We’ve just finished “The Watsons Go To Birmingham – 1963” by multi-award winning author, Christopher Paul Curtis and we had a truly rip-roaring time with it. The story is about the “Weird Watsons”, a middle-class black family’s life in Flint, Michigan and their journey to the Deep South. Father Daniel loves “cutting up” and has an irrepressible sense of humour. Mother Wilona is loving but formidable enough to strike terror in her children’s hearts when laws are breached. Her Southern background is often fodder for her husband’s hillbilly jokes. Byron, the cocky (eldest) teenaged son, is on his way to being an “official delinquent”. Kenny, the narrator of the story, is an intelligent 10-year-old boy whose geekiness and lazy eye often cause him to be bullied. Joetta, the youngest, is a loyal girl who snitches on her siblings at times, but hates to see them punished.
Byron, by far the most colourful character, is the reason for the family’s journey to Birmingham, Alabama. Daddy Cool’s misdeeds include getting his lips frozen on the car’s mirror (it was cold and he was kissing his oh-so-handsome reflection), cutting school, using his parents’ credit at the store without permission, getting a conk (straightening his hair), playing with fire and assault. His parents make a desperate bid to save him from his self-destructive tendencies – they hope that a stint with Grandma Sands in Birmingham, away from the temptations and negative peers in the city will straighten him out.
The family makes preparations for the trip like refurbishing the car, getting a record player (the Ultra Glide) installed (because they want to avoid country/hillbilly music) and charting their proposed route, rest stops and expenses, all carefully and precisely noted by Mom in her notebook entitled The Watson’s Go To Birmingham – 1963. Dad however has other plans and saves money by driving practically non-stop.
In Birmingham, the family are caught up in the turbulent events of the emerging Civil Rights Movement. What begins as an interesting change of environment turns tragic when a Black church is bombed. This mirrors a true event in US history when a racially instigated bombing of a church led to 4 teenaged girls perishing – the book is in fact dedicated to these girls.
Issues like sibling rivalry, adolescent rebellion, friendship and bullying and racial prejudice are deftly handled – with a light touch that in no way dilutes them. I do have a few reservations – there are some cuss words, Byron’s unnamed trouble with a girl and references to ‘adult’ books. Since I was reading this with the kids, I censored these bits. I also skipped the part about Grandma Sands’ friendship with a Mr Robert. All in all, a good living book on history. An enjoyable read – wickedly funny but also deeply moving.
As salaam alaikum, I reading I was wondering if you censored the material. Some things are just too much for such young children.
Sadly, my son just learned about the “n” word in a harsh way from a neighbor. It has been very difficult for us, but allahu alim.
wa `alaykum as salaam wa rahmatullaahi wa barakaatuh
Yes, I do censor the material – cuss words and such I do leave out. Boy-girl stuff are definitely out as well. (I don’t know about you but I find these boy-girl themes a bigger trial than the shirk stuff sometimes.) I know some people don’t agree to this, but there is just too much fitna out there to just allow my kids who are still so young to make decisions totally on their own. I believe some issues can wait and some are totally unnecessary. So if a book is on the whole good, I allow it with censorship and if I think a book is way too questionable, I just leave it. Anyway, even with my censorship, they have not been left wanting for good books. Alhamdulillah there are still so many quality books out there that the questionable ones are not missed.
I haven’t sheltered them from EVERYTHING – not all the characters in the books we read have been perfect. We have dealt with issues like prejudice, alcoholism, etc. and these have led to some very nice discussions and learning moments.
It is easier to censor materials for the younger girl. Many times my elder daughter comes across books she wants to read and I have to tell her that she can’t on her own or that I’m uncomfortable with the idea. She is OK with it but she loves reading so much that it is sometimes hard to keep up with her. I have to do a lot of research about the books I buy and allow. Not having a TV helps as well – well my in-laws have one that they next to never turn on and my kids are not interested in it!
I am so sad (and angered) to hear about the bad incident with the neighbour. It must have been painful. I would really like to know what it is like for your family in the US. In my brief time there I was blessed to have met very nice and kindly people for the most part. How do you help your children handle prejudice – I am thinking that this may be a recurrent issue since your family is both Muslim and African-American (or bi-racial? I hope this isn’t an offensive term… I can’t keep up sometimes with what is politically correct! We are a multi-ethnic family ourselves.)