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One Crazy Summer

One Crazy SummerOne Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
In the “crazy summer” of 1968, three black sisters set out from Brooklyn to Oakland, California, to reconnect with their estranged mother, an active member of the Black Panther political movement. How does Williams-Garcia balance historical events with the girls’ personal journeys? How do both these aspects of the historical novel interact?

Lauren Adams About Lauren Adams

Lauren Adams teaches English and ELL at Natick High School and adolescent literature at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Formerly a Senior Editor for The Horn Book Magazine, she regularly contributes book reviews.

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  1. Two things. 1) Love, love, love Delphine’s distinct voice. It’s more refined than Junior’s, more composed than Daisy’s. And like how I felt that I could clearly see Eleanor in “Eleanor and Park,” I felt like I could hear Delphine just as clearly. It was as though I asked her what she did during the summer and then just listened to her recount her adventures. Being a Black female in 60s Brooklyn and the oldest of three, while also growing up motherless and having Big Ma’s quips and judgments constantly in the air, Delphine assimilates all of these identities and contexts into one sharp personality. The book is well served by being told through her eyes.

    2) I enjoyed the book and especially appreciated its complication of the Black Panther Party’s typically static image. I do think it’s valid to recognize, however, that the book was still at times difficult to read simply because it aroused this irritation I feel when it comes to literature. It’s the irritation of feeling like I’ve already read this story before because for Black characters to be prominently featured in a book, the story’s arc seems to always be historical or politicized, centering around slavery, the Harlem Renaissance, the Civil Rights Movement, or crime.

  2. Nicole Eslinger says:

    I agree with Warren about Delphine’s strong narration style. She provides clear descriptions of her experiences that summer and also does a really great job of developing the characters of her sisters. I felt that she was a reliable narrator, re-telling the story exactly as she experienced it. I was impressed by the power of her voice in telling this story as she perceived it. It was as if I was re-living the experience with her, rather than listening as she reflected upon a memory.

    It was also great to see this political movement through the eyes of a young adolescent. Often, I think that people feel removed when reading or learning about historical events. When we learn about history in classes, it is something that we see through an objective lens. Reading a story such as this one really humanizes the entire experience. It makes it something that I can relate to, which is something a history text has never provided me. A book like this one also provides an alternate perspective on historical situations. Delphine sees Cecile as her mother, not a political character. Without Delphine’s story, it would be easy to view Cecile through a purely political lens. I think that it is important to have a rounded perspective on history to understand why people felt and acted in ways that had such profound impacts on our societies.

  3. Rachel Lacks says:

    One Crazy Summer was a very enjoyable read for me, primarily because of the characters. I loved Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern more than I like characters that are more fully developed in books written for older audiences. Their roles were not only believable, but also relatable, authentic, and enjoyable.
    Delphine was a caring older sister, taking on more responsibility than most 11-year-olds would be able to in a new city during a turbulent time for black Americans. I also appreciated the issue Williams-Garcia brought up through Delphine’s character; even when we want to be a part of a movement that will benefit our own people, we sometimes may selfishly struggle with whether or not it is worth it to sacrifice ourselves or those we care about for the cause, and it is arguable whether or not this is selfish at all, or just part of human nature. This issue touches upon the idea of the development of morality. Kohlberg’s theory of moral development postulates that very few, extraordinary people achieve the greatest degree of morality, which is the adherence to universal ethical principles that are to be upheld at essentially any cost. I found Delphine’s struggle with going back to the Black Panther’s People’s Center an interesting and very real one. Although we would all like to think we would do anything in the name of a cause that benefitted people we identify with, it is interesting to consider at what personal costs we will go to in order to achieve this.
    I also greatly appreciated Vonetta and Fern. Their naive youthfulness and blissful ignorance was both refreshing and entertaining. They were not intimidated by their mother, who acted as though she wanted nothing to do with them, and showed bravery when reciting their mother’s poem. I found their dialogues realistic and funny; they were quite believable as young girls.

  4. Liz Goodenough says:

    Williams-Garcia balances historical events with the girls’ personal journeys by not trying to add in too much detail or drama. One Crazy Summer is a story about three sisters growing up and developing a relationship with their estranged mother. The author uses historical details to enhance their story and to allow the reader to understand the characters and the setting a little more.

    As Warren and Nicole noted, Delphine has a strong voice and seems to be a reliable narrator; she tells us the story of the one crazy summer for herself and her sisters exactly how it happened. Her words and descriptions allow the reader to be there with the sisters. The author enhances (or authenticates?) Delphine’s voice by including historical details like schoolyard slang, contemporary books, popular songs and TV shows, and even fashions and hairstyles to recreate the world of pre-adolescent black sisters in 1968. The sisters’ personal journey to reconnect with their mother brings them, as outsiders, into Oakland’s center of political, social, and cultural change. Williams-Garcia limits the historical events in the novel to those the sisters might have personally experienced. The sisters’ experience with the under-ground printing operation, a community center run by black panthers, a political rally, and a police raid make sense with the plot and with the strained relationship between Cecile and her daughters. The author includes other historical details like Bobby Hutton, Huey Newton, The Vietnam War, anti-war protests, hippies, and political assassinations only peripherally. Williams-Garcia adds these details in subtly through conversations as these other historical events shaped the sisters’ world. The author does not add in so many facts or historical events to take focus or legitimacy away from the sisters’ story.

  5. Emma Roose says:

    I think Cecile was a really interesting and complex character. She was effectively the mechanism of connecting the historical aspects of the books to the girls’ personal journeys. Without Cecile and her neglect of her daughters, Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern would have never been introduced to the political world of the Black Panthers. But I’m intrigued by Rachel’s notation of the moral complexity that visiting the center entails for Delphine. The whole issue of sacrifice vs. selfishness is one that’s brought up in many different forms. As Rachel noted, is it worth the sacrifice of putting yourself and your sisters in danger to be part of a bigger cause? Or is it better to be selfish of your own safety? And here is Cecile who sends her kids away because she’s selfish in her work, time, and space and actively removes herself from the Black Panther interactions. YET Cecile obviously cares enough about the cause to send the girls to the center to spend their time, and while she didn’t want to share her materials with the Panthers at first, she still sits at home and writes incredibly charged and socially powerful poems. So what does this mean? What does this show? Is she being selfish? Or is she a martyr? And it’s interesting how much Cecile can care about the movement and the ‘people,’ yet be so mean and disdainful her own children. Did she sacrifice her role as a mother so she can make meaningful poems and contribute to something bigger than them or herself? Or is she just selfishly wrapped up in what HER aims are in life without thought to how it might affect others? She even tells Delphine at one point “it’s okay to be selfish,” which I thought was a really confusing. So what does ‘selfish’ look like? What does ‘sacrifice’ look like? What is the balance of the two, both politically speaking and in personal life?

  6. Catherine Healy says:

    As did several other commenters, I loved Delphine’s narrative voice in this book. Still, I was dissatisfied with the characterization of the sisters. The characters of mother-hen oldest daughter, show-offy second daughter, and adorable youngest daughter felt a little too well-worn to me, and none of them had enough distinguishing traits to rise above these stereotypes.

    Cecile, although very believable as a character, also left me feeling a bit unsatisfied. Even within the limits set by Delphine’s narration, I felt like I didn’t learn enough about her in the book — was she mentally ill, or just a zany poet? What was her level of involvement with the Black Panthers? Her confessional scene with Delphine near the end of the story added some dimension to her character, but I still wanted more.

    I also couldn’t help thinking that if I were a young reader with minimal knowledge of the Black Panthers, I would have been confused by every scene at the People’s Center, and particularly by Fern’s oblique revelation that Kelvin is a police informant. Although I appreciated Williams-Garcia’s “show, don’t tell” approach to weaving historical events into the sisters’ journey, I felt like a little more information would have helped me better imagine the characters in their historical context.

  7. Kara Brennan says:

    I loved this book as well. It reminded me so much of The Wonder Years for some reason while I was reading. I think something about having a kid watching some of the most famous events in history unfold before their eyes just struck a chord with me. But I enjoyed seeing things through Delphine’s eyes, although I did feel a little stuck between her personal life and the historical events. I think that if the story had delved deeper into either realm I would have felt more engaged while reading. For example, I would have liked to hear more about Delphine’s friendships, her crush on boys, etc., rather than just hearing about all her responsibilities as the oldest child. And I would have also liked to hear more details about the Black Panther movement, and Cecile’s involvement in it. I feel like the book was walking a line between the two worlds, and while it was very enjoyable, I think I would have gotten more out of it if we went deeper into either side.

  8. Amy Lipton says:

    I agree with previous comments about Delphine being a strong and reliable narrator. It was engaging and powerful to read about this historical time through the eyes of a child. As much as I liked this book, two aspects were unsatisfying for me. First, I thought that at some points Delphine was too old for her eleven years. I understand that she needed to grow up faster than most other kids, but I thought that certain parts (the meals she made, the trip to San Francisco) were a little unrealistic. Second, I was not completely satisfied with Cecile’s character. I was hoping to understand who she was by the end of the book, but I didn’t feel more connected to her in any way.

  9. I like the conflict about identity that names bring up in this book. The first two words are Cassius Clay, which Delphine knows was the name he used to be called before changing it. However, she doesn’t seem to fully understand the implications of what such a change means. Instead, she connects it to the name change of her mother that Big Ma refuses to use, indicating some sort agreement over the issue in saying that she couldn’t forgive her mother. The idea of identity through names is further reinforced when Cecile refuses to call Fern by her name, even if it upsets her. At four years old, she has no concept of why her mother would refuse to use her name, as it’s the only identity she knows.

    Other tropes involving names come up with the first impression of Mrs. Ming, who gets called mean even though they soon decide that she is not unkind, and the titles of brother and sister that get used in the People’s Center. It also arises when Delphine realizes that her name wasn’t created specially for her like that of Vonetta, but instead is common enough to be listed in a book. In many ways, the conventions of naming are tied into the questions of what someone’s character truly is, and is attached to the growing that the children all do over the summer.

  10. One Crazy Summer is an absolute joy to read. I don’t know what I would have thought of this book as a child, but as an adult it read almost like a sequel or response to Madame Bovary or Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. For that matter, I wonder if the children of many of the authors, artists, musicians and poets whose work I enjoy would write something similar?

    Cecile inhabits such a wholly adult world with adult concerns she’s quite opaque for a reader relying on a child’s narration. Even so, I think the best reflection of Cecile is in the character of her daughters – Fern’s creativity and spark, Delphine’s bravery. It absolutely killed me that Delphine never picked up on the similarities of her name with Cecile’s.

    This was such a snapshot of life that you don’t often see portrayed – Oakland in the 60s. Or early 70s? It was just wonderful. And so literary!!! I love that this is a book in which you can tell so much about the characters – even the small children -by what they read. Cecile, the displaced wanderer, finds comfort in Langston Hughes and Homer. Delphine , self-sufficient and reliable, reads Island of the Blue Dolphins. The three sisters – Lost Children, read Peter Pan on their first night in California.

  11. Similar to Kara, while I was reading I couldn’t help but be reminded of the amazing, albeit short-lived, television show American Dreams, which centered around a family during the late 60s to 1970s. I’ve always been intrigued about books, television shows, and movies that place fictional characters within a historical framework. Since I tended to refrain from reading nonfiction growing up, I believe books like One Crazy Summer (and tv shows like American Dreams and The Wonder Years) can be the happy medium for those reluctant nonfiction readers, like I once was, while providing multiple opportunities to bring in nonfiction articles and materials to supplement. To Kara’s point again, I understand feeling as though the book didn’t quite cover the fictional aspect or the historical aspect as fully as I would’ve liked. Which strikes an interesting question in my mind: is it better to sacrifice more of the historical aspects, like Cecile’s involvement with the Black Panthers, or more of the fictional aspects of the book, like Cecile’s character development? I couldn’t help but think of one of our recent books How I Live Now, which is by no means a historical fiction, however, its backdrop was an ambiguous war that was never fully realized or explained. I wonder how that book might have changed if the author changed the setting to World War I, for example, and the reader watched as Daisy and her cousins navigated through actual historical events.

    And to Ale’s point, I also loved the immense literary references made throughout the book. I couldn’t help but wonder how interesting it would be to create a unit with this book as the core text, and the literature the characters read, such as Peter Pan, The Island of the Blue Dolphines, and poetry from Homer and Langston Hughes. I think it could be so interesting for students to engage with the literature Cecile, and her three daughters found comfort in.

  12. To me, one of the more striking things about One Crazy Summer was how the narrator’s voice sounded like the composite of child and adult voices. Delphine, I think, is a reliable narrator in her descriptions of the people and world around her. But at times her observations and the language in which they are expressed are too astute, too nuanced, and too syntactically complex to come from her 11 year old perspective. It’s as though the author didn’t fully commit to either telling the story from an 11 year old perspective, or to telling it retrospectively from the perspective of an older Delphine better able to make sense of many of the happenings. In the scheme of things, it’s not the end of the world. I think the book is good. But I bring it up because it was distracting to me when I read. It feels like looking through one end of the binoculars and then the other, all in the same passage. And I think it matters because this, I think, is one of the challenges of writing young adult fiction; choosing what lens to use on the events you depict in your novel. Do you look only from the POV of the young adult? If so, how do you effectively UN-know what experience and adulthood have taught you? If too much of that experience enters the work it can cloud an authentic sounding young adult voice. At the same time, if you remove too much perspective you risk infantalizing your protagonists and characters. And you risk giving up some of the insight that you can provide young people about their experience via your own. Really tough balance to strike.

    I also felt that at times it was hard to trace the trajectory of conversations and development of emotions in the interactions between the girls and Cecile. Delphine describes her sisters’ reactions to Cecile and I had trouble following the plausibility of the interactions. Likewise, I sometimes found it hard to pin down where Cecile really was located, emotionally, as a character. Was she actually insane? Mentally ill? At first it did seem that way. And then all of a sudden it didn’t.

    I do appreciate what other have written about here: how looking at events through the eyes of young people, like in How I Live Now and One Crazy Summer can be fascinating. This idea that we only get some of the story because of the child’s lack of understanding of the entirety of the events, –that’s really interesting to me.

    I also appreciate Warren’s point about the frequency of tying stories about African-Americans to historical events associated with Black people. Can’t there just be a story about some people doing some stuff? I think we see this a fair amount in fiction. And it matters particularly if we are thinking about teaching these works. Like can’t you have a story about a kid with two moms (lesbian parents) without that being the POINT of the story? …To give another example. If it’s important for young people to see themselves represented in fiction, then it’s also important that they not see themselves represented or reflected in only one way.

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