Sunday, February 8, 2015

Classics Review: The Watsons Go to Birmingham

Premise: Kenny's older brother, Byron, is getting into trouble. Whether it's picking on Kenny, or starting fires, his parents don't know what to do with him. So the Watsons decide a trip south from Flint, Michigan to Birmingham, Alabama is in order, so that Byron can spend the summer with his grandmother.

Title: The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963
Author: Christopher Paul Curtis
Length: 210 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
Series or Stand Alone: Stand Alone
Content appropriate for: Grades 4-6
Format: Audiobook narrated by LeVar Burton

Three adjectives that describe this book: amusing, engaging, memorable

I read this book as part of the Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics books in 5 years. My list is comprised entirely of children's books.

I first read The Watsons Go to Birmingham in 2001, just a year after its publication. At the time, I wasn't paying much attention to middle grade literature. *Hanging my head in shame*  Now, after inundating myself in middle grade and YA lit for the last 3 years, I see this book in a whole new way.

Let me first say that I listened to the audio version of The Watsons, narrated by the amazing LeVar Burton. I will always think of him first as Geordi (Star Trek) and next as the Reading Rainbow host. I wondered if this familiarity with Mr. Burton would interfere with my ability to believe in the character voices. But, LeVar Burton rocked this narration. His character voices are distinct, but they are also infused with the personality of each character. From lighthearted Dad, to cool-daddio Byron, and self-conscious Kenny, Mr. Burton gave us a real sense of who these people are.

Although the cover and premise may make you think, "Oh no! Not another serious book about Civil Rights," The Watsons Go to Birmingham is super fun. Curtis works in lots of funny moments. To get a good sense of the feel of the story, check out this book trailer, produced by the Lexington, KY library system:

I think what makes The Watsons so special is that it's NOT a book about the Civil Rights movement or about being black in America. 

So many books about this era put The Struggle front-and-center. And that's great. But it has led my rural, white students to think of black history only as either slavery or Civil Rights, without all of the other elements or seeing black people as simply people.

This book spends the first 150 pages or so establishing that this is just a normal family. They are regular people. We don't really discuss or experience racism until the last section of the book. This works because it eases us into the terror felt by regular Birmingham families around the church bombings. We care about these characters as people, and feel truly horrified that such violence could be visited upon them.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham is truly deserving of all its recognitions.

Side Note: I haven't seen the Hallmark movie version of this book (2013), but when I was searching for a video to include in this post, I was irritated at how they added in so many Civil Rights elements that weren't in the book - protests and sit-ins and so on. That really undermines my point, that a great book about the Civil Rights era doesn't actually have to be about the Civil Rights Movement.

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