59 pages 1 hour read

Christopher Paul Curtis

The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 1995

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Summary and Study Guide


Published in 1995, The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis is a realistic middle grade novel told from the point of view of 10-year-old Kenneth Watson. The Watson family lives in Flint, Michigan, in 1963. The early chapters of the book detail Kenny’s family life, school days, classmates, and older brother Byron’s exploits. When Byron takes one of his “adventures” too far, Kenny’s parents decide a family road trip to Birmingham, Alabama, is in order; there, they plan to leave Byron with strict Grandma Sands for the summer. No one in the family expects the hatred and violence they encounter, which leave Kenny and Byron facing hard questions about the views of others. The novel, Curtis’s first, was a Newbery Honor book and earned the Coretta Scott King Award. This guide references the 1995 Delacorte Press edition.

Plot Summary

Kenny, his older brother Byron, his younger sister Joetta, and their parents huddle together on the couch on a freezing Saturday in Flint, Michigan. Unable to reach the landlord about their lack of heat, Dad decides they will spend the night with Aunt Cydney. He tells Kenny and Byron to go scrape the ice from the car windows. Kenny insists Byron do his fair share of ice removal from the Brown Bomber, their 1948 Plymouth. Kenny begins scraping but hears strange, slurred speech from Byron. Kenny discovers that Byron’s lips are stuck to the car mirror after kissing his own image. The rest of the family tries to figure out what to do, but eventually Momma just pulls Byron off and gives him Vaseline for his lips. Kenny enjoys teasing Byron with a new nickname, the Lipless Wonder.

Kenny is no stranger to teasing; kids at school tease him for his excellent reading ability and for his “lazy eye.” Sometimes Byron sticks up for him, but sometimes Byron skips school altogether, leaving Kenny to the bullies. One day a new student, Rufus, arrives from Arkansas and becomes Kenny’s friend. Once, Kenny makes the mistake of laughing at Rufus’s clothing along with other students, but Rufus forgives Kenny when Kenny apologizes.

As the school year passes, Kenny observes Byron’s increasingly disrespectful and problematic behavior. Byron roughs up younger kids, plays with matches in the house, and puts treats on his parents’ credit at the market. He retrieves Kenny’s stolen gloves but harasses and roughs up the younger student who took them. He tries to help Kenny with Joetta’s complaints about wearing winter gear to school but does so with lies that make her cry. When Byron defies his parents and has his hair straightened and dyed, Momma and Dad decide to drive the family to visit strict Grandma Sands in Birmingham, Alabama; they plan to leave Byron there for at least the summer and maybe the school year. They hope being in the South will provide Byron with a wake-up call toward better and more mature behavior.

Everyone except Byron excitedly prepares for the road trip by sprucing up the car and packing. Dad brings home a new drive-around record player. Momma plans a three-day trip in her notebook, detailing every rest stop and sandwich break with two overnight stays. On the road, they experience the dark mountains of Appalachia at night. Dad decides to drive straight through, much to Momma’s chagrin. They are all happy to arrive in Birmingham, where Kenny is surprised to see how tiny and frail Grandma Sands is. He is even more surprised that Byron is kind and polite to her. Confused by Byron’s apparent happiness and good behavior, Kenny finds himself ready to defy Grandma’s instructions about avoiding Collier’s Landing, where a whirlpool drowned several people. Byron tells Joey and Kenny a monster called the Wool Pooh is responsible for the deaths, but Kenny goes anyway. He is caught in the whirlpool and almost drowns, but Byron arrives and saves him.

A few days later, Joey goes with Grandma’s neighbors to Sunday school at church. Everyone at the house hears what sounds like a sonic boom. Word arrives that the noise was actually a bomb at the church. Momma, Dad, and Byron run to the scene, and Kenny follows. Kenny goes into the ruined rubble of the church front and thinks he sees Joey’s shoe. He tries to pick it up but thinks the Wool Pooh is there pulling the body of the girl wearing the shoe. Kenny, afraid that the girl is Joey, pulls the shoe free and goes back to Grandma’s house. Joey arrives and says she left the church because she thought she saw Kenny waving at her from across the street. Kenny is relieved but guilt-stricken, feeling that he abandoned Joey in fear of the Wool Pooh. The family returns to Flint, where Kenny spends his days hiding behind the couch, not understanding how hatred exists in the world. Byron coaxes him out and convinces him that, in a way, Kenny saved Joey. Kenny realizes that his family’s love is so strong that it is like magic.