The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis, begins with an introduction to the Watson family in Flint, Michigan, during a particularly cold winter. Kenneth, his older, juvenile delinquent brother Byron, his sweet, younger sister Joetta (called Joey), and his parents, Daniel and Wilona Watson, huddle on the couch attempting to keep warm. Wilona, who is originally from Alabama, cannot stand the icebox they are living in.
Kenny, Joey, and Byron all attend Clark Elementary School. Byron is the “god of the school”; nobody picks on him. Kenny is cock-eyed and smart, so he gets picked on quite a bit, but much less when Byron isn’t cutting school. Kenny’s teachers flaunt him to the older grades, having him read in front of the students. When he reads too quickly, the teacher flips his book upside down, which slows him to the correct pace, but increases the evil glares from bullies.
Byron is always getting into trouble with Mr. and Mrs. Watson. One time, he locks himself in the bathroom and pretends to be filming a movie. He lights parachutes on fire and drops them into the toilet. After hearing the toilet flush so many times, Mrs. Watson gets suspicious. She knocks down the bathroom door and drags Byron downstairs with the matches. She had promised to teach him a lesson, and now she has to follow through. She pins Byron down, lights a match and goes to burn Byron’s finger. Mrs. Watson never gets close enough with the fire to do any real damage though; Joey is afraid for her brother and keeps blowing out the match.
Because of Byron’s repeated mischief, Mr. and Mrs. Watson decide to visit Wilona’s mother, Mrs. Sands, in Alabama. They believe that the change of scenery, and Mrs. Sand’s strict ways, will help keep Byron out of trouble. The Watson’s all pack into the Brown Bomber and begin the trip on I-75 from Flint to Birmingham. Mrs. Watson plans out all the stops the family would make and where they would spend the night, but Mr. Watson has a different plan in mind; he drives straight through with just the occasional bathroom stop.
At their arrival, Kenny is stunned at the sight of Grandma Sands; he was expecting a troll, but instead is greeted by a tiny old woman. Amazingly, Byron’s behavior changes immediately; his manners and attitude quickly improve. After settling in, Byron, Kenneth, and Joey go out to explore in the Alabama heat. Grandma Sands warns them to stay away from Collier’s Landing because of the whirlpool. The sign nearby read, “Warning! No Trespassing! No Swimming!” Kenny, however, ignoring Grandma’s warning and the signs, heads to Collier’s Landing alone. Byron warns that the whirlpool is actually, the Wool Pooh, Winnie-the-Pooh’s evil twin brother, who hides underwater and snatches kids down with him. Kenny ignores his teasing old brother as well.
Kenny wades in the water and watches the swimming fish and a turtle off in deeper water. Too late, he realizes he can’t feel the rocks under his feet, and even when he flaps his arms and legs around, he doesn’t move anywhere. Kenny bobs under the water and tries swimming toward the shore. After going under a few more times, he sees the Wool Pooh! It is big and gray, with hard square-looking fingers, and where there should have been a face, it was just dark gray. Kenny begins kicking and fighting the Wool Pooh as it pulls him away. Kenny believes he sees an angel that looks like his sister Joey and, thinking it is his last chance to survive, continues to kick and punch. Kenny is pulled to the shore and thrown upside down. It was Byron who came to Kenny’s rescue.
On Sunday, Joey heads to Sunday school and says goodbye to Kenny. Without knowing why, Kenny tells Joey that she looks pretty in her church clothes and heads outside to sit in the shade of a tree. Kenny falls asleep, but is woken by a loud boom. He hears his mother’s scream and searches for Byron to find out what happened; somebody bombed Joey’s church. In a daze, Kenny runs to the church. In the smoke and dust, he sees his parents moving through the rubble. Kenny bends down and pulls a white shoe, the same as the ones Joey was wearing, out from under some concrete. Once again, Kenny sees the Wool Pooh’s square shoulders and gray mass. A frightened Kenny walks past girls’ bodies on the grass and heads back to Grandma Sand’s house. At the house, he believes he is seeing Joey’s angel and tells her that she’ll be able to see Mommy and Daddy before she goes. Joey becomes frightened and asks Kenny why he is acting so strange. Kenny was mistaken; the girl under the concrete was not his sister. Joey was safe at home all along.
After the horrific church incident, the Watson’s return to Flint, Michigan. Kenny is traumatized and spends much of his time in the “World-Famous Watson Pet Hospital”, a secret hiding place behind the couch in the living room. This space was usually occupied by sick pets or sick toys, but is now used by Kenny in hopes that he will also be healed by its magic. Mr. and Mrs. Watson become very worried about Kenny, and even Byron acts more nicely towards him; he brings Kenny food and invites him to play basketball with his friends. Eventually, Byron convinces Kenny to go into the bathroom with him to see his chin hair. As Kenny looks at his own reflection in the mirror, he notices how sad he looks. He begins crying to Byron and releasing all of his trapped emotions. Byron comforts him, reminding him that he is safe, that everyone is sad about what happened, but that everyone needs to move on.