Study Guide

The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 Themes

By Christopher Paul Curtis

  • Coming of Age

    You know how when you're a kid, some things that are real seem sort of imaginary (like death or war) and some things that are imaginary seem like they could be real (like monsters or magic)? The process of growing up has a lot to do with figuring out what's real and what isn't. In many ways, The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 is just as much Byron's as it is Kenny's, and both boys do some significant growing up in the book.

    The 1960s were a tumultuous time in America, but the Watsons seem mostly sheltered and safe in Flint. But by the end of their trip to Birmingham, both boys have gotten a healthy (or not-so-healthy) dose of the real world first-hand. Death becomes a reality, and they both have to learn that life isn't all fun and games. Kenny has an especially hard time with this one, but Byron, having finally grown into the role of big brother, helps Kenny understand that they have to go on living even though bad things happen. Yup, that's basically what it means to be a grown up.

    Questions About Coming of Age

    1. Why does the family decide not to tell Joey what really happened at the church? Do you agree with their decision? Why or why not?
    2. Why do you think Byron's change is so dramatic? What causes him to mature so significantly?
    3. Why do you think Kenny decides he still wants to play with his dinosaurs at the end? Does this mean he hasn't really grown up?

    Chew on This

    Byron and Kenny are better off as kids. They might do foolish things, but at least they're protected from the tragedies of the real world.

    Byron and Kenny are better off now that they've grown up a little. Even though they're still young, it's important to understand how the world really works.

  • Family

    Like it or not, the Watsons are in this together. They're a family first, and they tackle the world as unit. They love each other, hate each other, irritate each other, and try to understand each other. When the conflict in The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 finally reaches critical mass (i.e., Byron's trouble-making has gone too far), the Watsons turn to their extended family for help. While at times it might seem like the Watsons don't get along at all, underneath all the bickering and bullying and tattling, the love this family has for each other saves more than one of them in the end.

    Questions About Family

    1. Do you think the Watsons are a strong family, or do they have too many problems that get in the way of their relationships?
    2. What do you think about the way Momma and Dad parent the kids? Do you think they make good parenting decisions or not?
    3. What is each child's role in the family? Do you think the family role affects their behavior, or does their behavior determine their role in the family?

    Chew on This

    If Byron stays in Birmingham, it will just break up the family, and that wouldn't be good for the Watsons.

    Taking Byron to Birmingham is the best thing for the family.

  • Friendship

    Friends are tough, huh? They can be good influences (like Rufus) or bad influences (like Buphead), but either way, who we choose as friends and how we treat them has a lot to do with the kind of people we become. In The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, Kenny has a bad friend experience with LJ the Dinosaur Thief, but this helps him to appreciate just how good of a friend Rufus is. But Kenny and Rufus don't have a completely smooth ride either, and Kenny almost loses his friend when he joins the crowd in teasing Rufus about being poor. Kenny realizes that if he wants to keep his friends, he's got to be willing to stand by them—even if it means getting picked on himself.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. Based on this book, what do you think the author would say are the most important qualities of a true friend?
    2. What lesson does Kenny learn when he almost loses Rufus as a friend? How does this lesson relate to why he feels ashamed of himself for leaving the church?
    3. Why do Kenny and Rufus become friends in the first place? Why do they remain friends?
    4. Are Byron and Kenny friends at any point in the book? Do you think they'll be friends in the future?

    Chew on This

    Kenny is wrong in the beginning to put his own self-interest ahead of befriending Rufus.

    Kenny knows that if he and Rufus become friends, the bullies will pick on both of them twice as much, so it's okay that he avoids Rufus in the beginning. He's just trying to protect them both.

  • Society and Class

    When we think of class, we usually think of economic class—you know, who's got the Benjamins and who doesn't. And sure, that kind of class plays a role in The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963. After all, a lot of the bullying that goes on at Clark Elementary is based on money. But elementary school has a class system of its own, and who gets bullied and who does the bullying depends on each kid's place on the social ladder. Any little thing that different about someone is exploited as a weakness by the school bullies. This is an issue that Kenny struggles with throughout the book; and eventually, Kenny's questions resonate with even bigger questions about the violence and hatred of racism.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. Kenny and Rufus each have two things "wrong" with them. Why are these things seen as downfalls by the society of their peers?
    2. What's the pecking order at Clark Elementary? In other words, who is at the top of the social ladder and who is at the bottom?
    3. What role do the bullies play in determining the social order?
    4. Do you see any relationships between the social order at Clark and that of the larger world that we learn about as the Watsons travel to Birmingham?

    Chew on This

    If Kenny were a bully like Byron, he would have a higher place on the social ladder and wouldn't get picked on.

    Relative wealth is the most important factor in determining social status at Clark Elementary.

  • Race

    The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 takes place right smack dab in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, so you know people are going to being thinking a lot about race. Here's what was going down around then: changes were being made to how society treated African Americans (awesome) and many people who weren't comfortable with those changes reacted with hate and violence (opposite of awesome). There were some very negative attitudes floating around out there about the African American race as a whole, and the violence was often directed at anyone and everyone who was black—even, as we see at the end of the book, little girls attending Sunday school. The Watsons have to face these issues head on when they land in Birmingham, and they'll never be the same.

    Questions About Race

    1. How does being African American affect the Watsons?
    2. How would this story be different if it took place today?
    3. How would the Watsons' lives be different if they lived in Birmingham instead of Flint?
    4. How does race play into the conflict of the story?

    Chew on This

    Being African American doesn't have any effect on the Watsons at all until they travel into the South.

    Being African American is an important part of who the Watsons are. No part of the story would be the same if they were a different race.

  • Mortality

    Lessons about mortality c/o The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963:
    • We can't live forever.
    • The people we love won't live forever.
    • Death can strike anywhere at any time.
    • Sometimes death is just plain senseless.
    • A person can hate someone they have never met—enough to kill them.

    That's a tough set of lessons for anyone, right? Especially for a ten-year-old. But unfortunately, that's just what Kenny and the rest of the Watsons are in for. First the mourning dove dies, then Kenny nearly drowns, then the bomb at the church kills four little girls. Each time, death strikes a little closer to home. And this forces our characters, especially Byron and Kenny, to learn some pretty grown-up lessons about just how deadly hate is and how fragile life is.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. When death is imminent, why do you think Kenny sees Joey and Joey sees Kenny?
    2. What do you think Byron learns about death from killing the mourning dove?
    3. Why does Kenny choose to hide out in the same place their pets go to die?
    4. What does the Wool Pooh has to do with death?

    Chew on This

    Death is a necessary part of life, so Kenny has to experience it in order to grow up. Ultimately, learning about death is a good thing for him.

    Death is too painful for young kids; it would be better if Kenny hadn't learned about death and could just go on being a kid like before.

  • Foolishness and Folly

    Let's face it—Byron is a fool for most of The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963. He seems to make the dumbest decision possible every chance he gets, which means he's trouble all the time. But it's not just about getting in trouble; some of Byron's choices are so foolish (um, playing with matches in the house, anyone?) that they could have dire consequences. And that's exactly what Momma and Dad are afraid of if Byron keeps it up. Finally, Momma and Dad decide they need to do something drastic to scare Byron straight—and that's where Grandma Sands and the trip to Birmingham come in. And sure enough, the trip does get Byron into shape, but not in the way anyone expects.

    Questions About Foolishness and Folly

    1. Okay, so Byron gets a bad hairdo in Chapter 7. It happens to all of us, right? But why are Momma and Dad so upset about this particular hairdo? Why is this the last straw?
    2. Do you agree with Momma and Dad's decision to send Byron to Birmingham? Look especially at the way Dad explains things to Kenny in Chapter 9. Do you agree that this is the best way to get through to Byron? Why or why not?
    3. What do you think is the most foolish thing a character does in the book? Why?

    Chew on This

    Byron is a bad influence on Kenny, and Kenny makes bad choices only by following Byron's example.

    Being foolish is a necessary part of growing up. You can only learn from your own mistakes, so Kenny's foolish choices have nothing to do with Byron's influence.

  • Guilt and Blame

    Guilt is pretty much one of the worst feelings, and our main squeeze really struggles with it. Some of the guilt he experiences is legitimate (like when he hurts Rufus's feelings) but some is self-imposed guilt over things that Kenny really can't control (like what happened in the church). Meanwhile, Byron seems totally guilt-free—until the death-by-cookie incident. The lesson we learn from The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 is that feeling guilty isn't always related to being at fault.

    Questions About Guilt and Blame

    1. Why don't bullies like Byron and Larry Dunn seem to feel guilty about what they do to other kids?
    2. How is Kenny's experience feeling guilty about Rufus related to how he feels guilty about Joey?
    3. How does Kenny finally get over feeling ashamed at the end of the book?
    4. How does Byron get past his guilt over the bird?

    Chew on This

    Kenny let Joey down in the church; he should have stayed until he was sure she was okay.

    Kenny blames Byron for the fact that they don't have a good relationship, but it's partly Kenny's fault, too.