One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

I have wanted to read Rita Williams-Garcia‘s One Crazy Summer (2010, Amistad) for a long time. The cover art of these three sisters with their heads high against the beautiful orange red background finally lured me in. Earning several awards, including the Coretta Scott King Award and the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, One Crazy Summer is a text I will be sharing with my children’s literature students this upcoming fall.

Set in Oakland in 1968 at the height of the Black Panther movement, One Crazy Summer offers a unique perspective into the lives of children of Black Panther members. When Delphine and her two younger sisters Vonetta and Fern fly from New York to Oakland, California, to visit their absent mother Cecile, a poet, they learn that Cecile, or Nzila as she is called in Oakland, is more than the woman who left her three girls many years ago. More complicated than Delphine’s father and paternal grandmother understand. And more of a mother than Delphine and her sisters ever thought possible.

Here’s what I liked about this book:

(1) It features a strong female protagonist. Although Cecile develops her mothering as the novel progresses, Delphine takes on the utmost responsibility to make sure her little sisters are safe and fed. What Delphine learns – with the help of her mother – is that she does not need to feel the burden so intensely. Readers who deal with caring for younger siblings because of family dynamics will be able to relate to Delphine’s story.

(2) It provides a unique perspective on the Black Panther movement. Historical fiction is so great because it helps us empathize with different stakeholders in a personal way. When she writes about her ideas for the book, Williams-Garcia states she wanted to share a somewhat silenced perspective: the children of the Black Panther movement. Narrated by Delphine, One Crazy Summer allows readers to be introduced to the Black Panther movement via seeing Cecile’s interactions with the members and her children engaging with other children and volunteers at the Center. My research on middle grade and young adolescent literature typically has a critical literacy component, and One Crazy Summer is a text that could lead to some great class discussions on issues of voice, race, power, and gender.

(3) I like that Williams-Garcia penned a text that acknowledges the complexities of family and how we can learn to love someone who may have abandoned us in the past if we are allowed to hear their side of the story. There is certainly Pa and Big Ma’s side of Cecile’s story. But there is also Cecile’s story. And I think it’s good for kids – especially kids of divorced or separated parents – to understand that each parent has a story. And that one can certainly never forget the past but may be able to move forward from it.

(4) It’s a book about writing. Those of you who know me know I love to write poetry and children’s books. So, of course, I love books that have the importance of writing at their core. Cecile is a poet, and one of the aspects she adores so much about her youngest daughter is that she, too, is becoming a writer. Understanding the power of one’s voice (through the written or spoken word) is so very important in this book. One Crazy Summer could fit nicely in a text set on writing that includes Jaqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming and Margarita Engle’s The Wild Book.

Here’s what I didn’t like so much about the book:

(1) Delphine and her sisters’ involvement in the Black Power movement happens somewhat too abruptly. I wanted a bit more narrative – and perhaps struggle – before Delphine and her sisters were comfortable with what was so new to them. I know Williams-Garcia has to move the girls toward an acceptance of the cause (and I think this narrative move is fine and appropriate), but it just happens a bit too quickly for me. I wonder if other readers feel the same way.

Overall, I really enjoyed One Crazy Summer and think it will make a nice read-aloud, literature circle, or whole-class novel read in a middle school English Language Arts or Social Studies classroom.

Let me know what you think of One Crazy Summer in the comments below!

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