5.20.2013

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia, 218 pp, RL 4




One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garica, as you can see by crowd of awards (Coretta Scott King Award, Scott O'Dell Historical Fiction Medal, Newbery Honor and National Book Award Finalist - basically the most prestigious awards for children's literature there are), has been very read and loved since it was published in 2010. I have not read the gold medal winner for 2010, Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool, but I think it must have been EXTREMELY hard to be a Newbery judge that year... Before I write another word, I listened to the audio book of One Crazy Summer and I need to acknowledge the supreme narration skills of Sisi Aisha Johnson. As someone who listens to copious amounts of audio books, I have my favorites, usually narrators who can create voices for a range of characters. Johnson masterfully created distinct voices for the three sisters, including that of Fern, the seven-year-old, as well as several male characters who were part of the story. Delphine, the oldest sister, has a powerful narrative voice that Johnson coveys magnificently and movingly. She also narrates The Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes, feathers by Jacqueline Woodson, as well as Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper and books by Octavia E. Butler, Sharon G. Flake and Julius Lester, all of which I plan to seek out in the future.

The "crazy" in the title of One Crazy Summer doesn't refer to wacky, fun times but rather the perceived mental state of Cecile, the mother who left shortly after the birth of her third daughter some seven years earlier. It is the summer of 1968 and Delphine, Vonetta and Fern's Papa has decided that it's time for his daughters to spend time with their mother. He and Big Mama, his mother, take the girls to the airport and put them on the Boeing 727 headed to Oakland. Eleven, nine and seven, the sisters have spent most of the previous night dreaming and talking about the oranges and apples they will pick off the trees in California, the trip to Disneyland they will take, the surfing they will do and the movie stars they will ask for autographs in soda shops. When they land in California, they wait and wait for Cecile. Delphine finally spots her lurking behind a cigarette machine, wearing big sunglasses, a big hat and man's pants. Gruffly and almost wordlessly, she herds the girls from the airport to her green stucco house in Oakland with the leaning palm tree in the front yard. When Delphine hands over the $200.00 her father gave her that she has been keeping in her shoe, Cecile sends the girls down the block to get shrimp lo mein, egg rolls and Pepsi and they sit on the floor of the living room on a table cloth. Cecile bans the girls from the kitchen where she has a printing press and where Delphine catches a glimpse of "white wings hanging," her mother's poetry, printed and drying on lines crisscrossing the room. Delphine has memories of her mother writing on cereal boxes and even on the walls when she still lived with her family, her urge to write was so powerful. The next morning, Cecile makes it clear she wants the girls out of the house from morning to night and sends them to the People's Center. Twenty-seven more days before the sisters can go home.

While One Crazy Summer is ultimately a story of mothers and daughters, Rita Williams-Garcia weaves so much more into her powerful, moving novel. The girls have been raised, in part, by their grandmother who is from a town in the South that is so small, she says she's from the larger, neighboring town. She is raising the girls to be polite, well groomed and above all else, to never create a "grand Negro spectacle" in public. Delphine, the only one of the sisters with memories of her mother, is a serious, insightful, responsible child who takes care of her sisters as well as she takes care of her beloved Timex watch with the brown band. She understands that Vonetta, who is "always sticking herself onstage for everyone to see her," is also more likely to get her feelings hurt from this behavior. She understands that Fern, who was just a "loaf of bread" when their mother left, needs her Miss Patty Cake doll with her yellow hair and pink skin, to comfort her still, even though she is seven. Delphine spends most of her time taking care of her sisters emotionally and physically, but she takes a chance and ruffles their feathers in an effort to get a good look out the window of the airplane at the Golden Gate Bridge as their plane descends. Both girls screech. Heads turn, a stewardess rushes over to shush them and, even though "there were only eight Negroes on board, counting my sisters and me, I had managed to disgrace the entire Negro race, judging by the head shaking and tsk-tsking going on around us." Delphine has a lot of responsibility on her shoulders and her challenge is to take care of her sisters in this strange new place but also to navigate the shifting cultural and social environment around her that she is thrust into. Black Panthers, Sister and Brother, new, African names and the questions "What's wrong with this picture?" and "Why are you carrying your self-hatred in your arms?"that come from one of the Black Panthers on their first day at the People's Center make up this new world. Days at the center are spent making protest posters and learning about Huey Newton and the teenager Bobby Hutton, the first Black Panther after the leaders, who was shot by police during a protest in Oakland and hearing Cecile called Inzilla. Amidst these changes, Delphine learns some new things about herself and her mother.

Despite the change and turmoil, Williams-Garcia keeps One Crazy Summer relevant and entertaining for young readers. The girls make friends at the People's Center, including Hirohito Woods, Vonetta does something really awful to Miss Patty Cake in an effort to fit in and Delphine stands up to Cecile and sets foot in her kitchen when night after night of take-out gives Fern a belly ache. Anticipating the assignment of writing an essay about her summer, Delphine vows to make sure she has something to write about and plans an excursion into San Francisco for the sisters with the last of their money. While Cecile never even approaches warming up to her daughters, referring to Fern as "little girl," because their father wouldn't let Cecile name her what she wanted to," and saying on their first night that she should have gone to Mexico to get rid of them when she had the chance, she does thaw enough to tell Delphine about her own childhood, telling her daughter, "Your life seems hard, Delphine, but it is good. It's better than what I could have given you," and finally, "Be eleven, Delphine. Be eleven while you can." Rita Williams-Garcia weaves together all these compelling, powerful, historical, social elements, making them memorable and moving through the creation of the distinct characters and voices of Delphine, Vonetta and Fern. Long after the last page of One Crazy Summer had turned, Fern's plainspoken, "Surely do," still echoes in my head.

In the sequel to One Crazy Summer, the Gaither girls are back home in Brooklyn and have a newfound sense of independence after their month in Oakland with Cecile and the Black Panthers. As Delphine struggles with the changes in herself and her family's life, she writes letters to Cecile who reminds her to...


Source: Purchased, book and audio

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