One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia. Armistad, 2010 (Currently Available)
Genre: Historical Fiction
Face Value: Seriously, one of the best. There’s so much to like about this cover. First, it absolutely feels like summer, without looking like a beach story. Not an easy thing to do. The colors, the type, the way the print of the title looks like it’s slowly chipping away to reveal the background behind it – it’s like you can feel the heat sizzling off the page. And Delphine’s face, looking up at the possibilities above is just so beautiful, and looks just like I pictured her. I love illustrated faces on book covers – you see them a lot more on middle grade titles, and I think that YA should get with this trend. And everything behind Delphine is a vivid part of the story. There’s Vonetta and Fern and Miss Patty Cake and Mean Lady Ming’s restaurant and the Black Panthers – it’s all there. And yet, it doesn’t look cluttered or too busy aesthetically – it just creates a picture of this world that we’re about to get a glimpse of. If I could get a print of this cover I would put it on my wall.
Does it Break the Slate? Do you even need to ask? Well, yes, this book is downright slate-shattering. I’m so excited that Summer Books Week gave me the chance to review it, because it came out before we started this blog. It addresses so many issues that we consider to break the slate: identity, standing up for yourself, what it means to be a woman, and more. Delphine goes through a beautiful Slatebreaking journey over the course of the book and the dynamic between the main characters and their mother is really unique and spectacular.
Who would we give it to? This is honestly just one of those “everyone” books. It’s so well written, and captures Delphine’s voice so authentically that middle grade readers will connect with her immediately. Such a great book for older siblings, especially. And there are so few books out there that cover this moment in time for kids, and this book presents a real opportunity to learn about the Black Panthers. And adults will connect with it too, whether its because they remember this moment historically or just because getting a glimpse into this world that Delphine, Vonetta and Fern find themselves in is an amazingly worthwhile read.
Review: Eleven year old Delphine has been watching out for her sisters for as long as she can remember, and she takes her position as oldest sibling to Vonetta and Fern very seriously. She knows that her Papa and Big Ma (her grandmother) can count on her to be the responsible one. But the summer of 1968 is different. She and her sisters are getting on a plane and spending a month in Oakland with Cecile, the mother who left their family when Fern was a baby. Cecile isn’t what they expected in a mother. A radical poet and a member of the Black Panthers, she doesn’t show any interest in being a parent. She doesn’t cook and she pushes them out of the house all day to go to a Black Panthers summer camp. But over the course of the summer, the girls learn a lot about who their mother is, who they are and the kind of women they will grow up to be.
The history embedded in this book is amazing. You learn a lot about civil rights, the 1960s, the Black Panthers and the way of the world at a particular moment in time. And yet it never feels didactic or expository. As readers, our learning comes right along with Delphine’s, and it’s fascinating. Plus, a complicated dialogue about race is a core part of this story, whether it’s the sisters counting the number of lines Black characters have on television, seeing Black faces on classroom walls for the first time when they get to The People’s Center, or becoming involved in the protests themselves. Yes, it’s a portrait of a specific time period, but it’s a conversation that is no less relevant in 2012.
And the characters are fantastic. I loved all the girls, but Delphine is a character close to my heart, with her careful attention to her Timex, her worry for her sisters and her calculating the library fines she’ll accumulate ahead of time if she’s going to bring books from the library with her to Oakland so she can be sure she can pay it. But she’s open to the things she learns about at camp too. And it was great to see her become bolder, braver, and more confident as the book goes on, while maintaining her sense of order and responsibility.
1968 was a time of change for women, obviously. And once again, this narrative gets seamlessly woven into the overall story. Rita Williams-Garcia gives us this richly developed character in Cecile, this woman who does what she needs to do for herself, even if it comes at the expense of her children. But amazingly, that’s not as villainous as it sounds in that sentence when you actually read the book. Yes, Cecile is selfish. She makes choices based on her own needs. But she was a woman who got trapped in a situation she never wanted. And instead of staying stuck, she got herself out. She isn’t a willing or engaged parent, or even a very good one. But she still has something to offer her daughters.
This early scene between Cecile and Delphine is so telling about the relationship that will emerge between them. Delphine insists that instead of takeout, she’s going to make dinner for her sisters. Fern and Vonetta are whiny, as little sisters are, but Delphine is proud to have done the right thing for them. She and her mother have the following exchange:
When we were done, Cecile handed me every plate, after she’d eaten whatever Vonetta and Fern had left. ‘You started this mess, Delphine. You clean every dish and spoon.’
We had eaten with forks, but I wasn’t about to correct her. I just took the forks while Vonetta and Fern disappeared into our room. At least I could look Pa in the eye and say, ‘Yes, Pa. I did what you said. I looked out for my sisters.’ At least I got Cecile to let me into her kitchen.
Then she added ‘And don’t expect no help from me.’
I said, ‘I don’t mind.’
She gave another “Hmp’ and a headshake. ‘We’re trying to break yokes. You’re trying to make one for yourself. If you knew what I know, seen what I’ve seen, you wouldn’t be so quick to pull the plow.’
I sort of knew what she meant, but someone had to look out for Vonetta and Fern while we were here.
I stacked the plates in the sink and ran the hot water.
‘It wouldn’t kill you to be selfish, Delphine.’ She said, and moved me out of the way to wash her hands.
And that’s the crux of it. Cecile made huge sacrifices for her own needs. But she’s also fighting hard for justice and freedom, for herself and her daughters and for the whole world. And Delphine needs to bring a little bit of Cecile into her attitude, while still being the girl who can take care of her sisters.
This isn’t the beach book or road trip book, that we’ve reviewed earlier in the week. But One Crazy Summer definitely captures that moment of transition and potential for change and growing up that is so often inherent in a summer book. Get it from your library or local bookstore and add it to your own or someone else’s summer reading stack. You won’t regret it.
Reviewed from copy purchased at Children’s Book World in Los Angeles