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Two historical fiction books | Class #3, 2016

One Crazy Summer     No Crystal Stair by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

Supplemental readings:

  • Rita Williams-Garcia’s profile in July/August 2007 Horn Book Magazine
  • No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson; illustrated by R. Gregory Christie

Historical fiction is a balancing act of storytelling and character development with real-world events. How do these different aspects interact in each of these works? How do the authors engage readers in both the lives of the characters and their time and place in history?

Lolly Robinson About Lolly Robinson

Lolly Robinson is the creative director for The Horn Book, Inc. She has degrees in studio art and children's literature and teaches children's literature at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. She has served on the Caldecott and Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committees and blogs for Calling Caldecott and Lolly's Classroom on this site.

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  1. Kate Palleschi says:

    Historical fiction is a balancing act of storytelling and character development with real-world events. How do these different aspects interact in each of these works?

    I really enjoyed how Williams-Garcia wove the Black Panther movement into the narrative of One Crazy Summer in a very subtle way – I hadn’t looked at the blurb on the back of the book or anything else before I picked up the novel, nor am I very informed about that period of history, so I had no idea what to expect from the story. It felt very much like the way a child might notice things, which I really appreciated – to be able to weave what Delphine was noticing and telling us with what little I know was a really organic reading and learning experience for me. It was the same with No Crystal Stair, especially with the variety of narrators and perspectives.

    I think it can be really easy to confuse an section of exposition with a complete information dump in historical fiction, and neither book makes that mistake. All of the information that the authors provide for the readers come from the characters in a very off-the-cuff way – it doesn’t feel preachy or informative, it feels like the kind of conversation that you look back on and realize you’ve learned something. The historical facts of the narrative are second to the narrative itself – as we move through Delphine’s summer or Lewis’s exploits, we are exposed to historical events in a second-hand nature that makes it easier to absorb and remain engaged as readers.

  2. Naomi Forman says:

    What Kate said above about the authentic child-like perspective in One Crazy Summer really resonated with me. Discovering the nature of the Black Panthers along with a child – Delphine – who, at first, knows little about them, seems a creative strategy on the part of the author. Regardless of preconceived notions, readers are forced to approach the topic from a nonjudgmental, naive, and ignorant standpoint – much like that of a child. The approach felt effective and informative to me. I did not know much about the Black Panthers before reading the story – I only assumed they fought for justice in violent, generally unproductive ways. Along with Delphine and her sisters, though, I learned the nuances of the organization: how its adherents actually represented a wide range of perspectives, and how they worked to educate and uplift their black neighbors through community service and public events.

    The author further works to make the historical facts more engaging and personal by presenting them through the lens of an individual family narrative. Arguably, readers are more likely to feel invested in historical events if they have a bearing on people that readers have come to care about. For example, we want to read about the Black Panthers rally not only for the sake of learning about the event, but also because we want to find out how Delphine and her sisters will navigate this new and potentially dangerous situation. We want to read about their mother’s arrest not only to learn about the relationship between police forces and Black Panthers members, but also because the event affects Cecile’s relationship with her daughters. One Crazy Summer introduced me to a family I cared about, and then used their story to teach me about The Black Panthers and the 1960s.

  3. Carla Cevallos says:

    One Crazy Summer

    Rita Williams-Garcia made me fall in love with her characters. From Delphine’s maturity and protectiveness, to Vonetta’s flirtation and protagonism, to Fern’s tenderness and ingenuity, the story is built through them as much as through the events around them. More than the three characters separately, it’s the connection and dynamism between the three of them that gives the story it’s essence. Since the beginning of the story, the way that they follow and echo each other’s thoughts and words is noticeable, and toward the end this feature gains special importance. The story neatly reflects that most things in this world, including events and people, are rarely good or bad, black or white, but much more often a shade of gray, which is something that adolescent’s struggle to grasp, especially when it comes to their own parents.

    No Crystal Stair

    Wow… where to start? I don’t know what I like more about this book: The way it presents books as a means to empower and connect people, bring together a community, and shape history… or the fact that it indeed happened. Micheaux managed to combine a historical narrative with individual lives in such a way that the story seems personal, while at the same time the development of events, as well as the sociocultural and political atmosphere of the different times through which the story develops, are strongly present and, indeed, guiding the plot. The multiplicity of narrators and voices, as well as the alternance with journal entries and FBI files, mimics the richness of History: different perspectives and sources building and telling a single story from different angles. The book also conveys various life lessons from which adolescents can potentially benefit (the fruits of perseverance, the value of knowledge, the notion that ‘heroes’ are imperfect and make mistakes…). However, the fact that the story is mostly true makes these ideas more tangible and not what a teenager could consider a merely inspirational sermon.

  4. Alex Sucheck says:

    I found One Crazy Summer’s power to lie in the uneasy juxtaposition of history and powerful social movements, such as the Black Panthers, with the feeling of estrangement, abandonment, alienation which the three sisters feel upon meeting and interacting with their mother Cecile.

    There is micro-tension and macro-tension in this book: on the one hand, the family drama of these little girls faced with a mother who is at times absent, abrupt, distant, realistic, but honest and dedicated to a higher cause. On the other hand, the backdrop of political unrest, civil rights, the Black Panther movement, and the reality of black Americans in the 1960s is a historical journey which is very didactic for the classroom, but is able to translate those powerful situations into the language of adolescents. Furthermore, Rita Williams-Garcia develops the inner world of Cecile and Delphine very well.

    I was moved by this book, because the author makes the near, heavy past something very modern and still relevant. We also understand how family dynamics and pain may be inherited, but that somehow we still move forward.

  5. Kate Cunningham says:

    During our first class, when we responded to the question, “I read nonfiction for pleasure” I was on the Agree side of the room, and would have been on the other side of the wall for definitely, definitely agree if that were possible. The reason for this is largely because of biographies, especially biographies that are written creatively in a way that helps the reader to understand both the personal and historical significance of a given figure. Even though it is categorized as fiction, in my mind, “No Crystal Stair” is poised to shape a new generation of history and biography lovers, because of the way it seamlessly blends narrative, fact, and historical documents in telling the story of Lewis Michaux and several of his contemporaries. I was blown away by Vaunda Michaux Nelson’s ability to interweave a complex set of facts and the stories of many prominent civil rights leaders, in a way that was accessible but did not dumb anything down. As Carla stated, this book shows the richness of history and conveys powerful lessons, but I believe in a way that will make readers choose these lessons for themselves as they are empowered by the story of Michaux, his relatives, and the many leaders he interacted with through the African National Memorial Bookstore.

  6. Maiba Bodrick says:

    Kate and Naomi make great points about the use of Delphine’s narration to organically introduce readers to the Black Panther movement and her mother’s involvement. I totally agree that this is a strength of the work. Dissimilar to their experience, I know quite a bit about the Black Panther movement and was disappointed with Delphine for the first half of the novel. But Williams-Garcia uses Delphine, as we discussed last week, to remind us that not all members of a group share a single story. Our young protagonist is slow to understand that what she sees on television is not all there is to know about the Black Panthers. Even current adult readers are being exposed to a more complete picture than is presented in mainstream media; not all Panthers were as radical (or so we thought!) as Crazy Kelvin but the Sister Mukumbu’s didn’t make the news broadcast.
    Although I am grateful for the inclusion of national events, my favorite aspect of historical fiction is in the day-to-day actions and expressions of the characters. That’s what transports me into their era and makes me feel like I’m living in their world. For me, Delphine’s assertion that Cecile took control of a conversation “like [she] had the ball and the jacks” adds just as much to the story as the rally. Little Black girls counting the number of words Black actors have on television shows and commercials contributes to the setting just as much as the descriptions of key figures in the Black Panther movement. The author’s voice is spot on and I dig it.

  7. Sophie Blumert says:

    I agree with the others who have commented that the strength of this books lies in its ability to introduce the reader to a subject through the eyes of a child. Though Delphine certainly acts like an adult through several parts of the novel, she is still seeing the Black Panther movement for the first time with her younger eyes, and this allows the book to be unassuming of the reader.

    I also think that another strength in this book is the dynamic relationship that the three sisters have. Each of them offer a different perspective and see the historical events that they are living through uniquely, and their roles in it shift throughout the book. Delphine is always acting as the adult, the one watching out for her two younger sisters, and she therefore believes that she knows what’s best. However, it turns out the Fern is the one who has been paying the most attention to what’s going on in the movement and speaks out at the end of the story. The way that the characters grow through the story contributes to their’s and the reader’s understanding of the historical context, and offers a more nuanced picture than what our preconceived notions might be.

  8. Caroline Walsh says:

    I too, feel similarly to Maiba, Naomi, and Kate regarding Williams-Garcia’s use of Delphine’s narration to introduce readers to the Black Panther movement. The point of view from a child as she encounters the tension often presented in adolescence of the option to leave or expand upon the values, societal structures, and ways of knowing that she knows to be truth, in order to define individual identity allowed her to reflect the human nature and grass roots of the Panthers as an organization. I really appreciated Maiba’s reference to Chimamanda Adichie’s Ted Talk about the importance of telling more than one story, and believe that Williams-Garcia does an artful job of countering what Naomi pointed out, as the generalized stereotype that accompanies the organization.

    The tension that was especially present and represented in Delphine’s growth, was that of a generational and value shift from one of non-violent, passive activism to a more anti-establishment, in-your-face, activism. This tension was represented largely as a pull between Big Ma’s values (the values of someone who has loved and supported Delphine her whole life) and the intrigue and discovery of her mother’s values (a woman who had abandoned her children and who refuses to play the stereotypical role of caregiver) This tension is also present between the older versus the younger members of the center.

    I am so curious to see how this is used in a classroom!

  9. I agree with Carla that Rita Williams-Garcia’s three sisters were endearing, well developed characters and it was easy to love them. I would have to say this well rounded middle grade novel impressed me with both it’s depth and style, as Pam Munoz Ryan’s Esperanza Rising did when I first read this over 10 years ago. Delphine’s protective and astute personality reveal a strong protagonist that I think many older siblings who have assumed this role may be able to relate to. Or as a younger sibling myself, I have seen Delphine’s qualities in my own older sister.

    As Kate and Naomi point out, the perspectives of the three sisters, especially Delphine’s, allow to reader to enter the some of experiences of the Black Panthers from this her unique adolescent perspective. It is not only the more common images of the movement; “in sky blue t-shirts with pictures of black panthers on them, stood tall, patrolling the park. Policemen also stood tall, holding on to their wooden clubs”(192). But the everyday experiences and new understandings that Williams-Garcia recreates; “We found the Center like Cecile said we would. A line of kids waited for breakfast, except they weren’t all black…”(62).She goes on to share her awareness of her misconception; “I thought Black Panthers would only look out for black people, but there were the two Mexicans, a little white boy, and a boy who looked both black and Chinese”(63). The readers are taking this journey with Delphine and I think this is approachable way to understand history for young adolescent readers.

    Alongside Delphine’s growing understanding of the movement and her discovery of her mother’s involvement and eventually understanding of her mother’s past, were also the forming unforgettable adolescent relationships with Hirohito and Eunice. Most importantly, Delphine forms a stronger understanding and pride of her self. Throughout the novel, from the moment she is on the airplane, she is steadfast and strong but she becomes even braver. She enters Celine’s forbidden kitchen, says no the the rally (at first), brings her sisters on an excursion, goes to the rally despite Celine’s arrest, and even flies down the hill on the Hirohito’s despised go-cart.

    Like Alex mentioned above, we can move on and get stronger and this happens in One Crazy Summer. Going back to the first class and the question posed: do our characters have to be role models? No. I don’t think so. But I think Delphine is a character our young readers can certainly relate to and look up to.

  10. Montserrat Cubillos says:

    I have been looming at books that deal with the mother-daughter relationship for my bibliography, and so was happy to analyze how the girls dealt with their mother in One Crazy Summer. With Delphine, I felt disappointed every time Cecile did not do what Delphine expects of her. I believe the author takes a risk in portraying a mother who does not look like one, not even at the end. I found it surprising and painful that Cecile never behaved like I would have wanted her to (I noticed that when Fern and the girls hug her, the Delphine does not tell us how Cecile reacted). This depiction of a mother is enhanced by Delphine’s sweet voice. I found myself angry and sad at Cecile’s actions. Yet, I understood how my “pain” was necessary in order to “enjoy” the part where Cecile tells her story and the ending. The author played with my feelings, but at least she made smile at the end.

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