I think books have an infinite range of functions. I hate to be general to the point of uselessness, but they can entertain, teach, challenge firmly-rooted ideals, encourage self-reflection, open up new cultures and experiences. The list goes on. I think the best stories are ones that do several of these at once rather than just one. Stories that are pure entertainment are usually mindless to the point of embarrassment. Stories that are purely about instruction are boring and terrible to wade through. Even when I agree with the subject matter being taught, I hate books that are so focused on forcing the message that they don’t actually contain an interesting and engaging story. Christopher Paul Curtis’s The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963 (Random House, $6.99) is the perfect combination.
Kenny, aged 10, narrates the story of growing up in Flint, Michigan. He’s struggling to grow up, but is honest about his weaknesses. He can be naive, he isn’t always a good friend or a good brother, and, although he hates to admit it, he cries a lot. He’s also smart, observant, and rather witty: “It’s times like this when someone is talking to you like you are a grown-up that you have to be careful not to pick your nose or dig your drawers out of your butt”. Basically, he’s a 10 year old kid.
Kenny is an objective narrator. He provides just enough information about his family, his schoolmates, and his town to paint a vivid picture, but doesn’t over explain and ruin the chance for readers to figure things out for themselves. Class is an issue in this book, but Kenny never overtly labels any other character. Instead he notices what his classmates do or do not have, mentions kids forgetting their lunch, or lists the number of shirts and pants someone wears. It’s up to the reader to understand, for example, that Rufus’s family doesn’t have enough food to send school lunches, or the real reason Larry, the bully, steals Kenny’s gloves.
I like that. Writers such as Curtis clearly respect child readers, because they provide all the pieces, but let the readers put them together for themselves.
Although most of the first three-quarters of the book are humorous anecdotes about the “Weird Watsons”, the “go to Birmingham” part of the title hovered like a shadow and provoked not a small amount of anxiety. Also, the book is dedicated “In memory of Addie Mae Collins (born 4/18/49, died 9/15/63), Denise McNair (born 11/17/51, died 9/15/63), Carol Robertson (born 4/24/49, died 9/15/63), and Cynthia Wesley (born 4/30/49, died 9/15/63) the toll for one day in one city”. That anxiety proved not to be misplaced and there is a church bombing at the end of the book. I thought Curtis handled these final chapters extremely well. There is enough description to convey the horror of the bombings that occurred in Birmingham, but nothing in this book felt too much for a 9-12 to handle. Also, *spoiler alert* the scenes of Kenny’s post-trauma reactions were far more poignant and effective than having Joetta die would have been. Curtis follows up with an epilogue and in his discussion of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing on September 15, 1963, he rightly notes that, “Although these may be nothing more that names in a book to you now, you must remember that these children were just as precious to their families as Joetta was to the Watsons or as your brothers and sisters are to you”. The ache of worrying about Joetta, followed by the thrill of learning that she survived, makes the historical reality of Addie, Denise, Carol, and Cynthia’s deaths even more heartbreaking.
Both the novel and the epilogue end positively, but with a call to action. Overall the book is a reminder of all the best qualities of children’s literature. A great read for any day of the year.