Study Guide

The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963

By Christopher Paul Curtis

The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 Introduction

Reader, meet Kenny Watson, middle child of the Weird Watson family. He's smart, a little shy, and he's got one heck of story to tell about the rest of the Watsons: Momma, Dad, Joetta (little sis), and especially his juvenile delinquent brother, Byron. The Weird Watsons are, well, weird, so this story has no shortage of hilarious moments involving toilets, dinosaurs, flaming parachutes, and really bad hairdos, to name a few. Byron, delinquent that he is, manages to get in deeper and deeper trouble until finally Momma and Dad decide it's time for a family trip to Birmingham so the famously strict Grandma Sands (Momma's momma) can take a turn trying to straighten Byron out. That's when things get really interesting and, well, a little scary if we're being honest. Think you can handle it?

Published in 1995, The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 was Christopher Paul Curtis's first book. It won the Newbery Honor, which is pretty much the best prize you can get for children's literature in the United States. Read: this book is amazing.

Timing is everything, and in case you missed the title, the story takes place in 1963. The Watsons are an African-American family living in Flint, Michigan (way up North), but they decide to take a road trip to Birmingham, Alabama (deep South). Now, 1963 is smack in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, so for an African American family, this whole North vs. South thing is a pretty important detail. The Watsons are on a collision course with one of the most important events in Civil Rights history, and trust us, you don't want to miss it.

What is The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 About and Why Should I Care?

We might have moved beyond Jim Crow, but we (the big humankind we) aren't beyond hating each other and hurting each other in some really small and really big ways. People still do terrible things that we don't understand. The world can still be a pretty difficult place to live. But you know what? It's all we've got, so we have to keep living and keep fighting to make it better.

That's really what Watson's is all about. You'll see the characters face everyday hurts like bullying and once-in-a-long-while hurts like death and tragedy. But it's not all doom and gloom; the Watsons constantly remind us that friends and family are what matter and that these relationships (plus plenty of laughter) can pull us through whatever the world throws our way.

And Shmoop has news: the world can toss some pretty messy obstacles in your path while growing up. So grab a copy of the book and check out how Byron and Kenny Watson navigate this growing up thing. We promise a little bit of wisdom and a lot of laughs along the way. And hey, that's pretty much what we can promise you about life, too.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 Resources

Websites

Birmingham Church Bombing
Take a look at the History Channel's site on the Birmingham Church Bombing. Be sure to check out some of the links on this site to other Civil Rights Movement resources, too. Before you know it, you'll be an expert on this era.

Ballad of Birmingham
Curtis knew he wanted to write a story about the Watson family on a road trip, but originally he thought they would travel to Florida. It wasn't until his son brought this poem home from school that Curtis realized the Watsons would really be going to Birmingham.

From the Police Files
In the book, we never find out who was responsible for the bombing and what happened to them. Dying to know? Craving justice? Check out this in-depth look at the event, the investigation, and the trial of the men responsible.

Articles and Interviews

Author's Note
Wondering how Curtis came up with this story about the Weird Watsons? Check out this author's note for the complete backstory.

Birmingham 1963
Want to know more about Birmingham's role in the Civil Rights Movement? Check out this article for some in-depth historical context.

Birmingham in the News
The church bombing made national news. Take a look at the New York Times article covering this event, complete with an image of the old-timey New York Times front page.

Video

The Author on the Book
Christopher Paul Curtis has a lot to say about Watsons. Oh, and he also gives his four rules for people who want to become writers. Check it out, and you'll be on your way to stardom.

Christopher Paul Curtis on Being a Writer
Here, our author talks about the inspiration for his books, his writing process, and the best and worst parts of being a writer. Budding authors, this one is a must-watch.

Audio

NPR's Backseat Book Club Does Watsons
Listen as readers like you ask questions about the book and get answers straight from the author himself.

To Read or to Listen? We suggest both.
The entire audio version of the book is delicious. Check out this sample.

Images

Sixteenth Street Baptist Church
Check out this photo of the real church that was bombed in Birmingham.

Four Girls
These are the four girls who died in the church bombing in 1963.

The Brown Bomber
Also known as a 1948 Plymouth…

Give my regards to Clark
Here's an image of the real (now abandoned) Clark Elementary School in Flint, Michigan. They call it a historical novel for a reason.

The Last Straw
Have you been wondering just how Byron's hair looked after the conk? Check out this image.

The Trip Plan
Curious about the Watsons' route from Flint to Birmingham? Here's a Google Maps version of Momma's notebook. Pretty nifty.