This rant was inspired by the fact that we're on our multicultural literature unit in my children's literature class, and for this unit, we read The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis. The plot line is fairly simple in this book; it follows the Watsons, an African-American family who live in Flint, Michigan, as they prepare to go on a vacation to Birmingham, Alabama. Their family encounters are quite comical, and I think that children would really enjoy this book, most likely being able to relate to the protagonist, Kenny, who's 10 years old at the time. It also would be useful to teach about the civil rights movement, especially in elementary school, because the Watsons encounter somethings while their in Birmingham that could be useful to spark conversation in a classroom setting.
In class, we had been talking about the difference between culturally generic and culturally specific books. In culturally generic books, it doesn't really matter the race or culture of the main character, the things happening in them could happen to anyone. In culturally specific books, the race or culture is the center of the story, and they're usually specifically used to teach children about that specific culture. Both styles of books have their advantages and disadvantages. Watsons would probably be a culturally generic book for the most part, since what happens to the family in the majority of the book could happen to any family in the United States. Once they enter Birmingham, however, it turns into a culturally specific book, specifically reflecting what was happening racially during the 1960s. It could be used in a civil rights unit, and would be helpful in showing this complicated time period from a child's point of view. I think this is what makes this book so valuable. The children can relate to Kenny and his family for most of the book, and when they see what happens to them, they're probably shocked. They won't be able to believe that people would want to hurt this innocent family. And this would be the opportune time to teach about civil rights and race relations, or at least give an introduction. It would create a wonderful "teachable moment."
Next I will be reading Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley, which was the Printz award winner this year. Should be a good read!