Study Guide

The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 Summary

By Christopher Paul Curtis

The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 Summary

The Weird Watsons live in Flint, Michigan where the kids all go to Clark Elementary. Byron is in sixth grade and he's the king of Clark (read, the bully everyone is afraid of). Kenny, our narrator, is in fourth grade, and their little sister Joetta (Joey) is in kindergarten. Kenny gets picked on by the bullies at school, especially Larry Dunn, king of fourth grade.

Things aren't looking great for Kenny until this kid 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.

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 this kid, 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 trip to Birmingham (where Momma is from) to see Grandma Sands, and Byron is going to have to stay 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 teenage delinquent, Buphead, behind, so he's not exactly thrilled about this plan.

Down at Grandma Sands's house, things are great, and to everyone's shock, Byron starts being nice. 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 (whirl pool... 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. 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 to church with the neighbors. While she's away from her fam, a bomb goes off in the church. 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 thing (whew!). That night, the family (including Byron) packs up and goes back to Flint.

Everyone is pretty upset about the bombing, but Kenny is having the toughest time. 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 Joey 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?