Let’s let Jonathan and me get over our shock regarding the NBA winner. But DaNae’s comment is apt: the NBA award has totally different criteria than the Newbery. In fact, NBA juries develop their own criteria, and the award has a reputation for “upsets.”
We’ve talked about One Crazy Summer already, but I re-read it recently and wanted to address some of the issues that had come up, along with some of the distinguished characteristics that I found ample evidence of.
Skillful setting of time, situation, characters right up front.
You should be able to find distinguished elements on p.1 of a Newbery Winner, and here it is evident. First paragraph tells you when you are, who and where, and something about the character. Emphasis mine just to spell it out:
p.1 “Still, I anchored myself and my sisters best as I could to brace us for whatever came next. Those clouds weren’t through with us yet and dealt another Cassius Clay-left-and-a-right jab to the body of our Boeing 727.”
Voice…Family and Self as Setting
In a recent comment (I lost track of where) someone pointed out that development of setting in One Crazy Summer does not stand out, and I’d agree (and will get to specific geographical issues below). But I had a strong emotional memory of being “in” this story, so on my re-read I went looking for how that was developed. And I found it in the voice. Both in Delphine’s interior voice, and in the interactions between her and her siblings, and the three siblings and Cecile. On nearly every page of this book I have a flag showing where Williams-Garcia uses voice to make her story real, and to communicate a sense of setting, and theme, through it. Some examples.
The Trio…and Quartet
p.31 “It’s past eight o’clock. We haven’t had real food since breakfast.”
“With Big Ma.”
I kept going. “That was”—I glanced at my wrist—“nine hours and twelve minutes ago.”
Vonetta next: “Airline food don’t coun t.”
Fern last: “Surely don’t”
p.65 “Vonetta and I threw our ‘colored’ on top of Fern’s like we were ringtossing at Coney Island.”
p.67 “No one could call Fern White Baby Lover even though Miss Patty Cake was a white baby and Fern loved her. No one could call Fern a Big Baby but Vonetta and me.”
On page 77-9, Cecile/Nzila enters the fray of this three way interaction, with the half-joke about the FBI. Too long to type out here, but read it to see how Williams-Garcia shows us both that the girls take after their mother, and that Cecile/Nzila is making baby-steps at connecting with her daughters, simply through conversation.
Delphine’s keen insightfulness…
p.81 “Although no one thinks I can, I remember a time when smoke filled the house. Not coughing smoke but smoke from a woman’s smooth-voiced singing, with piano, bass, and drums. All together these sounds made smoke.”
p.147 “The stool made things different. It was an invitation for me to sit down and be there. Not talk. Just cook. Be. As the spaghetti boiled, pictures flashed in and out of my mind. Flashes of sitting with Cecile and being quiet. It was the welcome that had brought me back. That I’d sat with her before and it was all right….”
…and her sense of vigilance and ethics
p.50-51 “I opened Peter Pan, one of the books I’d checked out for a two-week loan before we’d left Brooklyn. I had it all worked out and counted the pages I’d read each night, dividing that by twenty-eight days. I had two dollars and eighty cents in my drawer at home to pay for the late fees for the remaining two weeks when we returned to Brooklyn.”
p.92 “I kept the two dimes from the change to save up for our phone call. I was sure we’d need at least a dollar in change. Cecile wouldn’t miss two dimes. If she asked for them, I’d give them to her, although I didn’t think she’d ask.”
p.99 “Since the Black Panther newspaper cost a quarter, I told myself I’d only skim the front and back pages as I stacked the apeprs. I would read what I could see. I knew if I flipped a page over and read it line by line, I was officially reading someone else’s paper. Or as Pa would call it, stealing.”
The Name Thing
What is the theme of this book anyway? Mr. H asked:
I have trouble finding RWG’s message or theme. It’s okay to leave your family behind, if you’re fighting for “the greater good”? As long as you’re semi-nice once or twice to the children you ran away from, they will forgive you and learn all sorts of things about themselves in the process? Nina, you said this is a story about a girl and her family first. So, what distinguished message or theme for children did you take away from it?
First, let me say that I believe the Newbery criteria ask us specifically not to attach value to the theme, but to its presentation. The question should be how well does Williams-Garcia interpret her theme or concept.
I think there are a multiplicity of themes throughout this story, but one that stands out for me is the name thing. It sneaks in. The first time we really understand is p.55: “I never fully believed it…That Cecile left because Pa wouldn’t let her pick out Fern’s name. But I saw and heard it with my own ears and eyes. She refused to call Fern by her name, and that made Big Ma right about Cecile.”
Later, Delphine remarks on her mother’s name, p.80 “I didn’t care what Cecile called her new self or how much dust she blew off paths with her poems. She was Cecile Johnson to me, and I didn’t appreciate her so-called new self or her new name.”
…and gives us the wonderful chapter about her own name, revealing to us one large source of her animosity about her mother. p.84 “My mother hadn’t reached into her poetic soul and dreamt me up a name. My mother had given me a name that already was, which meant she hadn’t given me a thing. Not one thing.”
Notice that Delphine only ever calls her mother “Cecile,” throughout the entire story? Even after Fern/Afua speaks up for herself, and Delphine sees clearly that she may not always need to be the one to stand up to Fern, especially against her mother? I walk away with a wonderful sense of Delphine taking what she can from this summer to allow herself to both love and hate her mother for who her mother is and what she does, rather than just going on memory and hearsay. She also seems to be able to let go just a tiny bit–a realistic tiny bit–of the responsibility she feels to her sisters, and learn to be a little selfish…an extremely valuable lesson that only her mother could seem to teach her.
Some have raised the question of the likelihood of a Japanese-American kid being named “Hirohito.” A teacher who had read the book and had Williams-Garcia visit his school emailed me directly with her response to his posing that question:
“The point that she wanted to make with Hirohito was that identity is trickier if one is “two things”, like Japanese and black. She also said that when she was growing up in northern California she went to school with one boy named Hirohito, another named Hiroshima and another named Yamashita!”
I’m good with that. It might have been interesting to have that context fleshed out a little for readers, but I’m not sure it makes the book weaker without it.
I’ve mentioned before my questions about accuracy in the geography of the story…and later that I felt these did not undermine the story’s distinguished qualities.
In an exchange with Garcia-William’s editor, I’ve learned that they plan to change the references from “Orchard” street to “Adeline” street in the next printing, which does resolve the street layout issue.
Regarding the hill (there is one in the story, but not in actuality)…Williams-Garcia and her editor considered it, having learned of the “mistake”. But it plays such an important part in Delphine’s character development, about “how big the world looks through a child’s eyes, and how things come more into focus as they mature” that it was impossible to remove, and I recognize and support that. “We’d gain fact accuracy, but would lose a good deal of what the character and reader ultimately gain.” These quotes are from Williams-Garcia, with thanks to her and her editor Rosemary Brosnan for sharing.
….Complexity versus Strength…
We’ve been getting a little bit into how to measure each book for what it is, and only against the critieria it speaks to; and then how to try to compare that to another book with totally different strengths. Conspiracy of Kings stands out for literary gymnastics and elegance, intricacy of character and plot. I’m not sure that One Crazy Summer is as developed or complex in these areas. But is has enormous strength in the character and voice. Not sure where the scale tips, yet, for me with all of our eight shortlisted titles, but trying to see where the balance points are.