City book pick focuses on civil rights

June 12, 2006|By JULIE SCHARPER | JULIE SCHARPER,SUN REPORTER

Mom and Dad pack two squirming kids and a surly teenager in the car then head to Grandma's house - a typical family vacation, except the year is 1963 and Grandma lives in Birmingham, Ala., near the church where four little girls will be killed by a bomb at the end of the steamy summer.

Baltimore officials are encouraging families to join the fictional journey this summer, selecting The Watsons Go To Birmingham - 1963, by Christopher Paul Curtis, as the fifth Baltimore's Book.

"The book deals with the civil rights movement, racism, family conflict, but it manages to walk the fine line between humor and pathos," said Deborah Taylor, the Enoch Pratt Free Library's coordinator of school and student services. "It's told through the eyes of a family, how a family would see those things."

The book is sophisticated enough to be enjoyed by adults and teens, but simple enough to be read by a fourth-grader, Taylor said. Children will identify with the hijinks of the 10-year-old narrator, his teenage brother and little sister, but will also be intrigued by the history behind the story, Taylor said.

"A lot of times families feel like they can't really talk about things that happened in the past, that kids won't be interested," Taylor said. "This book opens the door to bring up issues that you might have faced or lived through in the past."

Five years ago, Mayor Martin O'Malley started the Baltimore's Book program as a way to unite residents and get them to explore and discuss new ideas. O'Malley and Pratt Director Carla Hayden are set to officially announce this year's selection June 29.

"We choose a book that sends a message," said Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman with the mayor's office. Past choices have included autobiographies of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and surgeon Benjamin Carson.

Children in fourth grade and above were able to receive a free copy of the book Saturday at Reisterstown Road Plaza at the start of Pratt's summer reading program, said Pratt spokeswoman Mona M. Rock.

Library officials hope children will drop by the city's library branches all summer to use computers, watch entertainers, check out traveling aquarium exhibits and read. The system plans prizes for children and teens who read at least one book a week this summer.

Students who don't read over the summer lose the equivalent of two to three months of class time, Rock said. The effect is cumulative and most pronounced in children from low-income families. A child who never reads during elementary school summer breaks will ultimately lose the equivalent of two years of schooling, Rock said.

"Every parent doesn't have the money for a really cool camp," she said. "But you know at least two or three times a week they'll have a fun program at the library. The idea is just to have them to read and to energize their brains."

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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