The story is based in Flint, Michigan, and focuses on narrator Kenny Watson and his family - his parents, his older brother Byron - an "official juvenile delinquent" - and his little sister Joetta. Byron is caught by his mother playing with matches in the house (despite having been warned repeatedly not to do it), which seems to be part of a pattern of misbehavior. The parents decide that Byron should live with Grandma Sands in Birmingham, Alabama, for the summer and possibly the next school year. The family begins a roadtrip to take Byron to Birmingham. However, shortly after they arrive, Kenny witnesses the bombing of their grandmother's church, and that the family decides to return home, with Byron, in an attempt to avoid explaining the full implications of what has happened to the children. Kenny is unable to process what has happened. He ran to the church moments after the bombing took place, as he believed his sister to be in the building, and saw the destruction. Four girls were killed, another was blinded, and one had to have one of her eyes removed. Several other people were injured less severely. Byron does his best to help Kenny understand what has happened, as their parents are reluctant to explain. Kenny sees that though the world is not perfect, he has to keep moving forward.
Christopher Paul Curtis was born in Flint, Michigan, on May 10, 1953, to Dr. Herman Elmer Curtis, a chiropodist and factory worker/supervisor, and Leslie Jane Curtis, an educator. He has set many of his books in Flint. Curtis attended Dewey Elementary, Clark Elementary, Pierce Elementary (in the Academically Gifted Program), Whittier Junior High School, and McKinley Junior High School of the Flint Public School System. (In 1967, he was the first African-American student to be elected to the student council in the school's 32-year history). He graduated from Flint Southwestern High School in 1972 at the age of 19. Returning to college after working for years, he graduated from the University of Michigan–Flint in 2000. The summer after graduating from high school, Curtis became a member of a Lansing-based theatrical/musical group called Suitcase Theater. The group was directed by Powell Lindsay and performed musical numbers and the works of Langston Hughes. The group performed in Great Britain, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Canada, and the United States.