Christopher Paul Curtis. Delacorte, $14.95 (224p) ISN 0-385-32175-9

Evoking a full spectrum of emotions, this exceptional first novel is certain to reverberate within the reader's psyche. At first, the author concentrates his efforts on introducing the irrepressible, 'weird' Watsons, an African-American family living in Michigan during the early 1960s. Although the youngest member of the clan, Joetta, will play a key role in the drama, most of the action centers around the 10-year-old narrator, Kenny, and his older brother, Byron, whom Kenny alternately idolizes and fears. When Byron's antics--lighting tissue 'parachutes' and flushing them down the toilet, dying his hair 'Bozo clown' red--get to be more than his parents can handle, they decide to deliver him into the capable arms of stern Grandma Sands. The Watson's trip to Grandma's house in Birmingham begins as an adventure in their spiffed-up 'Brown Bomber' but ends as a horrific initiation to racism. After the Tom Sawyer-like hilarity of his opening passages, Curtis unabashedly draws his audience into one of the bleaker corners of American history, immersing them in the Watson's shock and terror when the local church is bombed. Kenny, a witness to the bombing, relays his observations perceptively, painfully and memorably. An afterword enlarges the child's-eye view with an outline of the civil rights activism of the times and the violent reactions to it, reinforcing Kenny's seemingly unmediated account with grim truths about the struggle for racial equality. Ages 10-up. (Oct.)