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Top 100 Children’s Novels #25: The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis

#25 The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis (1995)
65 points

Like Schmidt, Curtis has the ability to make you laugh and cry and think deeply about something, all within a few pages. – Heather Christensen

The character voices are so charming and right on. It sweeps you up in this funny tale of a loving and slightly wacky family – until a tragedy pulls everything out from underneath you. As it should. – Emily Myhr

It was the book that took Christopher Paul Curtis off the assembly line and into libraries.  I once read or saw an interview with him where he discussed this title.  Essentially he said that while authors aren’t supposed to say which of their books is their “favorite” his will always be The Watsons since it changed his life in one fell swoop.  It may surprise some people to see The Watsons coming in well above Bud Not Buddy on this list, but for most people this is the Curtis book that will always be first in their hearts.

The plot description from the publisher reads, “Enter the hilarious world of 10-year-old Kenny and his family, the Weird Watsons of Flint, Michigan. There’s Momma, Dad, little sister Joetta, and brother Byron, who’s 13 and an ‘official juvenile delinquent.’ When Momma and Dad decide it’s time for a visit to Grandma, Dad comes home with the amazing Ultra-Glide, and the Watsons set out on a trip like no other. They’re heading South. They’re going to Birmingham, Alabama, toward one of the darkest moments in America’s history.”

In Funny Business: Conversations With Writers of Comedy by Leonard Marcus we get the true scoop behind this book’s creation.  “After reading several of his letters, Kay Sookram, his Canadian girlfriend and future wife, told Curtis firmly that he should be a writer.  He had begun to think so too.”  Fast forward ten years into the future and, “Curtis’s career took off when an unpublished version of The Watsons took first place in a writing contest and he was offered a contract to publish his novel.”  Nicely done!  Wonder what that writing contest was.

In 1996 it won a Newbery Honor, beaten only by The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman.  It also won a Coretta Scott King Award that year.

By the way, Mr. Curtis has just the loveliest things to say about teachers as part of the publisher’s Teachers Guide online:

“What a thrill the publication of The Watson’s Go to Birmingham–1963 has been for me! I’ve been asked many times what the highlight of this experience has been and I don’t have to think at all before answering. It occurred on February 15, 1996 at a reception given by the Flint Public Library when, to my complete surprise and delight, I was introduced by my third-grade teacher, Ms. Suzanne Henry. It wasn’t the fact that in her introduction she gave me a gold star and told everyone that I was Room C’s “Good Citizen of the Day” that affected me so–it was the surprise I felt on realizing that she had always been such an important and powerful part of my life. I hadn’t seen Ms. Henry for more than 35 years, and I had spent only nine months of my life with her when I was 7 or 8–yet as she told everyone gathered in the library how proud of me she was, I found myself near tears.”

School Library Journal said of it, “Ribald humor, sly sibling digs, and a totally believable child’s view of the world will make this book an instant hit.”

This is a “digital booktalk” of the title for kids.  I’m sort of fond of it, thanks to the all-too-epic soaring music:

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. ChrisinNY says:

    Oh I am so glad this made it! I lobbied hard for my daughter’s 5th grade teacher to allow the students to read this instead of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (which gave my kid nightmares). It is such a good book- entertaining and also a window on another time with different social mores.

  2. Another one of mine.

    A couple years ago I got to hear Christopher Paul Curtis speak. If you ever get the chance run all the red lights needed to get there. His story of getting off the assembly line is riveting. Talking about the cover photographs: that’s his little sister, those are his parents, but he has no idea who the two boys are.

    Curtis can’t write a book I won’t adore. I’d just like to see him try. (Yep, I’m a fan of Deza, unempowered protagonist that she is.)

  3. Genevieve says:

    Hooray! Such a terrific book.
    Another one from my list, and I didn’t expect to see it so high.

  4. This is another of the ones I can’t remember if I voted for or not.