Christopher Paul Curtis tells us the story of Kenny Watson and his family who travel to Birmingham in the early 60s at the height of the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Their family had been living in Flint, Michigan in peace, i.e. they weren’t bullied because they were black. Why travel to Birmingham, Alabama, then, which wasn’t as friendly to African Americans as Michigan was?
It was all because of Byron, Kenny’s punk ass older brother who was growing up to be quite a juvenile delinquent. The parents figure that Byron needs to be taught a lesson and bring him to the one place where a black kid like him wouldn’t have been able to wield as much power as he did over fellow students (yeah he was a big bully).
You’d think that Byron would be the protagonist here, but he’s just the catalyst for Kenny, and consequently the reader, to understand the issues of that time. Because this was told from Kenny’s point of view as an eleven-year-old, the issue of discrimination is explained simply but not made light of. The author, Curtis, is able to bring to the level of young readers the gravity of the issue without confusing them. Although, I must admit, the chapter about the Wool Pooh monster was a bit difficult for me and my students to initially understand.
In any case, even though the context was American, the issues of discrimination and bullying hit a chord in the students because they’ve all experienced it in some way, but this time they become aware that these things happen on an international level, too, and not just in their homes or classrooms. Along with Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars, The Watsons Go to Birmingham is an excellent text to bring awareness to the students and get them to think critically about the idea of fairness, acceptance, and equality.