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The past made present | class #3, spring 2017


Next Tuesday (February 7), the YA literature class will be discussing several books on the theme “The past made present,” considering both nonfiction and historical fiction. A number of these works address the topic of Civil Rights.

  • One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

  • 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

  • Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steven Sheinkin

  • Claudette Colvin by Phillip Hoose

  • Marching For Freedom by Elizabeth Partridge

Supplemental readings:

Everyone will be reading One Crazy Summer; they will choose to read either No Crystal Stair or Most Dangerous; and they are being asked to explore (but not necessarily read in full) either Claudette Colvin or Marching to Freedom.

We welcome all of you to join the discussion on any of these titles or the topic at large.


Historical Fiction and Nonfiction

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

Good nonfiction shares many of the qualities of good fiction; the best writers pay as much attention to narrative, style, and characterization as to careful research of the facts. Design is another important feature of much nonfiction. Which literary elements strike you most in the works for this week?

Respond to any of these questions and/or comment on the relationship and interplay between the two genres.

Lauren Adams
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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Oops, never posted this late before…but I did get to read everyone’s fascinating comments! One Crazy Summer was an absolute treasure: a skillful portrayal of three sisters, each with their own voice and individuality. They can be enemies one second, but then stand up for each other in a heartbeat. It was riveting just to see how they’d play off each other. Delphine is a memorable character, and I can identify with her self-imposed sense of responsibility for her younger siblings—admirable, but sometimes you have to let go and “just be 11.” She is super perceptive about other people and her own behavior/speech, and she likes control. Thus, she hates it when she loses control of herself (like when she’s scared of an adult, or when she has feelings for Hirohito). It’s great to see whenever she lets go and allows herself to enjoy herself, like the go-cart scene. I love Bobby’s comment that people’s daily experiences are the atoms of history, and I agree with Shaina that the novel presented history without being didactic. The book makes the 60s really come alive without being forced (unlike Eleanor and Park, which I felt was a bit inorganic in its overt 80s references, though I still liked them!). I definitely had a single story about the Black Panthers, so like Gardenia, I was driven to read more about them online. There are a lot of different views on Cecile. As Sophia shared, I, too, was absolutely frustrated by Cecile's unwillingness to have an open mind toward her daughters. I don’t know that her emotional baggage can excuse her behavior, yet her story is realistically complex, and as Uttara points out, it is good that there’s no neat fairy tale resolution to their relationship. Nevertheless, I still melt at their airport good-bye when the girls know they needed to hug their mother. Finally, shout-out to Rebecca for praising the insightful descriptions of the teacher’s style. Some kids really are very aware of how they’re being taught!

Posted : Feb 07, 2017 08:03

Andrea M.

I enjoyed reading "One Crazy Summer" very much, both for the story itself and the historical facts along it. I think the merging of these elements was well achieved by Williams-Garcia. I certainly saw myself reflected in Delphine's relationship with her sisters, just as Katie mentioned, having two younger brothers myself; but I was also engaged by the underlying historical events. These were particularly interesting to me since I've had limited exposure to American History, like Gardenia and Nana commented, and I was certainly intrigued and willing to learn much more about this period "as it was lived" like Bobby said.

Posted : Feb 06, 2017 10:38

Alice Wang

About One Crazy Summer: I have mixed feelings about this book. It does several things successfully: Sister relationships, kids who have to take on extra responsibility at a young age, homeless teens, and political action in America in the 1960s. And all within a palatable mid-elementary storyline. I worry, though, that kids far removed from that time and place will somehow get the picture that the black panthers condoned abandoning your children. The panther characters in this book seem angry, dogmatic, and tone-deaf to the needs of the actual people in front of them (other than food). The reasons for their political movement and the history behind them are only briefly touched upon. The ending also implies that everything is now okay. Delphine's mother may have told the story of her hard life; it explains, but does not erase, the hardness she has shown her girls.

Posted : Feb 06, 2017 10:08

Ana Roche-Freeman

I really enjoyed One Crazy Summer, Rita Williams-Garcia did a wonderful job depicting how the three young sisters experienced so much more that just a summer visit with their mother. The story intertwines the complexity of the relationships between the sisters and their mother with historical the historical content of the era. At first like others I was frustrated with Cecile’s actions an lack of affection towards the girls, but I do agree with Jennie P that although Cecile left her children and chose the revolution, her affection does become clear toward the end of the book. I think it is a great to dele into historical content while being drawn in by the relationships Williams-Garcia creates. I also read and enjoyed “No Crystal Stair” by Lewis Michaux. I enjoyed the commentary and the relationships in the book, the depiction of book store and all the conversations that took place there Lewis Michaux love of books and passion for education were so apparent.

Posted : Feb 06, 2017 09:45

Nana Seiwaa Sekyere

Like Gardenia, I wasn’t familiar with the historical context of the One Crazy Summer. I have heard of the Black Panthers but did not really know much about them. Sarah brought up a good point about supplementing this text with nonfiction texts about the Black Panthers. One Crazy Summer gives the reader a lens into snippets of the Black Panther movement and it certainly would be helpful for students to be able to delve deeper into its meaning. Throughout the book I wondered what Cecile had named Fern and was pleasantly surprised when it was revealed at the end of the book. Going off the windows and mirrors theme we discussed last week, I felt like I was looking through a window for most of the book but learning that Cecile named Fern ‘Afua’ was my mirror moment. I’m from Ghana and some tribes name their children based on the day of the week they are born. Afua is an Akan name given to a girl born on Friday.

Posted : Feb 06, 2017 09:34

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