7 Engaging Works to Bridge Past and Present with 'The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963' | Refreshing the Canon

SLJ and NCTE have revealed the 2023 round of “Refreshing the Canon” selections. The following seven works will deepen young readers’ understanding of the historical context of The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 and inspire them to connect its social justice themes to present-day issues. 

Last month, SLJ asked librarians and educators to weigh in on which classics should remain on summer reading lists. Inspired by the most popular titles that emerged, SLJ editors and members of NCTE’s Build Your Stack® Committee have curated this year’s round of “Refreshing the Canon” selections.

Additionally, we’ve put together multimodal lists of recommendations—including nonfiction, graphic novels, documentaries, and more—that educators can feature in classrooms and libraries alongside the exemplar texts. Our aim is to inspire educators to breathe fresh life into lessons around these works by giving students new context to understand why these classics are still relevant today.

Be sure to check out the 2022 “Refreshing the Canon” lists for more read-alikes of time-honored summer reading picks.

First published in 1995, Christopher Paul Curtis’s Newbery Honor- and Coretta Scott King Honor-winning historical fiction novel The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 follows 10-year-old Kenny Watson and his family as they bear witness to a devastating tragedy based on real events from the Civil Rights Movement. The following seven works will deepen young readers’ understanding of the historical context of the novel and inspire them to connect its social justice themes to present-day issues.

Abdul-Jabbar, Kareem & Raymond Obstfeld. Becoming Kareem. Little, Brown. 2017. ISBN 9780316555388.
This book explores the on- and off-court life of basketball legend Kareem Abdul Jabbar. From the racism and prejudice he experienced in childhood to his activism for social change as an adult, readers learn about the different facets of Jabbar’s life that helped make him one of the best and most beloved athletes of all time.

Cooper, Candy J. with Marc Aronson. Poisoned Water: How the Citizens of Flint, Michigan Fought for Their Lives and Warned the Nation. Bloomsbury. 2020. ISBN 9781547602322.
This is the ongoing story of the citizens of Flint, Michigan, and their continued fight for clean water. This book delves into the government’s decisions toward saving money and the impact that has had on residents through a history of racism and segregation.

Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy (Adapted for Young Adults): A True Story of the Fight for Justice. Delacorte. 2018. ISBN 9780525580041.
Bryan Stevenson shares his story of working towards justice for those who have been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death, and this young adult adaptation will inspire young readers to take action. Teachers can also pair this reading with the film version of the book, which was released in 2019.

Wilkerson, Isabel. Caste (Adapted for Young Adults). Delacorte. 2022. ISBN 9780593427941.
This adaptation for young readers explores the often unspoken hierarchies of class and race, and their relationship to power in the United States.

Image from JFK Library:16TH STREET BAPTIST CHURCH, c. September 15, 1963

Primary Source (Audio, Letters, Photographs)
JFK Library: Bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church
Students can explore this interactive archive of primary sources from the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.

Graphic Nonfiction
Lewis, John & Andrew Aydin. The March Trilogy. illus. by Nate Powell. Top Shelf. 2013-2016. ISBN 9781603093002; 9781603094009; 9781603094023.
This dynamic graphic nonfiction trilogy highlights the work of late civil rights icon and former United States Representative John Lewis and significant moments during the Civil Rights Movement, including the 1963 March on Washington. With vivid black-and-white illustrations, these works will aid readers in understanding the historical context of the novel.

Curtis, Christopher Paul. The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963. Listening Library. ISBN 9780553750577. 
Narrated by LeVar Burton, of Star Trek and "Reading Rainbow" fame, the audiobook adaptation of the novel provides an engaging listening experience for sharing in the classroom.



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