I was five years old in 1963. I guess that makes me a contemporary of the youngest member of the family in this book – Joetta Watson – the little girl, whose main concern is for the well-being of all of the members of her family. I kind of wish I had been thinking of that while I was reading. But, quite naturally, I was drawn in by the narrator – 9-year-old Kenny – a kid who is easy to relate to. He’s smart, sensible, has lots of reasonable questions about life in general and is a pretty good kid overall.
The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 was a new book for me. In it, we have the story of a Midwestern, middle-class African-American family. Since our narrator is kid, most of the stories focus on kid stuff – sibling battles, fun and frustrations of school, playing, fighting, observations about parents. I wish I could have read a story like this when I was in elementary school – it would be interesting to know how I would have reacted to it, as I was growing up in my very white community in the 60s and 70s. The family life depicted is so fun, so normal. It would have provided a positive educational experience for me. Of course, the author was growing up at pretty much the same time, so I had to wait for it.
As we hear about the Watson’s daily life from Kenny, we discover that the two brothers – surprise, surprise – get into lots of arguments, with big brother Byron doing his best to throw his weight around. He strives for “cool.” He’s well-known as a “tough guy” at school. For a reader, Byron’s activities are fairly entertaining. For a parent, however, they would be less so.
But through Kenny’s eyes, we see that Byron is not all bad – he’s a pain, and he can be scary – but he’s also a guy who watches out for his little brother. He might be tough on Kenny – but nobody else gets to. This part of his personality – though he tries to play it down – shows up well when Kenny is brought into Byron’s classroom to show the big kids how important it is to learn to read well. Kenny is less than thrilled about this opportunity to display his talents.
The fifth-grade teacher introduces second-grade Kenny to the class, telling them he is going to read some Langston Hughes poems to them. He suddenly realizes it’s his brother’s class and he is sure he is doomed:
“Mr. Alums might as well have tied me up to a pole and said, ‘Ready, aim, fire!'”
“I didn’t even get out of the schoolyard before Byron and Buphead caught up to me. A little crowd bunched up around us, and everyone was real excited because they knew I was about to get jacked up.
Buphead said, ‘Here that little egghead punk is.’
‘Leave the little clown alone,’ Byron said. ‘It’s a crying shame, takin’ him around like a circus freak.’
He punched me kind of soft in the arm and said, ‘At least you oughta make ’em pay you for doin’ that mess. If it was me they’d be comin’ out they pockets with some foldin’ money every time they took me around.’
I couldn’t believe it. I think Byron was proud of me!
When everybody saw that Byron wasn’t going to do anything to me for being smart they all decided that they better not do anything either. I still got called Egghead or Poindexter or Professor some of the time, but that wasn’t bad compared to what could have happened.”
Even though a tough older brother has some benefits for Kenny in the schoolyard, the Watson parents are determined not to allow Byron to continue down any slippery slope to becoming an all-out hoodlum. They make the decision to take him to a place where his tough-guy act will not be tolerated and where a slower pace of life may hold fewer temptations – his grandmother’s house in Alabama.
The book’s title comes from the label Momma gives the notebook she compiles with all of the details of the trip – what food they’ll need, where they’ll stop, how long it will take. Dad makes sure the car is ready for the trip, and they head south. Before they leave Dad has a talk with Kenny about their decision, and I love Kenny’s reaction – it is funny and honest and natural and kidlike – it’s what makes him such a good narrator.
“I loved when Dad talked to me like I was grown-up. I didn’t really understand half the junk he was saying, but it sure did feel good to be talked to like that!
It’s times like this when someone is talking to you like you’re a grown-up that you have to be careful not to pick your nose or dig your drawers out of your butt.”
It’s something we all have to remind ourselves of from time to time, Kenny.
The Watsons know that their children are going to be exposed to many differences, good and bad, when they travel from the North to the South, but for the most part, the story stays focused on family stuff – visiting and trying to get Byron settled in. And just when I was starting to wonder if this book was going to say anything specific about the racial tension in the South – I got my answer in no uncertain terms.
And this climactic moment had a big impact, I think especially because the author made sure the story just hummed along with normal, relatively small family dramas, making me laugh and nod my head in understanding – until something happened that made no sense to anyone. It was very effective, because that’s the way terrible things come on us. It’s why they’re shocking – because they intrude on all of the normal stuff that we expect to happen each day.
The violence that happened during the Civil Rights movement was distant from me growing up, and now it is history. This book is a novel, but I think taking us along for the ride with the Watsons offers a look into real happenings in a way that should be very thought provoking for kids or parents who read it.
Number of pages: 206
Date of publication: 1995
Story time and setting: Let’s see – what do you suppose the setting is? 1963, Flint, Michigan and – you guessed it – Birmingham, Alabama.
First line: “It was one of those super-duper-cold Saturdays.”
Main characters: The Watson family: 9-year-old Kenny – our narrator, a nice, smart kid; his older brother Byron, who is doing his best to live up to a 13-year-old’s reputation for being difficult; little sister Joetta (Joey) – maybe about 6 years old; Momma and Dad
Reading age level: 10 and up – Amazon’s recommendation and I think that sounds about right. The language is ordinary and everyday, but with plenty of interesting situations and thoughts that utilize a rich vocabulary.
Emotional/Maturity level: In general, I’d say if a kid can read this book, they’re ready for it, but it’s tough to know exactly when a kid is old enough to handle reading about cruelty or hate or senseless violence. Most of this story is about a good family experiencing pretty normal challenges – a teen who is causing some trouble – but he could be a lot worse. And then suddenly they have to deal with ugliness that easily could have caused tremendous hurt to their family – and did cause tremendous hurt to people nearby. Basically, if someone is old enough to read this book, then it’s probably time for them to hear what it has to say.