'Birmingham': A Family Tale In The Civil Rights Era
Welcome to the fourth installment of NPR's Backseat Book Club, where we select a book for young readers — and invite them to read along with us and share their thoughts and questions with the author.
Our selection for January — The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis — describes the civil rights era from the perspective of a young (and extremely mischievous) boy and his family.
When young Byron Watson becomes too much to handle, his family decides to send him from Flint, Mich. to his legendarily tough Grandma Sands in Birmingham, Ala. — that incendiary year of 1963 when tensions over school desegregation were roiling.
Daphne Kunin from Lancaster, Pa. wanted to know if Curtis based any of the scenes from the book on his own life — like the episode with the "Nazi flame thrower of death" — when Byron lights toilet paper parachutes on fire over the toilet and flushes them away.
Curtis says that the particular scene is actually the most autobiographical moment in the book.
"It was based on me," says Curtis tells NPR's Michele Norris. "I just threw matches in the toilet. I liked the sound they made when they hit the water." When Curtis tried to get away with burning the matches by locking the bathroom door, his mother kicked the door down and lifted him in the air by the collar, much as it happens in the book.
"I remember thinking, I never would have done it if I knew she was this strong!" Curtis says.
The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 is the first Backseat Book Club selection in which the main character himself actually spends quite a bit of time in the backseat of the family's car. That car was based on Curtis' own family car: a beloved but battered Plymouth. The paint had long stripped away, exposing the brown primer underneath. Curtis' father called it the "Brown Bomber" after Joe Louis.
"It was an important thing to have a car – it gave you the mobility. And we loved being in the car with Dad." Even though there were only two radio stations in Flint that they could listen to, Curtis says, "The car was a great place to be."
As an adult, Curtis worked on a factory line building cars for thirteen years. His job was to "hang doors," that is, attach the doors to the cars. These doors weighed anywhere from 50 to 80 pounds, and each worker "hung" 300 of them a day, in a ten-hour shift.
"It was almost like a ballet," Curtis says. "Each step had to be done correctly, where you placed your feet, and it took a while to learn how to do it."
It was during his time at the factory that Curtis began to write. He and a friend decided that they would take turns hanging 30 doors in a row. That gave each of them half an hour out of every hour to do whatever they wanted.
"I found out that if I sat down and started to write, I forgot about being in the factory," Curtis says. "And I think that led to me being a writer."
Curtis left the factory for a year to follow his dream of writing. He put himself to work, writing the Watsons' story for five hours a day at his local library.
The book went on to win the prestigious Newbury Honor. Our readers connected deeply with the story; they were delighted by the humor and moved by its evocation of the struggles of civil rights movement — and especially the church bombing that killed four African American girls.
Brothers Sebastian and Martin Parra from Nashville, Tenn. asked about whether the bombing affected Curtis when he was a child.
It affected him profoundly, Curtis says. He was ten-years-old when it happened. His parents were very strict (he had 6:30 pm every night), but sometimes he and his sister would sneak downstairs and secretly watch television, hiding behind the couch on which his parents were sitting. When the news revealed that the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham had been firebombed by members of the Ku Klux Klan, it was a moment that stuck with Curtis.
"I'd never seen my parents cry before ... It was a very, very traumatic time," he says.
But it was also a heroic time. Curtis describes those who fought bravely for African American civil rights as "true American heroes ... They are the people who believe that as long as one person is being treated unfairly, we all are. These are our heroes. And they still walk among us today. One of them may be sitting next to you as you read this or standing in the next room making your dinner or waiting for you to come out to play. One of them may be you."
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block. Each month, we invite our listeners sitting in the backseat of their parents' car or at the kitchen table to join our Backseat Book Club. This month's pick is "The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963." NPR's Michele Norris asked the author, Christopher Paul Curtis, to set up the story for us.
CHRISTOPHER PAUL CURTIS: It's a family from Flint, Michigan, who has a 13-year-old semi-juvenile delinquent son named Byron, who is becoming increasingly bad. And so the parents decide to send him to Grandma Sands in Birmingham, Alabama, who has a reputation for being very tough.
MICHELE NORRIS, HOST:
The Watsons are an African-American family. Byron's younger brother, Kenny, is the comical narrator of the story. The all-important family road trip is central to this tale. And the family's venture to Birmingham is rich in vivid detail, from the songs the kids enjoy in the car...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YAKETY YAK")
THE COASTERS: (Singing) Take out the papers and the trash or you don't get no spending cash.
NORRIS: ...to their parents' mushy ballads.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Do I want to be with you? Has the years...
NORRIS: The year is 1963. The destination, Birmingham, on the eve of violence in the city that would shake a nation's conscience. But the story is anchored by love and humor. And as usual, our Backseat Book Club members had lots of comments and questions for the author.
DAPHNE KUNIN: Hi. My name is Daphne Kunin. I live in Lancaster, Pa. Did you base any of the stories on your life, like the Nazi flamethrower of death? Thank you. I really enjoyed your book. Bye.
CURTIS: Well, it's interesting you asked that. The "Nazi Parachutes," that's chapter five. I know it well. And it's the most autobiographical thing that happened in the book, and it's where Byron lights toilet paper parachutes over the toilet and flushes them away. It was based on me. I just threw matches in the toilet. I liked the sound they made when they hit the water. And I was lighting and flushing. And my mother came in and - much as it happened in the story - threatened to burn me if I did it again.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CURTIS: And I said, I'll never do it again, Mama, and I smartened up. Next time I did it, I locked the bathroom door.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CURTIS: She came in. She grabbed me by the collar. She kicked the door down. I can remember this very clearly. I was amazed that she had that power in her legs. And she came in. She grabbed me by the collar and lifted me with one hand. And as I was dangling there, I can remember thinking, I never would have done it if I knew she was this strong.
NORRIS: The title of that chapter is "Nazi Parachutes Attack America and Get Shot Down over the Flint River by Captain Byron Watson and His Flamethrower of Death."
CURTIS: And his flamethrower of death. Yup.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
NORRIS: This is the first Backseat Book Club where the main character in the book actually spends some time in the backseat of the family's car - actually, quite a bit of time. And I want to talk a little bit about that journey and what it meant for you to place him in the backseat of a car and in a very particular car, the Brown Bomber, the father and the family really takes meticulous care of.
CURTIS: That's right. It's a 1948 Plymouth, and it was based on a car that we had as children. The car was not painted brown, but all the paint had come off of the car, and it was in brown primer. So my father called it the Brown Bomber after Joe Louis. It was a wonderful time. We listened to the music. We didn't have an ultra-glide, of course. We just had the radio with two stations in Flint. So it was rather limited that way. But the car was a great place to be.
NORRIS: And the ultra-glide, that crazy contraption where people were actually playing record albums inside a moving vehicle.
CURTIS: Absolutely insane. It made the eight-track look like a good idea. It was the size of a suitcase, and it was a really bad idea because every time we turned a corner or hit a bump, the needle would jump and scratch the record.
NORRIS: No, there wasn't much gliding. It was like the needle bouncing across...
CURTIS: No. It was the...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CURTIS: It was more like the...
NORRIS: ...the record album.
CURTIS: ...the ultra-scratch.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
NORRIS: Ow. It hurts my ears just think about that.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
NORRIS: Did you decide to set much of this book inside a car not just because of your father's love for his own Brown Bomber but because of your relationship with cars? You spent a lot of time working on a factory line, building cars.
CURTIS: I kind of fell into being an author. I really disliked the factory. I disliked it tremendously and...
NORRIS: What were you doing? You were attaching...
CURTIS: I was...
NORRIS: ...doors to cars, right?
CURTIS: I was hanging doors, they called it. I was a - it was a very physical job. The doors weighed anywhere from 50 to 80 pounds. Each person would do 300 of them a day in a 10-hour shift. It was almost like a ballet the way you had to have each step - each step had to be done correctly, where you placed your feet, you know, and it took a while to learn how to do it. But it was in there that my friend and I decided - the guy - Doug Tenet(ph) is his name. And we decided that instead of doing every other job, he'd do 30 in a row, and I'd do 30 in a row.
And that gave us each a half hour out of every hour to sit down and do whatever we wanted to do. And then, I found out that if I sat down and started to write, I forgot about being in the factory. And I think that led to me being a writer.
NORRIS: Stolen moments. Eventually, Curtis left the factory for a year to follow his dream of writing. He put himself to work five hours a day at his local library, scrawling out "The Watsons" story in longhand. The book went on to win the prestigious Newbury Honor. The book's humor delighted our readers, and many were also moved by the civil rights struggles and the church bombing that killed four little girls. Brothers Sebastian and Martin Parra from Nashville asked about that tumultuous period.
SEBASTIAN PARRA: Mr. Curtis, did the bombing affect you as a kid?
MARTIN PARRA: And were you exposed to such radical behavior?
CURTIS: Sebastian and Martin, the bombing did affect me as a kid. I was 10 years old when it happened. And the reason it stuck in my mind, my parents were very, very strict. And I know you think your parents are strict. We used to go to bed at 6:30 every night. And my sister and I would, some of the time, sneak back up and sit behind the couch and watch television while my parents were watching it. And I can remember in 1963, September 15th, when the bombing took place, watching on television, and the reason it impacted me so much was because I'd never seen my parents cry before. And it was a very, very traumatic time when these four little girls were killed because they wanted to end segregation. So it did have an impact on my life.
NORRIS: Christopher Paul Curtis, he's the author of "The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963." Thanks so much for being with us.
CURTIS: My pleasure. Thank you very much, Michele. I appreciate it.
NORRIS: For February, NPR's Backseat Book Club is doing double duty, reading two books. "Shooting Kabul" by N.H. Senzai, it's the story of an 11-year-old and his family's journey from Afghanistan to San Francisco, and it's also about a photo contest that changes his view of the world. We're pairing that current tale about otherness with a classic about bullies and bystanders: "The Hundred Dresses" by Eleanor Estes. Read one or both, think about how they're similar and different, then send your questions to email@example.com. Or to find out more about a photo assignment for you, come to npr.org/backseat. I'm Michele Norris. Happy reading. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.