This year marks the 25th anniversary of author Christopher Paul Curtis’s Newbery and Coretta Scott King Honor-winning novel The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, about a Black family’s road trip to the South during a crucial moment in the civil rights movement. Today, Random House is releasing a special edition of the book, featuring a new foreword and afterword from Curtis, and essays and tributes by authors Kate DiCamillo, Varian Johnson, and Jacqueline Woodson. In honor of the milestone, we asked Curtis and his editor Wendy Lamb to interview each other about their work together and the enduring relevance of the Watsons’ story.
Wendy Lamb: Happy anniversary, Christopher! The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 is now 25 years old. Generations of children and their teachers, librarians, and parents have read it. How are you celebrating?
Christopher Paul Curtis: Congrats back at you. Can you believe it, Wendy? I think I’ll celebrate by wondering where a quarter of a century went. It’s almost surreal to think that the book came out that long ago. And it all started with the Delacorte Press First Young Adult Novel Contest you ran back then. What made the book stand out in the pile of manuscripts?
Lamb: Initially, the title stood out—I thought, this author is ambitious, writing about a dark moment in our history. I set it aside for a real look. A month later I began to read, and kept thinking, “This is so funny—no one’s going to die, are they?” Then came the shock of Kenny’s second glimpse of Buster Brown in Joey’s shoe. I had to stop reading. And I thought, “Look what this writer did with a shoe! Who is this guy?”
Curtis: In your wildest imaginings did you think there’d actually be a 25th-anniversary edition?
Lamb: I didn’t think of that, literally, but I want every book to last forever!
Curtis: I often think about the difference the book made in my life. What effect do you believe it had on yours?
Lamb: First, you and I became friends. Then it changed my career path. I was a part-time freelancer then; you, and your book, made me more visible as an editor.
Working on The Watsons, and its reception, was a thrill. And that gave me a standard for a book’s quality, and its success, which I kept trying to meet with every book, even though I knew that goal was unrealistic.
A question: you made some small changes to the text for this edition. Why did you do that?
Curtis: As I mention in my new afterword, at school presentations kids ask the same questions over and over, and you learn to have go-to answers. When asked if I’d change anything in the book, I’ve always said, rather pompously, “Nothing. A novel is much like a snapshot of a particular time—it reflects the author’s frame of mind at a certain moment. I believe that must be respected.”
I bought that nonsense until one day when I was presenting to an auditorium of fifth graders. I’ve always read the opening chapter, where Byron gets his lips stuck to a frozen mirror. I started, and a student waved her arm. I could tell that she loved reading—a real bookworm. I said, “Yes?”
She said, “Mr. Curtis, could you please, please, please read chapter six instead?”
“Sure,” I said. “Why not?” I turned to page 75 and began. I hadn’t read this chapter aloud before and found myself fumbling through it. But when I looked up, the fifth graders’ widened eyes were locked on me. Some were actually sitting on the edges of their seats.
Wow! I thought. I’m knocking this baby right out of the park! I kept reading. It wasn’t until I was on page 82 that I realized this pack of 10-year-old clowns had set me up. And the ringleader was little Miss Bookworm!
I read Kenny saying, “ ‘So, By, how about you and me doing a little cussing?’ He twisted up his face and said, ‘I thought I told your jive little...’ ”
I froze. I looked up. Their eyes were locked on me.
I went back to the book: yup, there it was, that three-letter word that starts with “a.” My lips opened and shut. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t read the word aloud to these fifth graders. My eyes went to Miss Bookworm.
“It’s okay,” she said. “Go ahead and read it. We already know what the word is.”
My thoughts went to the teachers I’d put in the same situation, where they have to decide how to handle the few examples of profanity in The Watsons. Even though teachers are grossly overpaid, work short hours, get the whole summer off, and constantly bask in the love, respect, and admiration of their students and their students’ parents, they didn’t deserve this.
Lamb: Okay, okay, this phone call is becoming more like your writing: way too many words. Get to the point. What did you do??
Curtis: As I stammered in front of those kids, I thought, “Man, if I could go back and rewrite this, I’d do it in a heartbeat.” When you told me about plans for the 25th-anniversary edition, I jumped at the opportunity to make some small changes. It’s not often that life doles out second chances.
Over the past 25 years, now and then the few “bad words” in The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 have been used as an excuse to, in effect, ban the book and stamp it “Unsuitable for young readers.” That’s something neither one of us wants.
Walter Dean Myers is also partially responsible for my changes. Soon after the book was published, he told me that writers, particularly African American writers, have a responsibility to get our books into the hands of as many children as we possibly can; that if we provide accurate, interesting reflections of their lives, it will serve as a nudge to get them into reading. And if they can master reading, their lives will be markedly better. Walter’s words made me much more conscientious about how young people receive what I’ve written; I want more youngsters to read my books, smile, and nod in recognition. I want the book to be something that lets them know, “You’re not the only one who has felt this way; others of us have gone through the same things.”
Curtis: Wendy, is there anything you would change?
When I reread it for this new edition, I was struck by Kenny and Dad’s talk in the car—so much is compressed into this child’s-eye glimpse of how parents struggle to raise their children, to protect them. Where did that come from?
Curtis: Those scenes were very autobiographical. I remember many discussions in the car with my father. I think he opened up there because the times he’d take me to the store with him were some of the few times we were alone. It seemed as though he was more relaxed. He told me about going for rides with his father, and now I tell my son Libaan the same thing. The only differences are that in the 1930s, the method of transportation was the Packard Grampa drove as a chauffeur, while in the early ’60s Dad and I were in a fire-engine-red Ford Falcon station wagon, and today Libaan and I hit the streets in a Honda Odyssey van. If given a choice, I’d take the Packard.
Lamb: The original cover used two Curtis family snapshots. I love the one with your parents—it looks like your dad is kidding your mom. I see where you get that from! How did you feel when you reread the book?
Curtis: I dreaded doing it. Rereading means being tormented by words and phrases that should be changed, whole stretches that should be eliminated, and there’s always a character who should have exited much earlier. But once I got into it, I had a good time. I remembered something my father told me in one of our rides. I’d asked him, “Dad, you’re real smart, you love reading boring books, you love arguing with people. How come you didn’t become a lawyer?”
He said, “What you see now is the result of many years of reading and living and learning. I am not the person I was when I was young enough to go to school. I hope I’m much wiser.”
I felt the same way after reading The Watsons again; I understand that this book is not the same book I sent in to the contest. It had the good fortune to find a great and supportive editorial team. It grew.
I’m glad I’ll never have to reread the manuscript I delivered to you.
Lamb: But your manuscript was in good shape. The editing process was fairly smooth. Ha, you may remember it differently.
Curtis: It was all new to me. I remember my biggest shock was the first time I came to NYC and your office was crammed with manuscripts from other authors. I was crushed. I thought you were my personal editor. But the whole process intrigued me.
Lamb: Do you see any changes in the reaction of young people who read the book today? Have their questions changed, or their awareness of history and current events?
Curtis: Not really. Young readers approach these stories with a sense of innocence that is unlikely to be affected by current events.
Over 20-some years, I hope my presentations have evolved to reflect what I’ve learned from talking to students. I’m always tweaking my presentations to accomplish at least four things:
- If I don’t have their ears, then I can’t reach their minds; therefore the presentation must be entertaining, and for this age group, that means funny. When I was a teenager, my best friend told me, “If I can get the girls laughing, they’re mine!” The same is true when speaking to any audience. Humor immediately draws people together.
- I want them to engage with what is involved in writing and how liberating and fun it can be to carry a character through a book.
- I want them to see me for who I am, an African American male writer who has done something better than win the lotto. I make a living doing a job I want to do, something I love. I want students of all races to look at me and see what a fulfilled dream can look like.
- And finally, I want to pique their curiosity. I want them to read one of my books and then take the next step and read a history book about the subject.
Lamb: How did it make you feel to read the tributes?
Curtis: Oh, Ms. Lamb, they were wrenching and uplifting. Reading them came just when I needed it. I’m one of those people who needs a pat on the back every once in a while, and these collective pats were right on time.
I first read them in my latest writing spot here in Windsor, at a Tim Hortons. I write there because it used to be the only place that was open 24 hours. After reading the tributes from librarians, and the exceptional list of authors, I was bawling my eyes out. (Not that it hasn’t happened before—I’m afraid that at Tim Hortons I’m known as the guy who is either sobbing or laughing uncontrollably.)
Lamb: How did the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests this year affect how you see the book?
Curtis: They didn’t really change my perspective in relation to the book, as none of this was a secret. The way the press started paying so much attention to everything was a pleasant surprise. The sad thing is there are so many examples of violence against people of color to choose from. The one that has haunted me the most is Elijah McClain. He was the 120-pound pacifist violinist who was stopped and eventually killed by three policemen in Colorado. I felt something beyond the horror of what has been happening for centuries to so many unarmed black people; I didn’t understand why this young man’s murder hurt me the most until just now.
Elijah was slight, he was kind, and his dying words were awash with the amazement he felt that he couldn’t make these police officers understand who he was. Looking at his pictures, I knew he was a gentle soul who’d probably faced years of being told how weird or weak or soft he was. Having firsthand knowledge of how cruel children can be to one another, I can see what an easy target he’d be for mistreatment. He must have constantly felt out of place and was reminded of that by a barrage of unkind words, mocking laughs, and physical assaults. But in the photos available, Elijah’s tender smile endures.
I imagine when it came to dealing with the police, Elijah probably went through his life with the same dangerously delusional thoughts that I, and so many other African Americans, have. We’ve assured ourselves if we are only given a chance to explain, we’ll be able to make these policemen see we’re no threat, that they’ve mistakenly picked on the wrong person. Both Elijah and George Floyd expressed this in their last words.
But the truth is that once someone like Elijah or George Floyd has drawn the police’s attention, they are no longer seen as fully developed human beings; they became Black males. Suspects. Probable perpetrators.
These bad officers don’t see a factory worker, a doctor, an actor, a farm laborer, a lawyer, an author, or even a thirsty young man who simply wanted some iced tea. They see only a Black male and all of the negative baggage society has attached to those words.
I saw one of the reasons I’d felt so completely broken down when I heard about this particular young man. I realized that, in describing Elijah McClain, I was really describing Kenneth Bernard Watson from The Watsons. When I look at Elijah’s picture in the plaid shirt with the huge glasses, I know that photograph could have easily been the cover of the book.
Young readers ask me: “What happened to Kenny when he grew up?” Until today, my pat answer has been, “Even though I wrote the book, I don’t know everything about Kenny. There are no right or wrong answers to your question. As the reader, your interpretations and imaginings are just as legitimate as mine.”
But from now on, when asked what happened to Kenny, I’ll say something along the lines of, “He grew to be a quiet man whose motto may have been ‘live and let live.’ He grew into a young man who would have spent his spare time playing violin in an animal shelter trying to soothe abandoned cats and dogs. And like so many young men of color, he grew into someone who needed to be constantly leery during interactions with the police.”
I’ll say Kenny grew up to be someone who, if stopped by the police, would have told them the same thing Elijah said in his last words, words recorded on an officer’s body cam: “My name’s Elijah McClain! Ask me what I was doing? I was just going home! I’m an introvert, and I’m different…. I’m just different. I’m just different! That’s all! That’s all I was doing! I’m so sorry! I have no gun. I don’t do that stuff. I don’t do any fighting. Why were you taking me? I don’t [inaudible] guns. I don’t even kill flies. I don’t eat meat. I am not—I’m a vegetarian. I don’t judge people for anything.”
Wow, Wendy, I didn’t expect our talk would go this way, but I’ll never forget the stunned, pleading tone of Elijah’s final words. In answer to your question as to how his death affected the way I see the book, I’ll have to quote your own words back at you. I remember a conversation we had, commiserating about the state of the country. In reference to the killing of yet another unarmed Black man, you said something like, “We have to find a way to never forget how he died, and still find hope.”
I know that you don’t think I listen to you, but those words really struck a chord with me. While it is important that we not forget how they were killed, it’s even more important that we find hope and solace in their lives. And there is hope. When we see the young African American, white, Latinx, and Asian men and women who have stood up in peaceful protest against these deaths, how can we not be hopeful? My dreams have been dashed before, but can we not see that maybe, finally, the times they are a-changing?
The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 (25th-Anniversary Edition) by Christopher Paul Curtis. Yearling, $11.99 Nov. 3 ISBN 978-0-593-30649-9