The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963 is a wonderfully written story about 9-year old Kenny and his family from Flint, MI. Well, they live in Flint, MI, but his mother is originally from Alabama. And as they endure one of the coldest winters on record, she lets them know it. Told in a refreshing flashback-and-current-day style, we follow the Watsons as they go through their days in 1963 (and earlier). They’re not all that well off, but they have a house and regular food. Ultimately, though, Kenny’s older brother, 13-year old Byron, has made one too many poor decisions. So they’re going to take a trip to see Grandma Sands, who can help set him straight. Also, she lives in Birmingham, Alabama. In the 1960s. And they’re all African American. There’s definitely the sense that this isn’t going to be like Reese Witherspoon going back in Sweet Home Alabama.
This book is written with a style that is at the same time serious and hilarious. Having our narrator only be 9 allows for many dramatic irony moments, sometimes in moments that are dead serious to him and downright uproarious to the reader (in some ways reminiscent to this reader of Huck Finn). There is some good-natured ribbing of Ohio (what Michigander wouldn’t approve of that?), a lips-frozen-to-the-car moment that really doesn’t happen as often as it should (perhaps because of these sorts of warnings), and a lot of other things that a relatively well-behaved 9-year old would say about his relatively poorly-behaved 13-year old brother (not my life: I was 9 and my brother 13 in 1993, not 1963).
Of course, there’s a lot more to the plot than I’ll get into here, but suffice it to say: there’s a lot going on here. There are good reasons it’s a Newbery Honor book and also good reasons why it is an honor book for the Coretta Scott King Award. There is one big reason, though, why this book should have a place in your classroom.
This reason, in my opinion, is its value as a read aloud book. I’m not sure if I would have picked up on this if I read the book, but I happened to listen to the audio book (interestingly enough, driving up I-75 north past Flint while listening to the Watsons drive down I-75 south from Flint [okay, it was interesting to me]). LeVar Burton (!) does a masterful job with the narration. His voices are spot-on, and this just adds to the laughter. It also adds to the emotional parts, and there are plenty of those as well (again, the narrator is 9, and the author is, in case you didn’t know, amazing). This book came alive for me on the road. I know it can do the same in a classroom.
I think this book would appeal to boys and girls alike, especially in read aloud fashion. There are a few minor curses in it, but in a watch-out-this-is-a-curse-word sort of way (lest we have forgotten that the narrator is 9). This book is appropriate for readers (and listeners) around ages 9/10 and up.
And this 27-year old is not ashamed to say that he enjoyed it as much as those 9/10-year olds will. Perhaps even more.