Author: Rita Williams-Garcia
Genre: Historical MG (Mid-sixties)
Publication Date: January 2010
Hardcover: 218 pages
Eleven-year-old Delphine has it together. Even though her mother, Cecile, abandoned her and her younger sisters, Vonetta and Fern, seven years ago. Even though her father and Big Ma will send them from Brooklyn to Oakland, California, to stay with Cecile for the summer. And even though Delphine will have to take care of her sisters, as usual, and learn the truth about the missing pieces of the past.
When the girls arrive in Oakland in the summer of 1968, Cecile wants nothing to do with them. She makes them eat Chinese takeout dinners, forbids them to enter her kitchen, and never explains the strange visitors with Afros and black berets who knock on her door. Rather than spend time with them, Cecile sends Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern to a summer camp sponsored by a revolutionary group, the Black Panthers, where the girls get a radical new education.
Set during one of the most tumultuous years in recent American history, one crazy summer is the heartbreaking, funny tale of three girls in search of the mother who abandoned them—an unforgettable story told by a distinguished author of books for children and teens, Rita Williams-Garcia.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did I get this book: The author was signing it at BEA
Why did I read this book: One Crazy Summer has been on my radar since it was shortlisted for a Newbery Award (it is now a Newbery Honor Book). When I saw the author was to be signing it at BEA, I knew I was going to have to be there.
Summer of 1968. 11 year-old Delphine is the oldest of three sisters and has taken upon herself to take care of her younger siblings Vonetta and Fern ever since their mother Cecile left 7 years ago (just after Fern was born). She does so with aplomb, knowing each sister really well and keeping it together in a responsible, mature way. Which is why she is not really that worried when her father decides to send them across America to meet their mother and stay over the summer holidays. What could possibly go wrong? Worst case scenario, Cecile is really just the distant, crazy person their grandmother always told them about, right?
Even though Delphine’s expectations are low, when the trio arrives in Oakland, California, they are greeted by an aloof, forbidding Cecile who not only does not want them there but also doesn’t help them settling down or even getting food (other than giving them directions to the local take-away joint) as her kitchen is off-limits to the kids. Their days are to be spent at the nearby Black-Panther-run community centre where they go in the morning for breakfast and stay until late afternoon. There, they learn more about their mother (who is known locally as the poetess Sister Nzilla), about the Black-Panthers’ fight, about identity and about the strong bond between sisters.
At first glance, it is easy to judge this as a book about Issues – about identity, about the fascinating Black-Panthers and the Civil Rights movement, about abandonment and its repercussions. One Crazy Summer is a book about all of those things yes, but above all, it is a book about a summer of discovery, about Delphine and her family and as such the author manages to expertly combine a winning story about sisters with great social commentary. In fact, what strikes me the most about the novel is how the author successfully navigates the waters of so many important issues with the clear, concise, direct prose expected in a middle grade book but without being simplistic or didactic. Quite the contrary, I have found more subtlety and impact on this story than I have in several novels for adults I read this year.
I loved the writing so much I could quote entire chapters. Like for example the one entitled Everyone Knows the King of the Sea which is a chapter entirely dedicated to Delphine’s musings about her mother’s change of name which is something she doesn’t understand nor appreciates, and about her own name. To Delphine, who is so proud of her name (or so it seems at first) because it is so different and hers, you don’t change names so easily like that. To her:
A name is important. It isn’t something you drop in the litter basket or on the ground. Your name is how people know you.
Which brings her back to how Cecile named each of them – and how important THAT was. It is known that Cecile picked each of the girl’s names carefully – and other than their lives, their names are the one thing she ever gave them. And that was so important to her that impacted on the very reason she left. So yes, names and identity are intrinsically connected in this novel and in these character’s minds. And that’s not only from an individual point of view either but some of the characters feel their weight of their entire race on their names and lives and it was interesting how there is a generational divide there. For example, to Big Ma, the girls’ grandmother, there is a huge pressure caused by her belief that personal behaviour would reflect in the entirety of the Black race. Since Big Ma was the one who effectively brought up Delphine and her sisters, this belief is inculcated in them and there is this great moment in which Delphine is torn between what Big Mother expected her to do (behave like a good girl and not shame their entire race) and what she felt: that her mistakes are her own and hers alone. Ironically, this quite possibly connects Delphine and her estranged mother without her ever knowing.
With regards to the characters, I loved all three sisters, each having strong, independent personalities. Their relationship is like any other: there are fights and disagreements but also moments of fun and love. Delphine is the best though: what a great kid. Mature for her age, so responsible and at the same time, even though she does and says things that are beyond her age, deep down she is just a really young girl with a huge, unfair burden.
But I can’t help but to be completely and totally in love with Cecile not because she is a likeable character (because she is not) but because she is a fascinating one. I have to give this author major kudos for managing to make a character that is selfish and aloof and in effect a child-abandoner, so sympathetic. Even more than that, it is not usual to see a female character that has children and yet is not maternal in the least, without making her a villain or some sort of HORROR! a failure as a woman. She might be a failure as a person for leaving her children like that but there is no reflection on the fact that she is a female character. She has huge issues, stemming from a troubled childhood but has managed to make a life for her own with her independence and her poetry and her fight. She is a great character.
One Crazy Summer is a multiple award-winner [1. Seriously. Just check out the number of awards it has won] Middle Grade book that first appeared on my radar when it was nominated for the prestigious Newbery Award this year and after reading it, I can see why: it is a thought-provoking yet fun story. Simply a great book.
Her name is Cecile. That’s what you call her. When people ask who she is, you say, ‘She is our mother’.
Mother is a statement of fact. Cecile Johnson gave birth to us. We came out of Cecile Johnson. In the animal kingdom that makes her our mother. Every mammal on the planet has a mother, dead or alive. Ran off or stayed put. Cecile Johnson – mammal birth giver, alive, an abandoner – is our mother. A statement of fact.
Even in the song we sing when we miss having a mother – and not her but a mother, period – we sing about a mother. “Mother’s gotta go now, la-la-la-la-la…” Never Mommy, Mom, Mama, or Ma.
Mommy gets up to give you a glass of water in the middle of the night. Mom invites your friends inside when it’s raining. Mama burns your ears with the hot comb to make your hair look pretty for class picture day. Ma is sore and worn out from wringing your wet clothes and hanging them to dry; Ma needs peace and quiet at the end of the day.
We don’t have one of those. We have a statement of fact.
Additional Thoughts: I am fascinated by authors that can tell a good story and also instill their books with social commentary. If you are anything like me, have read One Crazy Summer and would like moars, I highly recommend:
And you know, if any of you would like to add more recommendations, please do so in the comments! Very much appreciated.
Rating: 9 – Damn Near Perfection
Reading Next: Luminous by Dawn Metcalf
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