The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963

The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 Literary Elements


Middle Grade, Historical Fiction

Setting and Context

Flint, Michigan, and Birmingham, Alabama, 1963

Narrator and Point of View

The story is narrated in first person past tense, from the point of view of ten-year-old Kenny Watson.

Tone and Mood

The tone and mood of this story are both generally lighthearted, but grow solemn and heavy at the end, when the Watsons witness a catastrophic church bombing.

Protagonist and Antagonist

The protagonist is Kenny Watson. In many chapters the antagonist is either Kenny's brother Byron or the fourth-grade bully Larry Dunn. From a broader historical perspective, though, the antagonistic forces in the story are racism and segregation.

Major Conflict

Byron's behavior is the major source of conflict; he often acts up and does not care about the repercussions. The Watsons must figure out how to correct this behavior, so they decide to send Byron to live with Grandma Sands.


The climax of the novel occurs during the Birmingham church bombing.


The trip to Birmingham is foreshadowed by the unusual behavior of the Watson parents; Kenny hears them talking on the phone with Grandma Sands, so he knows that something is about to happen. Later, when Kenny decides to break the rules and go to Collier's landing, a number of warning signs foreshadow the accident that eventually happens; when even a troublemaker like Byron decides not to do something forbidden (here, following Kenny), then it is obvious that Kenny's actions will lead to problems.




Early on in the story, when Byron gets his lips stuck on the car mirror, Joey alludes to the Greek myth of Narcissus, a man who was driven to starvation because he fell in love with his reflection in a pond and could not stop looking at it.


Kenny's descriptions invest a number of instances in the story with rich imagery. When the Watsons stop to rest from their drive in the Appalachian mountains, Kenny describes the hills in the distance as a "pitch-black blanket." During the church bombing, as Kenny stares at the carnage unfolding, he paints vivid images of the rubble of the church, with Bibles strewn all around and scores of people crying. Such imagery serves to connect readers with the situation and helps them to more clearly envision specific scenes, sometimes so clearly that they feel like they are present alongside Kenny.




The social ladder within Clark Elementary parallels the societal structures of the outside world, with bullies on top and kids who are different, along with those from families of a lower socioeconomic status, on the bottom. The acts of violence in the first half of the book -- mainly, Byron and Larry's bullying -- also parallel the major act of violence that occurs at the very end of the book.

Metonymy and Synecdoche



Children's diction tends to be full of personification. Since this story is narrated by a ten-year-old, there are numerous instances of personification in this novel. Some examples are as follow:

"Once the boots got ahold of your shoes, they wouldn't let them go for anything."
"All I could do was sit on the next-to-last-step and hold my ear as tears jumped out of my eyes."
"The car started rocking me to sleep."