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Teaching Multicultural Literature : A Workshop for the Middle Grades
Workshop 1 Workshop 2 Workshop 3 Workshop 4 Workshop 5 Workshop 6 Workshop 7 Workshop 8
Workshop 5: Historical and Cultural Context
Overview
Authors and Literary Works
Christopher Paul Curtis
Biography
Work
Interview
Key References
Video Summary
Teaching Strategies
Commentary
Student Work
Resources
Interactive Workbook -- Explore two poems using strategies from these workshops. Go.
Channel-Talk -- Share your views on the discussion board. Go.


Authors and Literary Works
The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963

In a voice that is by turns comic and then tragic, Kenny, the 10-year-old African American narrator of The Watsons Go to Birmingham -- 1963, tells the story of what happens to his family as they travel from their home in Flint, Michigan to Birmingham, Alabama. It is 1963, and the "weird Watsons" (as the neighbors call them) have had no experience with Southern racism and the Jim Crow laws -- yet they unwittingly find themselves involved in one of the most horrific events in the history of the civil rights movement.

Kenny's older brother Byron is constantly in trouble. He freezes his lips to the car mirror in the winter, lights things on fire, straightens his hair, and fights incessantly with Kenny. When his parents decide Byron needs to live with his famously strict grandmother in Birmingham for a while, the whole family -- the parents, Kenny, Byron, and their younger sister Joetta -- set out in their "Brown Bomber" to drive to Birmingham. Accompanied by the strains of "Yakety-Yak" played relentlessly on their father's "Ultra-Glide" record player, the children innocently enjoy the trip with no inkling of how different race relations in the South are from what they have experienced in their hometown of Flint.

When they arrive in Birmingham, Joetta goes to church one Sunday -- the fateful Sunday on which four little girls are killed in a bombing by racists opposed to desegregation. For a terrifying time, Kenny, searching the church, believes his sister has died. Even after she is found safe and the family returns to Flint, Kenny is not himself. It is not until his brother Byron finds him and asks him why he's acting so strangely that Kenny finally breaks down and talks about what he saw. He asks his brother, "Why would they do that, Byron? Why would they hurt some little kids like that?" When his brother wisely tells him, "I think they just let hate eat them up and turn them into monsters... There ain't nothing wrong with being sad or scared about that," we know that Kenny will be fine.

Curtis says that the question he is asked most often about his book involves the "magic realism" of the scene in the church where Kenny sees the imaginary "Wool Pooh" from earlier in the story rather than the bodies of the little girls. It was a very hard scene to write, Curtis acknowledges, because he didn't want to be too graphic. But in understanding his characters, he realized that Kenny's mind might protect him from seeing things he couldn't handle. "Your mind is wonderful," Curtis says. "It won't let you actually see what you think you've seen. Instead of seeing these little girls, Kenny saw the Wool Pooh, which just became a representation of death to him."

Curtis says that he is asked regularly what the highlight of publishing this, his first novel, has been, and says that he doesn't have to think at all before answering. It was the night of the reception for his book at the Flint Public Library, when his third-grade teacher, Ms. Suzanne Henry, came and surprised him. Says Curtis, "I'm thrilled that this book can be used in the classroom, as teachers have always been such an important and powerful part of my life."

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