Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Watsons Go To Birmingham - 1963

The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963, by Christopher Paul Curtis, has been growing in popularity, not to mention banned book lists, since it was first published in 1995. This book is a great Civil Rights era story. It's the story of Kenny and the Watson family, and their experience living in Flint, Michigan in 1963. They're a fairly normal family, with problems common of the times, and that even parallel our lives today in many ways. Eventually they head off to Birmingham, Alabama, to return to the home of Kenny's mother.

They are in Birmingham when the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing took place on September 15, 1963 that killed four girls and injured many others. The great thing about this book is that it does what textbooks and worksheets can't, it injects emotion, a real story into the civil rights movement, and this means so much to pre-teen and teenage students alike. Pat R. Scales, author of Teaching Banned Books: 12 Guides for Young Readers, said:

Students may learn about the Civil Rights Movement in social studies, but they experience the horror, the fear, and the devastation of this terrible time with the Watson family in The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963. Textbooks omit emotions. Novels don't. Knowing the facts is important, but making an emotional connection is the only way to truly walk in the shoes of others.

So, if you're looking for a great Civil Rights book that will leave a lasting impression on your students, this book is great. If you're interested in knowing why it has been challenged in the past and has ended up on banned book lists, it's basically because the book falls in line with a lot of pre-teen tales. The story is candid, words like 'hell' and 'ass' are said a few times, and the bombing of the church is definitely difficult to read. But shying kids away from stuff like this isn't doing them any favors, censorship in the case of this book is unnecessary and wrong, this book should be read, and I hope that if you're considering a unit on it, to consider it.