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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
Talking with Christopher Paul Curtis

Talk about the historical context of The Watsons Go to Birmingham -- 1963.

One of the things that I think makes The Watsons Go to Birmingham accessible is the fact that it's not really a story about the civil rights movement. It's also not a story about the '60s, even though those are both aspects of it. Actually, it's a story about family life. And what happens is that readers become attached to the family. They begin to feel as if they're a part of the family. And then when the family moves into the South and we go into the bombing, hopefully they feel some attachment and have sympathy for the person who had to wonder, "Was my child in that church when it was bombed?"

I tried to look at it through the eyes of a 10-year-old boy. I looked at it the way he would see it and at the things that he would relate to in the bombing. Hopefully what happens is maybe the readers then have some interest in learning the historical aspects of what happened, and can use it as a springboard to get into history. And then once they start to talk about it with the teacher or react or get questions from the teacher, they're not so much reciting facts. When I talk to kids about The Watsons Go to Birmingham, I really get the impression that they feel they knew these people and went through the story with them.

I think it's really important that young people today have a better understanding of what happened 30, 40 years ago. They're no different from my generation or the generation before: You always think things that happened before you were born happened a thousand years before. And you don't think that they have any kind of relationship to your life. I know a lot of times in conversations with younger kids about the civil rights movement, they very often think that Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln were contemporaries. And I think that it's important for them to understand what was actually going on and the struggles -- this is one of the things that really amazes me -- the struggles that people in the Southern United States went through to actually go to school: the fights, the fact that people laid their lives on the line, the fact that they would send their children into horrible, horrible situations just for the chance to have that child educated -- and not even so much to have that child educated as to make education possible for the ones to come after them.

What was it like to write the church bombing scene?

It was difficult because I didn't want it to be really, really graphic. The scene was already horrible enough with Kenny not knowing if Joetta was in the church. As a writer, you play things out in different ways. Of course I went through one scenario where Joetta was in the church and was killed, but it made the story way too horrible -- there was no way to bring the story out of that happening. So instead I had to get Joetta out of the church. That's where I use the device of her seeing somebody who she thinks is Kenny across the street and having her run after this person. And it's probably the second-most frequent question I get: "Who is it that Joetta saw?" I tell children that reading is an active process. Just because I wrote the book doesn't mean I have the answers. A lot of times I don't know exactly what happened. I know what I think happened. And what you think happened is legitimate if it makes sense. A lot of times kids will say it's an angel that she saw. I say, "That's fine, it was an angel." Then they ask me what I think it was, and I say, "I think it was the spirit of love of the family that pulled her out of the church."


How do readers respond to this part of the book?

I think there are a lot of times when they don't know what was real and what wasn't real. Readers feel as if they're a part of the story, and if something is happening to you, you're much more interested in it. It's almost a magical experience when you see how children react to a story. When I was writing it, I had no idea that, number one, it would be read, and, number two, it would affect children in the way it does and have them asking questions about the civil rights movement. One of the things people ask is, "Were the men who planted the bomb ever caught?" Children like to have closure to things, and they want justice. It was almost 30 years before the final person was convicted of the crime. That's a shock to them.

What other parts of the book do students ask you about?

The scene that I get the most questions about from kids is the Wool Pooh. And it's magic realism. It's a magical event that's described realistically, and they have a real tough time grasping that. What has happened is that Grandma Sands has told the boys not to go near the water because they'll get pulled down into the whirlpool. She's got a Southern accent; she says, "wool-pooh." And Byron, the older brother, tells Kenny, the younger brother, that she says the "Wool Pooh" is Winnie the Pooh's evil twin brother.

Also, there is the scene where Kenny at first almost drowned and he can't understand, so his mind has brought up this character of the Wool Pooh: Winnie the Pooh's evil twin brother that nobody ever writes about because he's evil. And Kenny imagines this character is pulling him down, drowning him. And then there is the scene where, once he goes to the church, he sees the bombing and the bodies of the little girls. And your mind is wonderful about something. Some of the time it will really protect you. 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.


What do you like to read?

Some of my favorites include Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut, Mark Twain, Ralph Ellison -- absolutely my favorite is Zora Neale Hurston. And then I like an author named Jim Thompson who was kind of a crime writer back in the '50s -- he's one of the funniest writers I've ever run into.

One of the most valuable things that you can get out of reading -- I tell students this all the time -- is that you can actually get a tutorial from a writer. I can go to the library and pick up Beloved by Toni Morrison. I can start to read it. I can read it for enjoyment and then I can go back through and try to understand what it is that she did to make me have the feelings that I did in certain parts of the book -- how she moved the characters around, how she developed the plot and the pacing that she had. All those things are available to you as the reader.

I think it's really valuable for writers -- including student writers -- to do a lot of reading because they'll see a lot of different styles. They'll see some that they don't like and some that aren't accessible to them, but then they'll find something that really grabs them and they can use that kind of as a template for the way that they want to write.

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