Sunday, January 23, 2011

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

Children's literature has given us a few iconoclastic characters: Fern Templeton from Charlotte's Web, Claudia, From the Mixed up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Karana from Island of the Blue Dolphins, and Jess Aarons and Leslie Burke from Bridge to Terabithia. Add to that list Delphine Clark from One Crazy Summer.

One Crazy Summer has garnished numerous awards: Coretta Scott King Award for Author, Scott O'Dell prize for historical fiction, Newbery Honor Book, and a National Book Award finalist. All are well-deserved and speak to the quality of this book. I liked it much better than Moon over Manifest, the Newbery Medalist for this year.

Delphine (11), Vonetta (9), and Fern (7) Clark are put on a plane in Brooklyn in the summer of 1968 to visit their mother, Cecile, in Oakland, California. They have not seen her since right after Fern was born, seven years previous. On the bumpy plane ride they anticipate the warm welcome and hugs that they will get when they see their mother. But that is not to be. Cecile is not welcoming or affectionate. They are just a nuisance and this is evidenced from the way they are gathered at the airport, taken to her home, and virtually made to tend for themselves. Cecile asks Delphine to hand over the money that their father has given them and then sends them to Mean Lady Ming's Chinese Restaurant, down the block and around the corner, if they want anything to eat. The kitchen is off limits. She will not call Fern by name and makes fun of her clinging to her doll. Shown their bedroom, the sisters will share 2 beds among them. The visit has not had an auspicious beginning. The next morning the girls are sent to the Black Panther Community Center/School if they intend to eat breakfast.

And so the novel is set. Delphine, full of care and compassion for her sisters and a whole lot of common sense for a girl of eleven, is determined to make the best of the month that they visit in California. Cecile is a poet for the Black Panther movement and has taken the name Nzila. She is consumed with the movement and her poetry. The girls go to the center every day and learn about the movement that will forever change the complexion of the U.S and what their contribution to that movement can be. Williams-Garcia so carefully weaves history (Huey Newton, Bobby Hutton, the assassinations of King and Bobby Kennedy) and the culture of the time (Mike Douglas Show, The Monkees, Hogan's Heroes, and Mission Impossible) into everyday situations. One of the most touching scenes of the book is the day that Delphine plans and takes her sister on a tour of San Francisco. She is determined that they feel like they have been on a real vacation and she plans a tour of Chinatown, ride on a cable car, and purchasing just the right souvenirs. She is an amazing little girl.

The novel culminates in the arrest of Cecile and the girls' participation in a Black Panther Rally/Protest. This in turn leads to a real heart-to-heart talk between Cecile and Delphine. I dare anyone not to have teary eyes as the novel comes to its end. I love Delphine and I can't say that enough. Here is an eleven year old who acts as a mother to her two younger sisters, yet at the same time yearns for the protectiveness of her own mother. I love her because she is smart - after all she frequents the library for books to read and for information. She planned the San Francisco tour by doing research at the library. I love her because she knows what is right and what she must do in awkward situations. No, she didn't trash her mother's printing press, but it was right for her to clean it all up. Her character will be a part of me for a long time. I have wrestled with the idea of wanting a sequel to this book or have it a part of a new series much like the Dicey series. But then, part of me would like to just have Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern stay the way they are.

This is an important book book in the collection of children's literature because of the time period it covers and the point of view it gives. It should take its place next to The Watsons Go to Birmingham as one that can be taught in elementary grades. When history is taught in school, it often loses the personal side. One Crazy Summer captures this side in a beautifully and poetically written book. Don't miss it.

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