This historical fiction book by Christopher Paul Curtis is published by Bantam Doubleday Dell Books for Young Readers, a division of the Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, and is written for kids ages 10 years and up. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.
Ten-year-old Kenny Watson lives in Flint, Mich., with his mom, dad, older brother, Byron (By), and younger sister, Joetta (Joey). In their elementary school, Byron is one of the largest and strongest boys, having failed a year. He is 13. Kenny would have been beaten up by bullies more often if not for Byron's protection. Teachers treat Kenny differently because of his high reading level.
Rufus sits next to Kenny on the bus and in class. He follows Kenny to lunch. Rufus doesn't have a lunch, so Kenny gives him one of his sandwiches. Rufus starts showing up at Kenny's house to play. When Larry Dunn, a bully, makes fun of Rufus and his brother, Cody, Kenny laughs with the other kids. Rufus stops eating with Kenny and doesn't come over to play. Kenny visits Rufus to ask why, but Rufus let him know that he no longer wants Kenny as a friend. Kenny cries when Momma asks him where Rufus has been, so Kenny admits to how he hurt Rufus' feelings. After Momma talks to Rufus, Rufus comes to the house again. This allows Kenny to apologize.
In winter, Momma makes Kenny and Joetta wear many layers of clothing. Kenny pretends to lose his gloves so Momma will give him another pair. He gives the first pair to Rufus. Larry steals Kenny's second pair of gloves, but Byron gets them back and beats up Larry.
Momma catches Byron playing with matches. She attempts to punish him by burning his fingers but is foiled by Joetta. Momma sends Byron and Kenny to the store, and they sign for the groceries instead of paying cash. Kenny discovers Byron eating cookies bought on account without their parents' approval. Kenny eats some of the cookies, too. Kenny and Byron decide to throw cookies at nearby birds. Byron hits and kills one. He is so upset that he vomits, cries and buries the bird.
Byron has his hair straightened. In response, Dad shaves Byron's head. Momma and Dad announce their plans to take a trip to Birmingham, Ala., and leave Byron with Grandma Sands for the summer and possibly for the next school year. Dad explains to Kenny that Byron needs to go to Alabama because he is learning many wrong things in Flint. He also talks about the angry white people in the South, but Grandma Sands says they have not disturbed her area. When the Watsons arrive at Grandma Sands' house, all of the rebellion seems to go out of Byron.
The kids decide to go swimming. Grandma Sands warns them to avoid one pond because it has a whirlpool. Kenny goes anyway. Byron refuses to go and keeps Joetta with him. Kenny loses his footing in the water and can't paddle to safety. He believes he sees a creature pulling him deeper into the water. Byron comes to look for Kenny, pulls him to the bank and cries while Kenny recovers his breath.
Joetta goes to Sunday school. Kenny hears a sound like a thunderstorm. He is tired from nearly drowning but awakens to Momma's screams. He races to find Momma or Dad, but can only find Byron, who explains that a bomb has been detonated in the church and then runs out the door. Kenny runs to the church. People are crying. Kenny sees a man covered in "red paint" (blood) carrying a little girl outside the door of the church. He looks in the church through the smoke and sees socks and shoes that look like Joetta's on the floor. The experience is surreal for Kenny, who walks quickly past other horrors at the church and back to Grandma's house. He sees what he thinks is a vision of Joetta and talks to her. Joetta explains that she had left the church when she saw Kenny outside (though he was not physically at the church at that time). The details of reality and the children's understanding of the situation become confused, but Joetta and Kenny are both safe. Kenny runs back to the church to tell Momma, Dad and Byron.
The Watsons, including Byron, return to Flint. Kenny feels bad and hides behind the couch every day. Byron finds Kenny's hiding place. Kenny starts sleeping behind the sofa and won't come out. Byron is finally able to coax Kenny to the bathroom mirror. Kenny starts crying when he sees his reflection in the mirror. Byron sits with him. They talk about the unfairness of little girls dying and grown men killing blacks. Byron tells Kenny that he will be OK; then Byron leaves. Joetta bangs on the door because she needs to use the bathroom. Kenny laughs and opens the door.
Joetta goes to Sunday school, according to Kenny, several times a week. Kenny occasionally goes with her. He says he learned about getting saved there, but describes being saved as being rescued from feeling bad and having a personal "saver" sent by God to protect and help. Kenny believes it took the angels three days to roll away the stone from Jesus' grave.
Kenny's teacher, Miss Henry, makes Kenny read from the Bible to prove his reading skills. Joetta says that Momma must keep her word to God.
When Byron accidentally kills a dove, he buries it and places a Popsicle-stick cross at the head of the grave. Momma asks Byron if straight hair is better than the hair God gave him. Kenny imagines the cool mountain air is like the silky feel of God's beard.
Dad teases Byron publicly about the size of his ears, and he shaves Byron's head after Byron has his hair straightened. Kenny says Dad is fun to be with. Dad explains the reasons for sending Byron to Birmingham.
Momma insists that people in the South are more respectful of their parents. She is lovingly protective of Byron when his lips are frozen to the mirror of the car but firmly pulls him off despite the pain it causes. Momma packs extra sandwiches and apples for Rufus when she learns that he shares half of one of Kenny's sandwiches with Cody. Momma also talks to Rufus after Kenny hurts his feelings.
Momma threatens to burn Byron's fingers as punishment for playing with matches. Momma explains to Joetta that she doesn't want to hurt Byron, but sometimes parents must do things they don't want to do. Four times when Momma moves the match to Byron's skin, Joetta blows out the match. Momma gives up.
When Byron misunderstands that signing for food at the grocery store means the family is receiving welfare, Momma slams a knife onto the counter and calls Byron "Mr. High and Mighty."
Grandma Sands is strict. She gives Joetta a shake to make her stop crying and yells at Kenny not to slam the door.
Teachers recognize Kenny as an exemplary student. Mr. Alums is known as the toughest teacher in the school, but he visits the house to find out why Byron has missed so much school.
Other belief systems
A reference to Narcissus is made when Byron freezes his mouth to the car mirror when kissing his image in it. Kenny refers to Byron as a god at their school.
Rufus is Kenny's deliverance from being teased because Rufus is teased more than Kenny. Kenny refers to Rufus as his "saver" and is surprised that a "saver" would wear such worn out clothing.
God's name is taken in vain several times. Other profanity includes a--, h--- and d--n. Byron flips dirty fingers at Kenny and curses under his breath with an s, although the word isn't spelled out. Name-calling occurs frequently. Racial slurs include nappy-headed and Negro kids. Coarse language, such as butt and turd, are used.
Momma threatens to burn Byron for playing with matches. Joetta begs Momma to let Daddy whip him instead.
Bullying is shown in the form of teasing and through kids' actions. Rufus is teased for only having two pairs of pants and having to share them with Cody. Kids cross their eyes at Kenny to tease him about his lazy eye. Kids are teased for being on welfare. Kenny is afraid of being beaten up at school. Byron and his friends play violent pranks on Kenny. Byron throws snow in Kenny's face. He hits Kenny. Larry Dunn is a school bully and grinds snow in kids' faces. Byron repeatedly slaps Larry on the side of the head. Byron insists that Kenny punch Larry in the stomach. When Kenny doesn't hit Larry hard enough, Byron punches Kenny in the stomach. Byron drags Larry to a chain-link fence and throws him into the fence until his nose is bloody.
Byron kisses his image in the car mirror. LJ, a boy Kenny played with for a time, asks Kenny if he has seen naked lady books. Kenny says he has seen them lots of times.
Momma and Dad kiss, giggle and laugh together in the kitchen when Dad gets home from work. Dad reaches across Momma in the car and brushes against her chest.
Robert lives in Grandma Sands' house. Momma asks about the relationship, and Grandma responds that Robert is her oldest friend. The details of the relationship are never explicitly stated.
Newberry Honor Book, 1996; Coretta Scott King Author Honor Book, 1996
If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:
- Byron is a bully at school yet a protector of his brother and sister.
What are the traits of a bully?
Are you ever a bully?
How do you treat people in our family?
How do you act differently at home than in other places?
- How did Birmingham change the Watsons?
What has happened in your life that has changed you?
What is one thing that happened that made you treat someone differently?
What is one thing that happened that made someone treat you differently?
- How is Rufus a friend to Kenny?
How is Kenny a friend to Rufus?
How did they each disappoint each other?
Who is one of your good friends?
How have you disappointed each other?
How did Kenny and Rufus help each other?
How have you and your friend helped each other?
- How do the kids in the book talk differently than the parents?
What does God say about the way we should talk?
What are our family's rules about the way we speak to friends and each other?
- Kenny gives his first pair of gloves to his friend, although he lies to his mother to do it.
Do you have anything that you could share with someone who has less?
Other than giving someone food, clothes or shoes, what other things could you do to help others?
Dishonesty: LJ Jones steals some plastic dinosaurs from Kenny. Byron steals from his family by buying cookies on credit without permission. Byron blackmails Kenny to prevent him from telling their parents about the cookies. Kenny says that it's easy to lie.
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