Kenny Watson is a bright 10-year-old African-American boy living in Flint, Michigan in 1963. His father’s family is also from Michigan, but his mother grew up in the much warmer climate of Birmingham, Alabama. Kenny works hard in school, although his lazy eye and “nerdy” demeanor have marked him by the class bullies. His 13-year-old brother, Byron, is the family’s “official juvenile delinquent”, and he and his friends sometimes pick on Kenny, too. Their little sister, Joetta (“Joey”), is a sweet, sensitive, and very gullible 5-year-old.When Byron’s delinquent activities increase and he begins to skip school, their parents decide that he needs to live with his much stricter Grandma Sands in Alabama. They plan the three-day drive carefully in order to avoid any segregated and dangerous stops. When they arrive in Birmingham, the prospect of extended time with Grandma Sands seems to suddenly and surprisingly improve Byron’s behavior; he even rescues Kenny from a dangerous whirlpool.A few days after their arrival in Birmingham, Joey attends church with some neighbors. Kenny, who is still recovering from his near death experience in the whirlpool, dozes in the heat under his grandmother’s magnolia tree. Suddenly, a loud noise jolts him into consciousness. His mother’s scream confirms the family’s worst fears; the church Joey attended had been bombed. Kenny and his family run into town. Amid the rubble and chaos, Kenny unearths a small, black-patent leather shoe—identical to the one Joey was wearing when she left the house that morning. Stunned, Kenny returns to his grandmother’s home alone. When Joey suddenly appears in his bedroom doorway, Kenny is convinced that she is a ghost “making her last rounds.” Only Joey’s persistent questions and cries, and the queries of Grandma Sands, convince him otherwise.
When the family returns to Flint, they are haunted by the experience. Kenny seems especially distraught—spending days behind the couch, speaking to no one, eating little. In fashion uncharacteristic with his earlier self, Byron gently coaxes Kenny back into life. This last scene between the brothers is both emotionally gripping and psychologically insightful.
The Watsons go to Birmingham, 1963 provides many opportunities for discussions of the virtues. The sibling relationships and friendships in this story led to excellent discussions on Charity, particularly phileo and agape. Joey, in particular, is protective of her brothers to the point of self-sacrifice. We focused on Temperance and Prudence when we talked about Byron’s delinquent behaviors that led to their trip to Alabama. We asked the students to think about whether “kids these days” seem to get in to more trouble than they did in the past, reminding them that Byron’s teenage antics were considered illegal in the 1960s.
There were also many opportunities to discuss Justice in terms of both the punishments that Byron received for his behavior, but also in relation to the violence and racial tension present in 1963 Alabama. The book even concludes with Byron telling Kenny that life isn’t fair. Our discussions about the civil rights movement led us to explore Fortitude, Hope, and Faith. We discussed the leaders of the civil rights movement, and the characteristics that made them such strong leaders. As a service project, our students created a timeline of major events in the Civil Rights Movement and presented their posters to a group of younger students.
This book was perfect for light readers, and was easily completed in one 12-week session.