The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How a simple story about a road trip became a kids’ classic

Christopher Paul Curtis’s “The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963” incorporates the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, it isn’t just a lesson about the civil rights movement.

(DSH Photography/Penguin Random House)

Christopher Paul Curtis didn’t set out to write a classic kids’ novel 25 years ago. “The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963,” his first book, was originally a simple family road trip story told in the voice of 10-year-old Kenny Watson.

In the first draft, the Watsons were going to Florida, not Birmingham. After reading the poem “The Ballad of Birmingham” by Dudley Randall, Curtis was inspired and changed the setting of the story. As a result, it became something larger: a kid’s perspective on a tragic episode in civil rights history.

Curtis takes the Watsons, a Black family, from their home in Flint, Michigan, to Grandma’s house in Birmingham, Alabama, a city that at the time separated Black and White people. Black people had begun to protest being kept out of “Whites only” restaurants, schools and bus seats. While there, the Watsons live through the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, a real-life racially motivated act that killed four girls. Kenny’s little sister was in the church for Sunday school minutes before the bomb went off, but left before the explosion.

Although the bombing is a central element of the plot, the book was not written solely to educate kids about the civil rights movement.

“When people ask why the book works, it’s because it’s not a civil rights lesson. It’s a family story,” Curtis tells KidsPost.

Teasing between Kenny and his siblings, corny jokes from his dad and occasional nagging from his mother bring the reader into the family’s most normal, yet also intimate, moments — and funny ones too, such as Kenny’s older brother, Byron, getting his lips stuck on a freezing car mirror.

“I think once the family got to Birmingham, anybody who was reading was already captured by the family,” Curtis says.

Although Curtis uses humor and lively descriptions of everyday situations to engage readers, he doesn’t sugarcoat history.

Kenny, who is greatly disturbed by the bombing, finds comfort in a corner behind his couch when he and his family return to Flint. His reaction helps readers understand how kids reacted at the time.

“When I write, I write to myself,” he says. “One of the things kids are good at: They can tell when something is not right,” Curtis explains.

His commitment to being honest with his readers is what made “The Watsons” a best-selling and award-winning story that kids still enjoy today.

But Curtis did not imagine that the themes in the book would be so relevant many years later.

“I don’t think you could ever plan to write something that you intend to be timely, especially not 25 years later,” Curtis says. When “young people can say, ‘I see some parallels here to what’s going on now,’ ” he says, he knows he has done his job right.

More in KidsPost

Best children’s books of 2020 reveal a growing diversity

Girl uses her voice to encourage voting in ‘Loretta Little Looks Back’

Librarians find creative ways to serve kids when buildings are closed for browsing