Week 6: One Crazy Summer

Book summary: In the tumultuous summer of 1968, Delphine and her two younger sisters travel from Brooklyn to Oakland to visit their absentee mother, Cecile. Charged (as always) withe the care of the other girls, Delphine is determined that they should act like proper young ladies so they can impress their mother. But once there, Delphine begins to understand why Big Ma says Cecile is crazy – she doesn’t even use the name Cecile anymore! She’s the poet, Nzila. The girls are shocked to be told to walk down the street to pick up Chinese take-out for lunch, and even more stunned to be sent off to the community center for breakfast – and to stay out as long as they can. The day camp there is run by the Black Panthers, and slowly Delphine comes to reconcile the stories her dad and Big Ma have told them about the group, and the reality of the helpful Sister Mukumbu, the cool Sister Pat, and the mysterious boy Hirohito. The tension comes to a head when Nzila is arrested, and Delphine decides maybe making a little noise can be a good thing. But is four weeks enough for the girls to get what they need from Cecile?

My impressions: I don’t know if American History class still tends to cut off after WWII like it did when I was a student, but I never remember learning much about the Civil Rights Movement or the Black Panthers – we never got that far. Regardless, I think all students should read this book. It’s certainly more informative than Gone With The Wind, and probably more useful than The Crucible, both of which we were made to read for history class.

At first I had a hard time getting into the story of this book. I appreciated Delphine’s sensibility, and Vonetta’s thirst for attention, and Fern’s bossiness. But the early chapters feel like just that – telling you who is in the story. However, by the time the girls start going to the Panther day camp I was hooked and didn’t put it down again. Williams-Garcia does great job of delivering Delphine’s angst, without belaboring the point. I can only imagine what it was like to live at a time when half your society, half your family, was telling you to “go along and get along”, and the other half was outraged over basically being told: you’re free, now shut up. How much more confusing when you’re 11, and you’re the only mother your little sisters have ever known, you’re in a foreign city with no safety net. In the end I was cheering for how much the girls had grown over the summer, and wanted to cry that they had to go through so much.

Citation: Williams-Garcia, R. (2010). One crazy summer. New York, NY: Amistad.

Professional review:

“Eleven-year-old Delphine has only a few fragmented memories of her mother, Cecile, a poet who wrote verses on walls and cereal boxes, played smoky jazz records, and abandoned the family in Brooklyn after giving birth to her third daughter. In the summer of 1968, Delphine’s father decides that seeing Cecile is “something whose time had come,” and Delphine boards a plane with her sisters to Cecile’s home in Oakland. What they find there is far from their California dreams of Disneyland and movie stars. “No one told y’all to come out here,” Cecile says. “No one wants you out here making a mess, stopping my work.” Like the rest of her life, Cecile’s work is a mystery conducted behind the doors of the kitchen that she forbids her daughters to enter. For meals, Cecile sends the girls to a Chinese restaurant or to the local, Black Panther–run community center, where Cecile is known as Sister Inzilla and where the girls begin to attend youth programs. Regimented, responsible, strong-willed Delphine narrates in an unforgettable voice, but each of the sisters emerges as a distinct, memorable character, whose hard-won, tenuous connections with their mother build to an aching, triumphant conclusion. Set during a pivotal moment in African American history, this vibrant novel shows the subtle ways that political movements affect personal lives; but just as memorable is the finely drawn, universal story of children reclaiming a reluctant parent’s love…”

Engberg, G. (February 1, 2010). [Review of the book One Crazy Summer]. Booklist. Retrieved from http://www.booklistonline.com.

Library uses: While the texts about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks are so important, I would really put this book front and center for Black History Month. If I had a tween reading group, I would use it as a narrative introduction to the Civil Rights Movement, and include talks about protests, sit-ins, and marches. I think it would be interesting to have the kids make their own “protest” signs, to see what they consider injustice in their own lives, and to have a serious discussion about the difference between “rules” and “injustice”.

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