until Byron almost loses Kenny and then Joey in Birmingham that he starts to feel the same way. But hey, late is better than never. And we'll take it, because in the end, Byron finally does become the big brother Kenny has always needed. Not to mention he saves Kenny's life.
He's Good, But He's Not Perfect
Overall, Kenny's a nice kid and a good friend. But early on, he has to learn a tough lesson about loyalty. Kenny is plagued by being the victim: he's Byron's victim at home and Larry Dunn's victim at school. So when Rufus shows up all raggedy and country, Kenny hopes that the other kids will pick on him for a while and leave Kenny alone.
Okay, so not exactly good will toward the new kid, but we can understand why Kenny would hope for a break from all the bullying. What's harder to understand is why Kenny would join in on laughing at Rufus when Larry Dunn makes fun of him for being poor. Yeah, not Kenny's finest hour and he almost loses his best friend, so what gives?
Well, Shmoop thinks it goes back to the fact that Kenny is always the victim. It's usually him that the other kids are laughing at, so when for once it isn't, the part of Kenny that's relieved someone else is getting picked on gets the better of him. But Kenny learns the hard way that he should have stood up for Rufus because it's better to get picked on along with your friend than to lose him altogether.
Fortunately, our man Kenny is a smart one, so once he learns something, the lesson sticks. In fact, what really has Kenny so upset after the bombing is that he thinks he was disloyal to Joey. We have a feeling Kenny's going to fight for his family for the rest of his life.Kenny's Timeline