Book #7: The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963

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

Chapters:  15

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.


Summertime and the livin’ is easy?

For most of my life – either when I was in school myself, or when my children are in school – I spend much of the school year thinking, “Oh, I can’t wait for summertime, when everything is not so scheduled.  Then I can really get some things done!”

Then summer comes and I get caught up in whatever it is that goes on – it doesn’t really seem to matter what it is.  When I wake up and realize that the summer is half over and I haven’t accomplished anything constructive, I start to think, “Well, I can’t wait for the school year to start.  Then we’ll be back on a normal schedule and I can really get some things done.”

Sound familiar to anyone?  This isn’t just an excuse for getting so behind on this blog – well, maybe it is – let’s call it an explanation.  Anyway, just letting you know that we’re still here and we’re still reading.  We both have our Watsons Go To Birmingham reviews halfway done, and we’ve realized that with school looming up in about one month, we need to switch gears from Swallows and Amazons – though it seems so appropriate for summer vacation – and start up on the school reading – so our next read is going to be Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. 

So please, don’t give up on us yet –  hope you’re all having a great summer!  Signing off with a photo from our vacation – us in Times Square at midnight – in the wee hours of the day Katie turned 13!  She took the photo for us.

Vacation stories

We are far behind on our blogging, and we are currently on vacation, but I thought I’d share a few photos from North Carolina.  We had lunch by a lake, and looking out onto the water, Katie kept saying, “That’s just like in Swallows and Amazons!”

So here are some lake photos, from Lake Norman – or maybe they’re from Swallows and Amazons…..











Dramas of an almost Thirteen Year Old

For something a little different – some bonus stuff from Katie!

Hi people of this blog.  I have not written one post besides the ones about the books.  So I decided it was about time you learned something about me that came from me.  So now I present Dramas of an almost Thirteen Year Old.

I know the question what goes on inside an almost thirteen year old girls mind is not on the top of most of your minds, but I am going to tell you anyway.  My main thoughts are about sports, Lord of the Rings (mainly Viggo Mortenson/Aragorn), my trip to the east coast coming up, babysitting, the next pool party I am attending, the next book I am going to read, the fact that I need a new swimsuit, and I am almost a teenager.  Like lots of people around this time I am having my first crush, which really creeps me out.  At my school there has been the mean girls( girl in my case) who blames you for everything and doesn’t like you for no apparent reason. I still try to workout when I can and my family goes on hikes together occasionally.  I have acne that is not too bad and is going away so I am very excited.  I can actually relax and enjoy my summer because I got my S.A.T.  and report card back and I was happy to see that I did better than I expected.  I was also glad to see that I scored a 99, 94, and a 91 in my creative language part of the S.A.T.

Everyone that new since I came to California keeps saying I remember when you where only four and then sighing as though remembering.  I still have my best friend that I had when I was three and I think our friendship has only gotten stronger over the years.  We even have started a babysitting business together for the people with small children in the couple’s group that goes on once a week at my house.  And that is what goes on inside an almost thirteen year old girls mind.  Thank you for reading.

Keeping stories close to home

Image via wikipedia

Sorry for the long absence!  End of school stuff, business trip, blah, blah, blah.  Ready for summer to begin!  So here is a bit about the author of our most recent book.

Christopher Paul Curtis was born and raised in Flint, Michigan – which, probably not so coincidentally – is the setting of our book, The Watsons Go to Birmingham: 1963.   And interestingly enough, his age just about matches that of our first-person narrator in this book about a pleasant African-American family.

It is satisfying to me to learn that he bears a resemblance to the book’s narrator because though it is a novel, it reads very much like a personal reminiscence.  He does a great job of drawing us into the life of the Watson family – but more on that in the review.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham: 1963 was his first novel – a book that he took time off from work to write, and which he wrote out in longhand at the public library.   And with that began a string of awards.   He won the Newbery Medal for Watsons – not a bad start!  He also wrote Bud, Not Buddy, a story that includes characters modeled off of both of his grandfathers – Earl “Lefty” Lewis, a Negro league baseball pitcher, and 1930s bandleader Herman E. Curtis, Sr., of Herman Curtis and the Dusky Devastators of the Depression.  Bud, Not Buddy was the first novel to receive both the Coretta Scott King Award and the Newbery Medal.  His book Elijah of Buxton, about a free Black community in Ontario that was founded in 1849 by runaway slaves, won the Scott O’Dell Historical Fiction Award, the Coretta Scott King Award and  Newbury Honor.   This year, he came out with a Depression-Era story, The Mighty Miss Malone.

Curtis’ father was a chiropodist and factory worker/supervisor, and his mother an educator.  He attended public schools in Flint, and at McKinley Junior High, he was the first African-American student to be elected to student council.  He later graduated from University of Michigan-Flint, and was the speaker at his own commencement.  As in his life, Flint plays an important role in many of his stories.

After high school, Curtis spent time developing artistic talents, performing with a traveling musical theater group  called Suitcase Theatre, and he also put in a lot of time on a factory assembly line hanging doors on big cars.  Since 1998, however, he has been a full-time author and lecturer, and was also able to strut his stuff as a rapper (stage name L-Toe – couldn’t find any more information on that – but I tried!).

Since 2008, each year Curtis returns to the University of Michigan-Flint to host the Christopher Paul Curtis Writing Challenge, a program instituted by Dr. Rose Casement and Dr. Fred Svoboda.  In this program, every fourth-grade student in Flint comes to UM-Flint’s auditorium to hear a presentation by Curtis, are provided with a story starter that he has written, and are given the challenge of finishing the story.  A winner is chosen from each of the city’s elementary schools, and they attend an ceremony at the university where an overall winner is announced.  The stated goal of the challenge is to expose Flint’s youth to the university environment and to encourage writing as a means of expression.  Sounds like a great creative-writing idea to me!

Christopher Curtis and his wife, Habon live in Detroit with their baby daughter.  Curtis also has two grown children from a previous marriage.

Katie’s Take: All-of-a-Kind Family

Katie’s Take:

I think that we have been keeping the ball rolling pretty well this past month or so.  It kind of helps that I have been one book ahead of my mom this whole time so that we each get  a book to ourselves.  But you know I think that I will just start the talking about the book right now.

Mama- If you  had to describe Mama in five words they would be, at least for me: clever, quaint, pretty, worrisome, motherly.  Most of this words come from when she is with her five kids. She keeps the house tidy and organized.  She also makes up games for the kids to like cleaning.

Papa- Papa is a kind father who is stuck in a house full of girls and wants a son very badly, but he still loves all his little girls with all his heart.  There is really nothing more to say about Papa except he is a hard worker with a kind heart.

The Library Lady-  The new Library Lady is a sweet young lady who seems to be sad, but the girls can’t figure out why.  She helps Sarah out when she loses her library book and is always ready to talk to the girls.  Even though she isn’t Jewish she shares in some of their holidays when they invite her over to their house.

Charlie- Charlie comes to Papa’s shop occasionally and is a very close family friend.  He also gets very sad sometimes because he has lost the girl he loves because his parents didn’t approve of their marriage.  Charlie gives the girls presents almost every time he comes to visit them at their house.

Ella-  Ella is the oldest of the five children and acts like she is the oldest and in charge.  She is a good sister besides when she acts to much like a boring grown-up (as the other girls would say).

Henny- Henny is the second oldest of the five and is the most adventurous and curious.  In the book there is a time when she gets lost,  but she actually was glad because she got candy and ice cream. Mama calls her her ‘wild one’.

Sarah-  Sarah is what you would call the ‘quiet kind’.  She isn’t the most memorable of the girls.  Really the only times she stands out are when she loses her library book and when she refuses to eat her soup.

Charlotte-  Charlotte is not exactly quiet, but she doesn’t stand out from the other girls that much.  She doesn’t really like to wait to get things though.

Gertie- Gertie is the youngest and used to it being that way.  She is very protective of her position to, as we find out at the end of the book.
Gertie is at that age where you can either act like a little kid or try to act like your big sisters.  She chooses both.

I think this is a good book for people who just want to sit down and read something simple, but not a little kids’ book.  Over all a very appealing novel.

Two titles jump the queue

Katie got her summer reading list for 8th grade this week, and happily, two of the three books are on our top-100 list!  Actually, two out of the three “extra credit” books are on our list, but only one can count for school.  (Which, of course, doesn’t keep us from reading it.)

So now our next five books will be the previously scheduled:

  • Swallows and Amazons
  • The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane
  • Holes

Followed by:

  • Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
  • The Witch of Blackbird Pond

Johnny Tremain is also on the list for extra credit, but I remember enjoying Witch when I was in middle school, so we’ll go with that one.  She also has to read The Bronze Bow, but will get no blogging credit for that one 🙂

Or maybe we should have her share her experience anyway, to weigh the merits of that book over the rest on the list.  Anybody out there read The Bronze Bow?  It’s a new one for me.