The Companion Book of
The Watsons Go To Birmingham – 1963
Written by Ibrahim Parvez
Table of Contents
Part One: Informational Writing – About the Text
About the Author: Christopher Paul Curtis
Setting: Flint, Michigan and Birmingham
Characterization: Kenneth and Byron
Part Two: Informational Writing – Analysis of the Text
Part Three: Beyond the Text
Informational Writing About the Text
“To design the future effectively, you must let go of your past.” Those are the words of Charles J. Givens, an Author who wrote the books risk and Financial Self Defence. It describes how the past affects your future. In the book The Watsons go to Birmingham – 1963, Kenneth realizes that he has been thinking about the bomb and all the kids who got hurt by it for days and he needs to forget about it and think more about the future. In this companion book, I will explain how Kenneth realizes that he needs to forget about what happened, and think about what he will do next. First, in Part I, I will give some background information about the author. Then, I will explain what the setting of the book is and why it is important and certain aspects of Kenneth and Byron’s character. In Part II, I will analyze the text further by conveying how the author used specific techniques, and symbolism to show how Kenneth has to forget about the past. Finally, I have included a piece of fanfiction in which I explore how something that didn’t happen could’ve happened and the book would have a more tragic ending.
About the Author: Christopher Paul Curtis
Christopher Paul Curtis was born on May 10, 1953 in Flint, Michigan. He went to many different schools, for example, Dewey Elementary, Clark Elementary, and Peirce elementary. In 1967, he was the first African-American student to be elected to the student council. During the year 1972, he graduated from Flint Southwestern High School at the age of 19. Later, he got a job and worked for a few years, then, returned to college. Soon, he graduated from the University of Michigan-Flint in the year 2000. After he graduated, he worked in several different places. He started to write children’s books and published his first book in 1995.
Christopher Paul Curtis has written about 18 different children’s books. His best books are Bud, Not Buddy, and The Watsons Go To Birmingham-1963. The first book he wrote was called The Watsons Go To Birmingham- 1963. Christopher Paul Curtis wrote a draft of this book when he was in college and it had already won the Jules Hopwood Prize. Later, he wrote the final published book and it had won the Newbery Honor award in 1996. Another famous novel which was written after The Watsons Go To Birmingham-1963 was called Bud, Not Buddy. This book received an even higher prize which is two awards. The first award was the Newbery Medal and the second one was the Coretta Scott King Award. The latest book published is called The Madman of Piney Woods which was published in 2014.
Christopher Paul Curtis did many things other than writing books. For example, he contributed to newspapers and periodicals, including the New York Times Book Review, Chicago Tribune, and the US Weekend. He goes to many different schools and libraries and gives speeches to encourage writing. He also has a website called “Nobody but Curtis” and he revealed his inspiration for writing: “I believe that young people are often blessed with the best ears for protecting what rings true or what feels right in a particular piece of writing. To me, the highest accolade comes when a young reader tells me ‘I really liked your book.’ The young seem to be able to say ‘really’ with a clarity, a faith, and an honesty that we adults have long forgotten. That is why I write.” – Christopher Paul Curtis
Setting: Flint, Michigan and Birmingham
Place: The Weird Watsons are an African American family who live in Flint, Michigan. And Michigan is one of those states that get “super-duper-cold”(1) days. By midnight, “the temperature is expected to drop into record-low territory, possibly reaching the negative twenties!”(2). And the temperature will not go above zero for the next four to five days! Furthermore, the Watsons also drove down to Birmingham to drop Byron off at Grandma Sands house for the Summer. But because of the tragic event that took place while they were there, they did not leave him in Birmingham and came back to Michigan.
Time: The book takes place during the year 1963. And during that year, the Watsons were in the city of Birmingham and while they were there a bomb was put in a church and it blew up the whole church. “The police thought that two white men drove by in a car and threw it in during services, or that they’d already hidden it in the church with a clock set to go off during Sunday school.”(191). Until 1963, segregation was still a problem and many white people hated the African Americans, so they did many harmful things to them so they could show their anger against the African Americans.
Social Issue: Segregation was still a problem during the year 1963 and was only banned all around the United States of America during 1964. And because the Americans knew that segregation was about to end, they got very mad. Most of them took it a step further and started to ruin the African Americans lives. For example, they put bombs into churches (191). And because of this tragic event, many lives have been lost.
Characterization: Kenneth and Byron
Speech: In the book, whenever Kenneth hears about bad news, he always says, “Awww, man . . .”(135). For example, at night, Byron was in the top bunk and he didn’t realize that Kenneth was in the bottom bunk. He started to just talk randomly about some of his games and suddenly, he realized the Kenneth was in the bottom bunk. Byron quickly looked down at Kenneth and told him “You say one word about this to anyone and I’m gonna jack your little lightweight behind, you hear?” (135). Then, Byron said “Awww, man . . .”. This is one dialogue that has been repeated several times in the book by Kenneth.
Thoughts and Feelings: Kenneth is the type of person in the book who cares about everyone. Even if he hates one specific person, he will still try to help him. For example, Byron was going to be sent to Alabama for the summer to stay with Grandma Sands because of all the bad things he has done this year and Kenneth felt really bad. He went and talked to his dad and talked to him about it. “Dad, does Byron really have to go to Alabama? Couldn’t we just drive down to Ohio and pretend we’re going to leave him to scare him?”(122). This shows that Kenneth feels bad for Byron and because he knows that he is very sad, and he wants to try to make him feel better by trying to change his parent’s decision.
Effects on Others: Whenever Byron gets in trouble, Kenneth almost always gets involved in the situation. For example, Byron was playing with matches again even after his mom told him not to. And his mom told him that if he plays with matches one more time, she will burn his fingers using the matches. His mom took Byron to the living room while holding on to his shirt and asked Joey to get the matches. But she started crying and didn’t bring them. Then she looked at Kenneth. And that was a big problem for him. “This is what I was afraid of. If I didn’t go get the matches I was going to be in worse trouble them I already was with Momma, and if I did go get the matches, I knew Byron would kill me as soon as he got back from the hospital”(68). This shows that Kenneth has a big decision to make, and he would get in big trouble from both ways. First, his mom. If he didn’t get the matches, his mom would be mad at him for not listening to her. Second, Byron. Kenneth is scared of Byron because he can do anything to him. So after his mom burns his finger, Byron will do whatever he can to Kenneth.
Speech: Byron always talks to people in a mean way to prove that he is bigger, better, and tougher. He wants everyone to be scared of him and he hates it when another person annoys him. For example, on page 84, the text said, “He picked up a rotten apple and threw it at me. ‘Get the hell out of here, what you starin’ at? Them apples got me sick, you little cross-eyed punk! Get out of here.'” This shows how Byron is trying to tell Kenneth to just leave him alone, but when Byron tells him to leave him, he tells him in a very mean way to show Kenneth that he is bigger, better, and tougher.
Thoughts and Feelings: Byron always does things without getting permission and he always eventually gets in trouble. One day, he got back from Buphead’s house and he was wearing a very smelly hat that his mom told him to never wear inside the house. His mom made him take it off and she found out that he made his hair look Mexican. The text said, “His hair was reddish brown, straight, stiff and slick – looking” (page 87). This shows how Byron thinks differently from his family and he doesn’t think about what will happen when he does something. His thoughts and feelings are very different from everyone else.
Informational Writing Analysis of the Text
Christopher Paul Curtis used lots of inner thinking in the book to show the theme. For example, the book started out with the Watsons in Flint at their house and it focused a lot on Kenneth and Byron fighting. They would fight at home, at school, and even on the bus. But Kenneth always had to let it go because he knew that Byron was a lot bigger and tougher. But Kenneth always thought in his head about how annoying Byron is and how much he hates him. For example, on page 11, the text said, “I made up my mind I wasn’t going to cry or anything, I made up my mind that no matter how hard they threw me in that snow I was going to get up laughing.” This shows that the author used inner thinking to show how Kenneth felt about what Byron did to him, and also how he reacts to it. This also shows the theme how Kenneth has to overcome his difficulties and forget about it. To conclude, inner thinking can be used to show the theme that the author is trying to convey.
1st Person Narrator
In the book, the author set the point of view as first person narrator which helps to see the protagonist’s perspective on different events in the book. For example, the Watsons drove to Grandma Sands house in Birmingham and while they were there, a bomb exploded in a church. And at that same time, Joey should’ve been in the church. Kenneth was very scared and ran to the church, and outside there church was something that terrified Kenneth. There were many injured people outside lying on the ground. The text said, “‘Why would they do that, Byron?’ I was sounding real bad. My throat was jumping around in my neck and making a bunch of weird noises. ‘Why would they hurt some little kids like that?'”(page 199). This shows that the author used first person narrator to show what the protagonist really thought about the disastrous event that happened. It also helps to know more about the character because of how the character reacts to certain events. For example, it could show the characters traits. All in all, first person narrator is used to give the protagonist’s perspective on different events and also, you can learn more about the character by how he reacts to events.
Christopher Paul Curtis used the Brown Bomber in the book and he describes the car which shows the time period and also shows more about the Watsons. The text said, “We washed and waxed the Brown Bomber … The Brown Bomber looked great! Not almost new, but not almost fifteen years old either” (page 100-101). This shows the time period because “Brown Bomber” is a word that would probably be used in the 1900’s. People in the 20th century would not call their cars “Brown Bomber, but it is a term that would be used in the mid 1900’s. This could also show more about the Watsons because the text said that they washed their cars which shows that they took responsibility for their belongings.
The Mourning Dove is the coolest bird in the world and Byron and Kenneth got a chance to see one. It was about the size of a pigeon and was sitting on a telephone wire. Byron had a bag with Swedish Cremes in it and he threw a few at it. But on the fourth try, he finally hit the bird. The text says, “When Byron’s fourth Swedish Creme left his hand I knew that if the bird didn’t move he was going to get whacked. The cookie popped the bird smack-jab in the chest! The bird’s wings both stuck out to the side and for a hot second with its tail hanging down and its wings sticking out like that it looked like a perfect small letter t stick up on the telephone wire. Then, in slow motion, the bird leaned back and crashed to the dirt of the alley behind Mitchell’s” (page 83). This shows a little bit about Byron because hitting birds with cookies is not easy but Byron did it on his fourth try. After the bird fell, Byron was acting very weird. The text said, “I looked right at By and his face was all twisted up and his eyes were kind of shut” (page 83). The Bird had fallen and it died. And right after this, Byron’s emotional side starts to come out. He starts to feel bad about something he had done for the first time in the book. This is the first time in the book where is not Mr. Tough Guy and he gets very emotional.
Informational Writing Beyond the Text
In this scene, it is Sunday and Kenneth wakes up at the time when Joey is going to Sunday School. Kenneth was too tired to go so Joey went with her friends. After about half an hour Kenneth and Byron heard a big “BOOOM” and Byron said that somebody put a bomb in the church. And Joey was in that same church, but she had left early and she did not even know what happened. Joey was okay and did not get hurt, but I’m going to change it so that Joey does get hurt and has to go to the hospital.
“By, What happened?”
Byron quickly replied, “A guy just came by and said that somebody dropped a bomb on Joey’s church.” And he was gone, exploding out of the front door without even thinking about how loud he had slammed the front door.
Some of the time I wondered if something really was wrong with me. Byron had just told me that someone had dropped a bomb on Joey’s church, hadn’t he? If that was true why was I just standing there looking stupid? If that was true why was I only thinking about how much trouble By was going to be in when they heard how loud he’s slammed the screen door, and asking myself why hadn’t he put on his shoes? His socks wouldn’t last two minutes on the Alabama mud.
I ran out onto the porch and into the street. It seemed like everyone in Birmingham was running down the street, it looked like a river of scared brown bodies was being jerked in the same direction that By had gone, so I followed.
I guess my ears couldn’t take it so they just stopped listening. I could see people everywhere making their mouths go like they were screaming and pointing and telling but I didn’t hear anything. I saw Momma and Dad and Byron holding onto each other, and all three of them looking like they were crazy and trying to keep each other away from a pile of rocks that used to be in front of the church. Momma was so upset that she even forgot to cover the space in her front teeth. I couldn’t hear her but I’d bet a million dollars she was shouting, “Why?” over and over like a real nut. It looked like Dad’s mouth was yelling, “Joey!”
I was kind of surprised that no adult stopped me from walking right up to the church.
I got right next to where the door used to be when the guy came out with a little girl in his arms. He had on the same thing dad did, a t-shirt and pajama pants. The girl had on the same thing that Joey did. I looked very carefully and I could see that the little girl was Joetta!
Momma, Dad, and Byron ran over to the guy and took Joey out of his hands. Momma saw me and told me to hurry back to the house and get the keys to the car. I quickly ran to the house sprinting down the side of the road as fast as I could. I ran into the house, got the keys to the car, and ran back out accidentally slamming the screen door. Grandma Sands came outside getting very mad at me for slamming the screen door so hard. But I didn’t care at this moment. I unlocked the car and opened the door. Dad put Joey in the car and told Byron and I to stay at home with Grandma Sands. Dad drove the car off the driveway and took Joey to the hospital.
When Momma and Dad came home, I could see that they were very sad. They didn’t even talk to us. I noticed that they were very tired because they have been gone for over 6 hours. We all ate dinner without saying a word and went to sleep. The next morning, Momma and Dad were not home. The car was not in the driveway, and Grandma Sands was still sleeping. I ate breakfast with Byron and while I was washing the dishes, the door opened and I heard Joey’s voice. I slowly walked to the door and saw Joey, Momma, and Dad coming inside the house. I was Shocked! I didn’t know what to say. And the tears of Joy came out of my eyes.
The Watsons go to Birmingham – 1963 is not a book with a happy ending. Kenneth learns that it is necessary to build your future by forgetting about your past. Christopher Paul Curtis Weaves the message of the book through many aspects of the book. In the setting, the Watsons were living in Flint, but they had to go to Alabama for a few days to drop Byron off and a very tragic event happens. Curtis’s characterization of Kenneth and Byron shows the differences between them and also helps to demonstrate the theme throughout the book. The Brown Bomber and Mourning Dove are symbols that show the time period and more about the characters. Exploring a new possibility of Kenneth in my fanfiction piece shows even clearly how if one thing were different, everything would be even more tragic. Not all stories end happily, but it is common in real life. Reading a story like Curtis’s can help us to become more aware of the difficulties that other human being face. This awareness can affect how we treat each other, and the world could be a lot better just because of a story.