"The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963," by Christopher Paul Curtis, was published six years ago but continues to receive notice for the timely issues it addresses. In this story, the "Weird Watsons of Flint, Michigan," visit Grandma in Alabama — and witness the deaths of four black girls in a Baptist church.

This week, 38 years after the latter incident actually occurred in Birmingham, jury selection begins in the trial of one Ku Klux Klansman accused of the bombing in the Alabama church. This seems like an appropriate time to follow the events in the upcoming trial as well as read the fictional account from an award-winning author.

Curtis relives that dark moment in history through the eyes of 10-year-old Kenny as he searches for his sister, who was attending the church services but escaped injury. "I walked past where the adults were still screaming and pointing, I walked past where that guy had set the little girl in blue, right next to where someone else had set a little girl in red. I knew if Joey sat down next to those two their dresses would make the red, white and blue of the American flag." Kenny is distraught at the sight of the killings. "I walked past people lying around in little balls on the grass crying and twitching . . . . I walked past people hugging trees and telephone poles, looking like they were afraid they might fly off the earth if they let go. I walked past a million people with their mouths wide-opened and no sounds coming out."

Since its publication in 1995, "The Watsons Go to Birmingham —1963" has received at least 18 prestigious national awards including the Newbery Honor Book, the Coretta Scott King Honor Medal, an American Library Association Ten Best Books Award and The New York Times Best Book. It has also been awarded more than 11 state honors (where young readers make the choice) and placed on dozens of state reading lists.

But in Utah, the book was banned from Nebo School District middle schools.

Because of the importance this story has to current affairs (the book is noted by the National Council of Social Studies and won The Jane Addams Peace Award) I revisited the Watsons to search out parts that may be offensive. My quest was to find what would not "be right" for young readers who might be encouraged to read and discuss a fictional account in history when human rights were threatened by anger and prejudice.

First of all, I found little reference to the anger I felt in knowing about this mindless killing. There are no details of the abuse and violence that followed the disaster, even though the family must have witnessed it, as everyone in Birmingham did. The story merely tells of the Watsons leaving Grandma's house, where life was supposed to be safe and without conflict, and returning to Michigan.

After the bombings of the church, Kenny is left in a state of bewilderment, perhaps what would be called post-traumatic stress syndrome today. He takes refuge behind the couch in their Flint, Mich., house, where he knows their pets have recovered from illness. It's a tender time. The loving family rallies around him. Kenny is not ridiculed. He heals in his own time and way.

What a wonderful portrayal of an older brother who assists in Kenny's healing process! What a warm and fragile thing life is as told in this story. I certainly enjoyed the second reading as much — maybe more — than the first.

Even though they are jokingly known as the Weird Watsons, they are as good example of a strong family unit as I have ever seen in contemporary literature for young readers. It is true that Byron is taking a bad direction with friends who lead him astray, but Mr. Watson is a strong male model who assures the reader of family support. There's much security here even when Byron dyes his hair reddish brown and pokes it up like porcupine stickers. Byron's escapades do lead the plot in unexpected ways as when he kisses the rear-view mirror in freezing weather and finds himself stuck fast. Each event is very normal to life and the author is quick to have the family deal with problems rationally.

Throughout there is a sense of humor that is refreshing, particularly that of the daily banter and the schoolroom chatter. Curtis has captured well the dialogue patterns of both cultures, Michigan and Alabama. He notes the shift between Mrs. Watson's Michigan speech and the Alabama colloquialisms she readily adopts as she nears her birthplace. Grandma's southern drawl is perplexing to the children and when she tells of a whirlpool in a nearby lake, Kenny interprets it as "Wool Pooh," a creature from the depths that terrifies him.

What then would be offensive? Censorship usually is prompted by several factors: religious intolerance, violence, inappropriate language and stereotypes, or abuse and sexual innuendo. I couldn't find any of these that would cause the book to be censored. Perhaps what's disconcerting to some are the school bullies that tease classmates or the "bop" and punches they inflict on each other. There are no four-letter words but a few "three" may be offensive to some ears. Even the term "Buphead," which Byron uses to call his friends, is meant to be slang. Kids do use slang. The Watsons do, too.

Some librarians have suggested one incident that may cause qualms for adults (they're the ones doing the censoring) is when Mr. Watson reaches across the car and "his hand kind of accidentally on purpose brushed her (Mrs. Watson's) chests." Kenny's reaction defuses the situation, "Boy, did they think we were blind? Dad thought he was being slick." Or could it be some are offended that Grandma Sands has an elderly male companion? If there are other offenses, I certainly missed them.

Curtis's spirited story is strikingly honest (it may be more autobiographical than we suppose). There are young people that torment each other. There are children with "lazy eye" who are heckled by classmates. There are killings in the world where prejudice looms. Families have problems and have many ways of handling them.

There is love in the world and families that work and play together, and that is what the Watsons are telling us.

(Curtis won the Newbery Medal and the Coretta Scott King Award for his second novel, "Bud, Not Buddy" in 2000.)


E-MAIL: marilou.sorensen@worldnet.att.net