Study Guide

The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 Summary

By Christopher Paul Curtis

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The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis - Plot Summary

The Weird Watsons, an African American family, live in Flint, Michigan. Parents Daniel and Wilona Watson work hard to make ends meet for the Watson children, all of whom go to Clark Elementary School. Older brother Byron Watson is in sixth grade and he's the king of Clark (read, the bully everyone is afraid of). Kenny Watson, our narrator and main character, is in fourth grade, and their little sister Joetta (Joey) Watson is in kindergarten. 

Before the Watsons go to Birmingham, we learn a little more about how their lives in Flint are going. Kenny is shy, smart and has a lazy eye, so he often gets picked on by the bullies at school, especially Larry Dunn, king of fourth grade. Things aren't looking great for Kenny until a new kid named Rufus moves to Flint from Arkansas. Rufus is poor and raggedy and he talks with a Southern accent, so at first, Kenny is excited that the kids will have someone new to bully. But instead, Rufus and Kenny become friends. Good call, Kenny!

The school year progresses and Kenny keeps us up to speed on the highlights, which mostly involve Byron getting into trouble. He beats up Larry Dunn, he sets things on fire, he kills a bird with a cookie (no, we're not kidding) and then gets really upset about it. At this point, we're all a little confused about what exactly is going on with Byron, and Momma and Dad are pretty frustrated. Then, Byron gets his hair chemically straightened without permission (in the Watson family, this is a big no-no), so Dad shaves Byron's head. Bald. And that's the last straw.

Momma and Dad announce that the whole family is going to take a road trip to Birmingham, Alabama (where Momma is from) to see Grandma Sands, and Byron is going to have to stay down South with her for the whole summer or until he learns to behave. Which, let's face it, could be indefinitely. Apparently Grandma Sands is notoriously strict, and Byron is going to have to leave his fellow juvenile delinquent, Buphead, behind, so he's not exactly thrilled about this plan. The Watson family piles into their car, the Brown Bomber (taking a brand new Ultra-Glide record player to listen to along the way), and hits the road.

Down at Grandma Sands's house in Alabama, things are great, and to everyone's shock, Byron starts being nice. Grandma Sands even has a kind-of boyfriend named Mr. Robert. One day the kids decide to go swimming, but Grandma Sands warns them to stay away from Collier's Landing where there's a dangerous whirlpool that drowned a boy. Byron tells Kenny and Joey that the Wool Pooh (whirlpool... get it?) is Winnie-the-Pooh's evil twin brother that pulls kids into the water. Kenny wants to go see Collier's Landing anyway, but Byron says they should listen to Grandma Sands. Wait, Byron's following the rules? This time, it's Kenny who doesn't listen. And guess what? He nearly drowns when the Wool Pooh takes him down. But thankfully, Byron manages to save him.

A few days later, Joey goes off to Sunday school at the local Baptist church with the neighbors. While she's away from her family, a bomb goes off in the church. (This is the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, a real historical event where white supremacists attacked a Black church to terrorize people involved in the civil rights movement.) The whole family runs down to find her, but they can't find their little girl anywhere. Kenny thinks the Wool Pooh got Joey this time, and he's afraid it will get him, too, so he runs back home.

Sure enough, Joey shows up back at the house wondering where everyone is. She explains that she thought she saw Kenny waving at her outside the church, so she left to follow him and missed the whole church bombing (whew!). That night, the family (including Byron) decides it’s time to get out of Alabama, so they pack up and go back to Michigan.

Everyone is pretty upset about the church bombing, but Kenny is having the toughest time of all the Watson children. He starts hiding out behind the couch and won't talk to anyone. Byron seems to have really changed and he checks in on Kenny and tries to help him feel better. Then one day, Kenny just loses it and starts crying uncontrollably. It turns out he's been feeling guilty because he didn't try to save his younger sister from the Wool Pooh even though Byron was brave enough to save him. Byron helps Kenny understand that nothing was his fault, and Kenny finally feels ready to come out of hiding and start living again. How's that for some brotherly love?

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