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One Crazy Summer

By Rita Williams-Garcia

Reviewed by Jordan B. Nielsen 

Recommended for: Primarily girls, aged 10 and Up for some illusions to historical violence and racism and complicated family dynamics. The story is narrated by a girl, and features mainly women, but there is nothing that would particularly alienate boys.

One Word Summary: Vibrant.

That crack you hear when opening the first pages of One Crazy Summer isn’t the binding breaking open, it’s the sound of a starting pistol launching a story that runs with grace, speed and power.

It’s 1968, and Delphine, Vonetta and Fern are flying to Oakland to meet their mother for the first time. Having grown up in Brooklyn with their father and father’s mother, the thunderous ‘Big Ma’, the girls have

always been curious and a little afraid of who this woman who birthed them and then fled could be. Only Delphine, the oldest at eleven and the story’s narrator, has memories of their mother, Cecile, which she can only recall as patchy, hazy images that are more like feelings than actual events. What she knows is that this woman is an eccentric who used to scribble verses on the walls and cereal boxes. What she and none of her sisters could have anticipated was the cold welcome waiting for them on the other side. Cecile may have agreed to take the girls for a month but she was by no means happy about it and brings new meaning to the word ‘neglectful’. Once in California, the girls are left to fend for themselves as Cecile sequesters herself in her kitchen where she works on something unknown, coming out only to throw money at the girls for take-out Chinese food or to insult them in various fashions. For breakfast, Cecile directs them to the local community center, which gives out free meals and happens to be run by the Black Panthers. The center also has a summer camp in the afternoons that the girls fall into, a sort of day care meets re-education program, and both the girls and the readers are treated to a

softer presentation of the Black Panthers, a segment more interested in community development and respect than political extremism.

But of course the story is less about the frenetic, revolutionary climate of Oakland in the late sixties than it is about the reconciliation between three daughters and their estranged mother. The emotional thrust of the story is handled with honesty, realism, and poignancy. The answers, when they come, aren’t easy and don’t make everything all better. Williams-Garcia is to be commended for avoiding easy sentimentality and the lure of a neat, happy ending, instead delivering a story that speaks truthfully about how complicated people are, how they will fail your expectations, and how in even the most incomprehensible of people, understanding is there to be found.

It would not be an overstatement to say that One Crazy Summer represents not only some of the best writing in children’s fiction, but of the craft. There is truly not one word out of place, not one moment where the narrator’s voice slips or loses its roaring authenticity, not one scene overworked, not one character underdeveloped. It really says something that my favorite character from the story, Big Ma, only appears in flashbacks, and yet still stands as a towering figure throughout.

“That’s mainly what I do,” Delphine tells us, “Keep Vonetta and Fern in line. The last thing Pa and Big Ma wanted to hear was how we made a grand Negro spectacle of ourselves thirty thousand feet up in the air around all these white people.” That term ‘grand Negro spectacle’ clearly doesn’t come from Delphine, nor from her diminutive father, it’s all Big Ma; her clearly often repeated stern warnings to her grandchildren having pervaded their subconscious. It’s sweet and funny, and you can so clearly imagine the way in which the character would have said it, but it’s also deeply informative of the state of mind of African American people in that time period (likely even today): the feeling of having to hold so much back for fear of rattling the delicate sensibilities of the white people who surround them at every turn, the certainty that your self-- the way you naturally are--will only be met with scorn, disapproval and rejection by the people outside your community. Garcia’s use of that archetypal character, the older, commanding African American matron, is leveraged with such great effect. Big Ma informs modern readers of any ethnicity, of exactly what she is trying to shield her granddaughters from by so tightly controlling their behavior. 

A National Book Award Finalist, a Coretta Scott King Award Winner, a Newbery Honor Book, a Junior Library Guild Selection, a Scott O’Dell Prize Winner, and now, a member of The Rusty Key’s Golden Key Collection. Outstanding. 

© Jordan B. Nielsen, 2012

Coming of Age
New Classics
Golden Key Collection