The book The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis is an example of literature that, being addressed to the youth, discusses complex issues from the adult world. The story is a first-person account narrated by an intelligent and self-reflective ten-year-old boy, Kenneth, whose comments sometimes seem too mature for his age. In this essay, beliefs about childhood and the theme of growing expressed in Curtis’ book will be discussed, as well as the role of trauma, hope, home as the motives of the narration. After that, a brief critical analysis of the book as an example of counter-storytelling literature will be provided.
The main protagonist of The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 is Kenneth Watson, who, in the beginning, introduces his family and other characters. Everyone plays a special role in the story, and one of its themes is a close connection of the people, their meaning in each other’s lives. The family and home in the book are an expression of the idea of safety and love. Before proceeding to the book’s extraordinary events leading to the culmination, the author describes Watsons’ family life in detail. It provides an atmosphere of serenity, full of care about each other, humor, and happiness. This is the symbol of life, to be challenged as the story proceeds.
In contrast to it, a fantastic character, Wool Pooh, created by Kenneth’s imagination, serves as a virtual antagonist to the idea of life. He, “Winnie’s Evil Twin Brother,” is the embodiment of death, with “nothing but dark gray” in the place of the face, and “nothing but a darker colder-looking color” instead of the eyes (Curtis 117). In this way, the trauma affects the child’s mind, making him face something beyond his youth’s earlier concern. As the Wool Pooh appears the second time, during the bomb destroying the church, he makes Kenneth come closer to the “magic powers,” as he tries to explain what happened (Curtis 135). He cannot find an explanation of the extraordinary things he experienced. It is his brother Byron, a “teenage juvenile delinquent,” who, ultimately, “opens his eyes” and makes him reconnect with “not fair” life (Curtis 135). Byron, thus, represents in the story the ideas of protection and hope. So does Kenneth’s younger sister Joetta, appearing before him in the form of an angel pushing him to swim up once again, when he is supposed to be grabbed by the whirlpool.
All the events in the story, as well as the interplay of the characters-symbols, serve to depict the process of getting mature, experienced by the protagonist. The author believes that the foundation of the future worldview is established in childhood, as the young person experiences traumas but still “keeps on steppin’,” as Byron encourages Kenneth in the book (Curtis 136). This encouragement leads to one more idea, which allows examining Curtis’s story in the context of the counter-storytelling literature.
The genre of counter-storytelling is concerned with the depiction of those communities, classes, and individuals, who are often silenced down in the literature. It is a “method of telling the stories of those people whose experiences are not often told, including people of color” (Hudges-Hussel 212). The book, thus, represents the kind of literature, filling “racial and ethnic achievement gaps in literacy and educational attainment” (Thomas 112). The Watsons are a “Negro” family, though it is not often explicitly appeared in the book. However, this fact starts to be obvious as the family goes to the South. The fact of destroying the church by a bomb could be, among all, interpreted as a terrorist act, in this context.
To summarize, the book by Curtis may be assessed as having high educational potential for the young auditory. The first reason for it is the expression of considerable, complex, and meaningful ideas that help children acquire maturity and understand complicated philosophical problems. The second reason is the expression of the cultural and racial issues, which enables a better understanding of the social aspect of the adult world and, thus, being prepared to be its full-fledged actor.
Curtis, Chistopher Paul. The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963. Delacorte Press, 1995.
Hudges-Hussel, Sandra. “Multicultural Young Adult Literature as a Form of Counter-Storytelling.” Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, vol. 83, no. 3, 2013, pp. 212–228.
Thomas, Ebony Elizabeth. “Stories Still Matter: Rethinking the Role of Diverse Children’s Literature Today.” Language Arts, vol. 94, no. 2, 2016, pp. 112-119.