The self-proclaimed “Weird Watsons” are Kenny, Byron, and Joetta, along with their mom and dad. They are all just busy living life in Flint, Michigan in the 1960s. They have school issues, work issues, and behavior issues just like any other family. When Byron, the oldest brother, begins to make some seriously bad choices, their parents decide it is time for him to spend a few months with their grandmother in Birmingham, Alabama. Unfortunately during that time, a church is bombed by racist segregationists, which deeply affects the Watson family and changes their lives and view of the world forever.
Christopher Paul Curtis takes a very dark and sad time in our nation’s history and presents it on a palatable 5th grade level. He concludes the story with a summary of facts about the civil rights movement and the heroes who gave their lives during this time. Winner of the Coretta Scott King Award and a Newbery Honor Book, it is very easy to see why this book is such an important and effective piece of literature. This tight-knit family experiences small doses of racism in Michigan, and Curtis thoroughly communicates the differences in Northern and Southern culture during this time.
One of my favorite quotes (by whom, I wish I knew) is that a good writer notices things that other people don’t notice. Curtis brings to light several characteristics of daily life by black Americans during this tumultuous time period. One was that the Watsons had to plan out every single rest and refueling stop for the journey from Michigan to Alabama. They knew they would have to take great care in where they stopped and tried to rent motel rooms or purchase food, because many Southern cities simply refused service to African Americans. We travel a bit, and I can’t imagine setting out for a far away destination without the knowledge that we can stop anywhere we want to for gas or supplies. Another was the way Curtis pointed out that black people and white people could be pretty much just as ignorant about one another during this time, simply because they did not associate with anyone of the opposite race. Byron and Kenny were terrified during one rest stop because they were afraid the rednecks would catch them, hang them, and eat them for dinner. There were some very ugly things that happened in Southern states during the civil rights movement, but it would be unfair to say that all white southerners were hostile.
My only criticism of this work is that it was too brief, too light, with coverage too superficial for such atrocities in American history. I would love for Curtis to have delved more deeply into the issues of this time and how the Watsons were affected by them. But then again, that wouldn’t be a children’s book, now would it?