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The Reading Quilt: Christopher Paul Curtis and the African American family

This month's recommendation: a book that explores the violence-filled year of 1963 through the eyes of one family.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Each month, The Reading Quilt provides a short review of a book that teachers may use to spark conversations about culture and race. In addition, it includes a learning activity that may help students understand the complexity of the human experience. We examine the book using the acronym QUILT as a framework: Quality of writing, Universal theme, Imaginative plot, mini Lesson plan, and Talking points.

Family is an integral part of the African American culture often celebrated in pop-culture TV shows such as Everybody Hates Chris, black-ish, and Soul Food. These shows depict the strong African American mother who is eclipsed by the stronger African American grandmother, both flanked by supportive husbands, precocious children, and nosy aunts and uncles. The African American family, depicted in the media in myriad ways, is iconic. The importance of family has a long history and it is central to the theme of this month’s book selection.

Christopher Paul Curtis

Christopher Paul Curtis’ book The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 is a favorite choice in school libraries and bookstores across the country. When Curtis was born on May 10, 1953, in Flint, Michigan, his father was a podiatrist and his mother was a teacher in Flint, Michigan. He is the oldest of five siblings. Several of Curtis’ narratives have featured Flint, which is 66 miles northwest of Detroit. This put Flint in the minds of many young readers, but the city is now on our minds for other reasons, such as its water crisis. And, unfortunately, that is just one of the many tragedies the city’s residents have endured. Flint was an automobile manufacturing powerhouse that fell to ruins in the ’80s. Government officials called a state of financial emergency in 2002.

At age 19, Curtis graduated from Flint Southwestern High School and enrolled in the University of Michigan-Flint. Hoping to fund his college education and secure his future, he landed a job at Fisher Body Plant No. 1, established in 1908. His hard work as a blue-collar factory worker did not overshadow his intellectual abilities. He spent a lot of time at the plant reading and writing on his breaks. Curtis, who lives in Detroit, continues to write books for young readers.

Quality: In his book, The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 (Yearling), Paul introduces his readers to the Watson family. A classic tale of family values, the book was named a 1996 Newbery Honor Book. The novel also got the Golden Kite Award from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, for which more than 1,000 selections are submitted for review. Finally, the book received an Author Honor in the Coretta Scott King Award competition, “given annually to outstanding African American authors and illustrators of books for children and young adults that demonstrate an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values.”

Universal theme: The theme of family is poignant in this novel. The family members in the story love each other, but erupt in crazy arguments every other day. They show a bond that cannot be broken, despite it being tested.

Imaginative plot: The book opens with Byron Watson, a spitfire of a boy who often misuses his “smarts” in dumb ways. Freezing his lips to the mirror of the family’s new wheels is just one example. His younger brother Kenny is witness to the foolishness that Byron spins on a daily basis. But one day, Mr. and Mrs. Watson decide that Byron has broken the proverbial camel’s back, and they vow to take him to his grandmother, who lives in Flint. It is during the family’s travels to Flint that they find themselves in the midst of a historical tragedy: the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.

Lesson plan: The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing was the hateful act of white supremacists that killed four girls, ages 11 to 14. The book can accompany a lesson about the bombing of the church. The lesson may center around the lives of the four girls. Who were Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair?

Talking points: The novel offers the human experience behind the violence that plagued 1963, known as the “defining year of the civil rights movement.” The book includes historical elements that could spark a lively discussion:

  1. What is white supremacy? What was the message of white supremacy? Who were the key leaders who stood up against messages of hate?
  2. Why was the family’s car, the “Brown Bomber,” such an iconic image and an important one to include in the story?
  3. What are the Watson family’s values? And how do the family’s values reflect the civil rights movement?

Rachel Slaughter, a doctoral candidate at Widener University, is working on her dissertation about multicultural literacy. The books she has written include one for fathers and sons that provides fun activities to promote reading: “Daddy, REAd to Me (DREAM): The Virtual Trophy Abecedarium and Journal for Fathers and Sons.” To contact her, email For other multicultural literary suggestions, follow her on Google Plus or go to

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