Saturday, March 5, 2011

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

I’ve confessed this before, but I’ll say it again. I didn’t want to read One Crazy Summer. Maybe it was the mother who abandons her children. Maybe it was set in an era of history which never held much interest for me. Maybe I was just looking for another book with laughs or adventure.

But now that I’ve read the book, and the cover has more medals (four) than main characters (three), I’m ready to state the truth. I should have read it long before I felt obligated to do so by the 2011 Newbery committee.

Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern are sisters who live in Brooklyn with their father and grandmother. One Crazy Summer opens with the five of them in John F. Kennedy airport, the three children preparing to fly to Oakland, California for a four-week stay with the mother who abandoned them when Delphine was four, Vonetta was barely walking, and Fern not yet taking a bottle. Seven years ago.

Their mother, Cecile, is there to pick them up when they arrive, but things are suspicious from the start. Not bothering to help with their bags, Cecile greets her daughters with “Come on,” turns, and begins walking, the gap between mother and daughters growing steadily. At the airport exit Cecile realizes the girls have fallen behind. He second sentence to her daughters? “Y’all have to move if you’re going to be with me.”

That first night at Cecile’s house includes directions to their bedroom, a demand to stay out of the kitchen, dinner from a Chinese take-out, and a visit from three strangers in black t-shirts and jackets with black berets over their Afros, speaking phrases like “Seize the time” and “For the people” and “The time is now” and words ending in tion, ism, and actic.

The next morning Cecile says, “If you girls want breakfast, go’n down to the People’s Center.” At the People’s Center Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern get not only breakfast, but a personal introduction to the Black Panthers. The sisters quickly become part of summer programs at the People’s Center. Yes, there is poster making, lessons about revolution and revolutionaries, and politics, but there’s also free meals and helping the community. The People’s Center provides the mothering that Cecile won’t - and Delphine can’t - provide.

While this story offers readers like me a look into the world of the Black Panthers in the late 1960’s, at it’s core One Crazy Summer is about Delphine and the conflict between her eagerness to mature and her need to be a child. The more I read, the more I liked all three sisters, and the more I longed for them to finally receive what they came all they way to Oakland to get.

And it’s this emotional investment that makes the conclusion (and Rita Williams-Garcia's entire book) extremely satisfying.

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