Profile of 2016 CSK Author Award winner Rita Williams-Garcia

williamsgarcia_ritaWhenever I think of Rita Williams-Garcia, it is not long before the memory rises of a teen mother asking Rita a question at a school visit coordinated by my library, Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. The young women at the school had read Rita’s seminal novel Like Sisters on the Homefront in preparation for her author visit. “Did you know you were writing our story?” the teen mother asked. That pretty much sums up one of Rita’s most remarkable skills: the ability to craft many different stories and yet make each reader feel that she has zeroed in on that person’s particular story. This skill is nowhere more evident than in Rita’s One Crazy Summer trilogy. The richness of the storytelling in each of the three novels about the Gaither sisters has resulted in a remarkable achievement. Not since Mildred Taylor and her Cassie Logan saga has CSK Author Award recognition been bestowed on multiple titles in a series: now all three books in Rita’s trilogy have been awarded the Coretta Scott King Author Award: One Crazy Summer in 2011; P. S. Be Eleven in 2014; and this year’s winner, Gone Crazy in Alabama.

One Crazy Summer  p.s. be eleven  williams-garcia_gone crazy in alabama
Even as we readers settle into a comfortable familiarity with these vibrant characters, we see that each novel has as distinct a personality as Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern.

Gone Crazy in Alabama has the obvious distinction of taking place in a rural setting vastly different from the previous books’ urban streets of Oakland and Brooklyn, but there is so much more that makes it unique. For many African Americans, the American South, even in 1969, had a special draw—even when it wasn’t “sweet” or it wasn’t “home,” to paraphrase Toni Morrison in Beloved. As the Gaither girls prepare to leave for the bus trip that will reunite them with their grandmother Big Ma, their father has a heartfelt talk with them. “The South isn’t like Brooklyn. You’re not freedom riders going down south to kick up some dust. You girls have some mouths on you — I don’t know who to blame for that — your mother, [new stepmother] Marva, or those Panthers.” In just a few sentences the reader sees a father’s concern, the tenor of the times, and the spirit of the sisters presented with seemingly effortless skill. When the girls arrive in Alabama, Delphine’s connection to her family is palpable. “I wanted to be with my grandmother and my great-grandmother more than anything. I wanted us all to be together. As many of us under one roof as could fit. I needed to know we weren’t all falling apart.” This particular visit, at this critical time for the sisters, serves to reveal family secrets and broken relationships.

The girls are also changing in their relationships to one another, especially between older sister Delphine and middle sister Vonetta. Delphine is able to set aside her sibling responsibilities as she renews her friendship with her older cousin, JimmyTrotter. “Even though my cousin was bent on flaunting his age and height over me, I relished the time I spent with him apart from my sisters.” Like so many of the other members of the supporting cast, JimmyTrotter is a fully realized character. A young man who has known tremendous tragedy, he is nevertheless the picture of fortitude.

Another remarkable aspect of the narrative is the way family history can be intricately entwined with the history of a community or region. Rita accomplishes this without ever sacrificing the stories of the lively trio.

In many ways, the resilience of young people, especially when they are surrounded by family, comes through in each narrative. In the second book in the trilogy, Cecile, the girls’ mother, admonishes Delphine to “be eleven.” In other words: live each stage of life as it comes. Stay a child as long as you can, with the hope of a child, no matter how much our loved ones disappoint us, no matter how much change appears, no matter how fierce the storm.

As we celebrate the award for Gone Crazy in Alabama and bask in this rich closing chapter of the Gaither family, we cannot help wondering what part of the human story Rita Williams-Garcia will explore next.

Rita Williams-Garcia is the winner of the 2016 Coretta Scott King Author Award for Gone Crazy in Alabama, published by Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Books. Read Rita Williams-Garcia’s 2016 Coretta Scott King Author Award acceptance speech. From the July/August 2016 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles click the tag ALA 2016.

Deborah Taylor

Deborah Taylor

Deborah Taylor retired from the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, Maryland. She has chaired and served on many ALA committees and on the National Book Awards jury for young people’s literature. She was named the 2015 recipient of the Coretta Scott King/Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement. She currently serves as chair of the Ezra Jack Keats Awards Committee.

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