Author Christopher Paul Curtis Joins Us, With a Few Words About THE WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM-1963
Whenever I talk about Christopher Paul Curtis’ THE WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM-1963 I always make sure to say 1963. Why, you ask, because the incident that happened in 1963 and became a part of this remarkable novel is a part of our history that should never be forgotten. This Fall we will recognize the 50th Anniversary of the tragic church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, a significant turning point in our nation’s struggle for civil rights. This book is a book to be shared with children and families, and communities.
If you haven’t read it yet, I recommend you do, and lucky for all of us THE WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM-1963 has been made into a movie that will premier on The Hallmark Channel in September.
Today Christopher Paul Curtis joins us to share a bit of the history and inspiration for his book.
September 15, 2013, is the 50th anniversary of the bombing of the 11th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, the event that inspired The Watsons Go To Birmingham-1963.
When I wrote this book I lived in Windsor, Ontario , where I was desperately searching for a job. This was the first time since I was sixteen years old that I had been unemployed. Between occasional jobs and the search for work I found refuge at the public library, where I’d read and wait and hope. I also tried to write.
I began telling the story of a family’s road trip to visit their grandmother in the southern United States. The book was called The Watsons Go To Florida-1963. Yes, to Florida. As you can imagine, once they got to Florida the story pretty much ended. I knew there was more. So I waited .
When I rediscovered a poem by the Detroit writer Dudley Randall called “Ballad of Birmingham,” which relates a day in the life of a little girl on her way to the 16th Street Baptist Church, I knew the Watsons needed to go to Birmingham. I had such vivid memories of the time surrounding the bombing. I was ten years old, and after watching the newscast with my parents, I was stunned to see both of them cry. I knew then just how momentous an occurrence this act of terrorism was. Looking back, we can see that the bombing was a key turning point in the long struggle for civil rights .When Robert Chambliss, Bobby Frank Cherry, Herman Cash, and Thomas E. Blanton, Jr. conspired to plant that bomb in the church, their cowardice and savagery galvanized galvanized and awakened the American public in a way that nothing else had. This crime offended something deep in the American spirit and helped lead the civil rights movement to achieve real change in our legal system, and in many people’s minds.
Fifty years later, we have an obligation to remember and honor Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, and those who were injured that day, by understanding that though we have come far, we still have a long way to go.
The Watsons Go To Birmingham-1963 has had a bigger impact than I could ever have imagined when I sat in the Windsor library and first heard Kenny Watson’s voice in my head. Since its publication in 1995, millions of children have enjoyed it, and now a new generation is reading it. It has been used for city wide reads and as a tool to help communities address racism. I am very grateful that so many teachers have been able to use the book to introduce their students to a tragic but essential part of American history.
I am honored by the role my book has played, and hopeful that Kenny’s story about his family will help children understand the terrible power of racism, the courage of those who fought for civil rights and the price they paid, and why each of us must help to bring about positive change and equality. The struggle continues, and much remains to be done until the day is here when all people are truly free.**
Christopher Paul Curtis
Many thanks to Christopher Paul Curtis for this post, and for all of your wonderful books!
Thank you to all of our readers for joining us today and please share your thoughts in our comments section.
**This letter is included in the latest edition of The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963, available in bookstores on Aug 6th.