The Watsons go to Birmingham -- 1963
A 1996 Coretta Scott King Honor Book
A Newbery Honor Book
book talk
author study
classroom connections
list of related books
web activity 

Book Talk

The Watsons Go To Birmingham--1963 is an interesting historical fiction novel about a family that lives in Michigan during the time of the Civil Rights Movement.  The main character, Kenny, lives with his parents, older brother, and younger sister in a neighborhood (and state for that matter) that hasn't felt the repercussions of being a black family in the 60's.

Kenny's brother, Byron, has been getting into lots of trouble, and so his parents decide to leave Byron with their grandmother in Birmingham, Alabama, thus spurring the family trip.  Once in Birmingham, the Watsons encounter events that made history and taught them about what it was like to be black and living in a southern state.

This book deals with serious issues, yet keeps it light with lots of humor.  I think that kids would get a lot from this book because the seriousness is kept to a minimum; kids would be able to handle the issues, because they are few and far between.  Kenny is written as a great character because he shows true feelings of a child.  Christopher Paul Curtis did an excellent job writing from a child's point of view, and I think that any child (white or black) could relate to this book.

Author Study
Christopher Paul Curtis was born and raised in Flint, Michigan. After completing high school, he spent the next thirteen years working at Flint's historic Fisher Body Plant on the assembly line.  Curtis began keeping a journal while at work to record specific happenings during the day.  While working, he began drafting The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963.  A lot of the story parts and situations came from direct experience with his job.



The Watson’s Go To Birmingham--1963 was Curtis’ first novel for young readers.  The book won both a Newbery Honor Award and a Coretta Scott King Honor Award.  Also, Curtis’ debut novel has been awarded a myriad of other honors, including being named a Best Book of 1995 by such publications as The Horn Book, The Bulletin, The New York Times Book Review, and Publishers Weekly.  His second book, Bud, Not Buddy, received the 2000 Newbery Medal.  Both of these novels unite aspects of Curtis’ family heritage with pertinent and recent American history. This combination enables the author to craft stories that are entertaining and subtly humorous with characters that seem real and that you can relate to.

Curtis was able to horn in on his talents as a writer with much help from his family, especially his wife, Kaysandra.  She supported his aspirations to be a writer and guided him away from the Fisher Body Plant and more toward his goals.  Curtis’ ancestry also points down the road of entertainment and success.  His grandfathers were Earl "Lefty" Lewis, a Negro Baseball League pitcher, and Herman E. Curtis, Sr., 1930s bandleader of "Herman Curtis and the Dusky Devastators of the Depression,"

Classroom Activities

Point of View
1. This story is told in the first person point of view.  Review point of view with the class.  Remind students that a story may be told from the first-person or the third-person point of view.  If a narrator takes part in the action of the story and refers to himself or herself as “I,” the story is told from the first person point of view.  If the narrator is outside the story and does not refer to himself or herself at all, the story is told from the third-person point of view.  Have students determine whether The Watsons go to Birmingham—1963 is told from the first-person or the third-person point of view and explain why.  Then have students find one other book that is told in the first person and one that is told in the third person.  Students are to explain why and use examples from the text.

Map Skills
2. Talk about the Watsons traveling from Flint to Birmingham.  See if students can
remember where each place was located.  Use a U.S. map that shows interstate highways.  Go over possible routes that the Watsons could have taken.  With the class, calculate the distance in miles of one of the routes.  Make sure students understand how to use the map key to calculate the distance.  Have students have a place on the map that they would like to travel to in the U.S.  They are to write out a specific route that can be taken from their city to the location chosen.  Students will then calculate the distance between the two locations using the map key.

Literary Elements
3. This story can also be used to work on some literary elements.  Review story
elements with the class such as plot, conflict, and resolution.  Point out    that during the story, characters try to solve a problem, causing a series of series of related events to occur.  The reader tries to anticipate how the problem will be solved.  Finally, at the most exciting point, the climax, the central problem is usually resolved.  Have students identify the central problem of the story.  Help them distinguish between conflicts that are minor in the story and the main factors that relate to the central problem.  Students can then identify the climax of the story and talk about how the central problem is solved.

Writing Prompts
4.   This is also a very good book that a variety of writing prompts can be designed from.  One possible prompt would relate to Chapter 11 when the Watsons get ready to meet Grandma Sands.  Kenny had certain expectations about what Grandma Sands would be like.  He imagined a huge, mean looking woman.  When he finally meets her, she turns out to be a small woman who welcomes the family with open arms.  Ask students if they have ever met someone who was nothing like what they expected.  Have them describe the situation telling what they expected and what they found.


Christopher Paul Curtis Books:

Bud, Not Buddy (Newberry Medal Book) 1999

Coming of Age:

M.C. Higgins, The Great by Virginia Hamilton, 1989
The Blue Lawn by William Taylor, 1999
PINS by Jim Provenzano, 1999
Delin’s Way by Olga Berrocal Essex, 1998


Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, 1993
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor, 1997
Let the Circle be Unbroken by Mildred D. Taylor, 1991
Mississippi Bridge by Mildred D. Taylor, 1992
The Road to Memphis by Maurice D. Taylor, 1992
The Cay by Theodore Taylor, 1991
The Inn at Lake Devine by Elinor Lipman, 1999
Slam! by Walter Dean Myers, 1998
Saving Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, 1999
Iggie’s House by Judy Blume, 1976


America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960’s by Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin, 1999
The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960s by Allen J. Matusow, 1985
The 1960s by Gini Holland, 1999

Web Activity

Pretend you and your family are planning a trip from Michigan to Birmingham, Alabama, just like Mrs. Watson did in the book.  You will need to think of many things before you leave to make sure that you have enough time and money to make it to your destination.  Your family has $1000 to make it from Michigan to Alabama.  You have only 3 days to make it there.  You will have to:

1.    Obtain a map to plan your route.
2.    Decide how many miles you will travel per day.
3.    Find sleeping accomodations with prices.
4.    Find out how many miles per gallon your car will get.
5.    Decide when and where (what city) you will get gas.
6.    Find out how much money you will spend on gas.
7.    Decide how much money you will spend on food.
8.    Plan 3 activities that you will attend when you get there.
Here's where to look for your information:
    For a map:
    For hotels:
    For your car's mileage:
    For activities:    http://www/

Using the information that you have found, compose a travel brocure for Birmingham, Alabama.

Related Websites

return to top

Webmasters:  Natalie Orsini, Nicole Romano, Colleen Wheat, Bryan Cramer, and Chris Shivers