When I heard that author Rita Williams-Garcia had written a middle grade novel for kids I wasn’t moved one way or another. I don’t read teen books and that’s most of her fare. Couldn’t say I knew much of the woman’s work. When I heard that her book was about the Black Panthers, however, my interest was piqued. Black Panthers, eh? The one political group so difficult to write about that you can’t find them in a single children’s book (aside from The Rock and the River by Kekla Magoon, of course). So what was her take? How was she going to do it? But the thing is, One Crazy Summer is more than merely a historical tale. It’s a story about family and friendships and self-sacrifice. There are so many ideas floating about this little novel that you’d think it would end up some kind of unholy mess. Instead, it’s funny and painful and just a little bit brilliant. One Crazy Summer is a book that’s going to earn itself a lot of fans. And a lot of them are going to be kids.
Eleven going on twelve Delphine has always kept a sharp eye on her little nine and seven-year-old sisters Vonetta and Fern. That’s because their mother left them seven years ago and never came back again. "Cecile Johnson – mammal birth giver, alive, an abandoner – is our mother. A statement of fact." So when their father packs them on a plane and sends them to Oakland, California to see Cecile, their mom, the girls have no idea what to expect. Certainly they didn’t think she’d just leave them in a kind of daycare over the summer run by members of the Black Panthers. And they probably didn’t expect that their mother would want near to nothing to do with them, save the occasional meal and admonishment to keep out of her kitchen. Only Delphine knew what might happen, and she makes it her mission to not only take care of her siblings, no matter how crazy they make her, but also to negotiate the tricky waters that surround the woman who gave her up so long ago.
The whole reason this novel works is because author Rita Williams-Garcia has a fantastic story that also happens to meld seamlessly into the summer of 1968. I’ve been complaining for years that when it comes to the Black Panthers, there wasn’t so much as a page of literature out there for kids on the topic (except the aforementioned The Rock and the River and even that’s almost teen fare). Now One Crazy Summer is here. Certainly I don’t know how Ms. Williams-Garcia set about writing the darn thing, but if she had stridently set about to teach without taking into consideration the essentials of good storytelling, this book would have sank like a stone. Instead, she infuses this tale with danger, characters you want to take a turn about the block with, and the heat of an Oakland sun.
I mean, take the people in this book! Someone once sold this story to me as "The Penderwicks meets the Black Panthers" and for the longest time I couldn’t figure out why they`d said it. Then I started thinking back to the sisters. Ms. Wiliams-Garcia must have sisters. She must. How else to explain the dynamic between Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern? So it all became clear. If you love the family dynamics of The Penderwicks, you’ll probably find yourself loving the same thing here. Of course, when your heroine is an upright citizen like Delphine there is a danger of making her too goody goody to like. But this girl isn’t like that. She has a duty that she believes in (taking care of her sisters) and she’ll do it, even when they fight each other. Even when they team up against HER! The sheer unfairness of what Delphine has to handle, and the cheery lack of complaining (aside from the occasional and very understandable grumble) makes you care for her. Her interactions with her mother are what make you love her.
Because this mother is a pip. Cecile throws a wrench (and a couple of other metal objects besides, I’d wager) into the good guy/bad guy way of looking at things. For kids, she’s a pretty clear-cut villain from page one onward. And adults who have enough historical understand to be clear on why she does some of the things she does still won’t like her. I wouldn’t even be surprised if some parents referred to her as the world’s worst mother. She isn’t really, but many a parent’s ire will be raised when they see how she refuses to call her daughter Fern by her name out of spite, or refuses to so much as look her own daughters for a while. Heck, this may be the only book where the phrase, "Should have gone to Mexico to get rid of you when I had the chance," comes from the lips of a parental unit (not that any kid in the world would decipher what it means). Under normal circumstances, when you get a kid talking about the selfishness of their parent at the beginning of a book they turn out to be wrong in the end. So naturally I was waiting on tenterhooks for much of this book to see if Cecile would be perfectly redeemed by the story’s end. Williams-Garcia never wraps anything up with a cute little bow, but she gives you closure with Cecile and maybe a drop of understanding. It’s a far better solution.
Williams-Garcia will even use character development to place the story within the context of its time. The opinionated Big Ma who raised the three girls gives her thoughts on any matter rain or shine. Delphine then lists them, and kids are treated to a quickie encapsulation of life in ’68. Pretty sneaky. Teaches `em when they’re not looking. And one of those very topics is the Black Panther party. I was very pleased with how Williams-Garcia sought to define that group. She dispels misconceptions and rumors. Delphine herself often has to come to grips with her initial perceptions and the actual truths. As for the rest of the time period itself, little details spotted throughout the book make 1968 feel real. For example, the girls play a game where they count the number of black characters on television shows and commercials. Or the one time Delphine had felt truly scared, when a police officer in Alabama pulled her father over.
And, I’m sorry. You can make amazing, believable characters all day if you want to, but there’s more to writing than just that. This writer doesn’t just conjure up people. She has a way with a turn of a phrase. Three Black Panthers talking with Cecile are, "Telling it like it is, like talking was their weapon." Later Cecile tells her eldest daughter, "It wouldn’t kill you to be selfish, Delphine." This book is a pleasure to cast your eyes over.
There is a moment near the end of the book when Fern recites a poem that is just so good that I couldn’t seriously believe that a seven-year-old would be able to pull it off. So I mentioned this fact to a teacher and a librarian and found myself swiftly corrected. "Oh no," said the librarian. "Seven is when kids are at their most shockingly creative. It’s only later that they start worrying about whether or not it’s any good." So I’m willing to believe that Fern’s poem could have happened. Otherwise, I certainly would have appreciated an Author’s Note at the end with information about the Black Panthers for kids who wanted to learn more. And I was also left wondering where Delphine got her name. She spends a bit of time agonizing over that question, why her mother named her that, and never really finds out. Some kind of explanation there would have been nice.
It was teacher Monica Edinger who pointed out that One Crazy Summer pairs strangely well with Cosmic if you look at them in terms of fathers (on the Cosmic side) and mothers (One Crazy Summer‘s focus). That’s one theme for the book, but you could pluck out so many more if you wanted to. Race and family and forgiveness and growth. Everyone grows in this book. Everyone learns. But you’ll have so much fun reading it you might not even notice. You might just find yourself happily ensconced in the world of Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern without ever wishing to leave it. If this is how Ms. Williams-Garcia writes books for kids, then she better stop writing all that teen fare and crank a couple more like this one. Kids are gonna dig it.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent to reviewer from publisher.
Note: I mention in my review that this is Ms. Williams-Garcia’s first middle grade novel, but some might contest that. Her No Laughter Here was also considered middle grade in several circles. Personally I consider it early teen, but still teen, whereas this book is definitely on the younger side of things. Hence my statement.
Notes on the Cover: I like it. I like it, I like it, I like it. This cover is by one Sally Wern Comport, and I never would have realized that the woman who did this jacket also did Joseph Bruchac’s Skeleton Man, Sara Nickerson’s How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found, and Sid Fleischman’s The Giant Rat of Sumatra. This one is remarkably beautiful. Granted, not a lot of Black Panther action going on. Some protestors on the right-hand side behind the final “R” in “Summer”. Doesn’t matter. I like the colors, all hot and red and summery. I like the fade done to the font of the title. I like the presence of Miss Patty Cake. I guess the only problem I would have with it is that the tall girl on the left looks like she should be Vonetta, but she’s kind of tall. And is she dancing with suspenders or something? The “S” and “u” of summer are obscuring the action. The girl front and center looks younger than Vonetta, but I think that may just be because of how her face is shot. I love her hair, coming off of her head equally on one side and the other. It must be Delphine. Ah well. Beautiful colors, and so nice to see a black face from the none too distant past on the jacket of a children’s book. Surely is.
- A wonderful article on Rita Williams-Garcia and what went into the writing of this book over at BookPage.
- Also read some of Ms. Williams-Garcia’s thoughts on her NYT review and the book itself.
- Here are some additional thoughts about the cover from Jacket Knack.
- Take a gander at the book here: