In the summer of 1968, when sisters Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern are put on a plane across the country from Brooklyn to Oakland, they are cautiously optimistic. They are going to California, after all, but they are going there to meet and stay with their mother, who left them before they could really remember her. Instead of the welcome hug they hope to receive from a long lost mother, they get a cranky, secretive woman who barely tolerates their being in her house, treating them neither like her children nor even like decent house guests. Instead of a vacation filled with trips to Disneyland, playing on the beach, and seeing movie stars, their California trip is four weeks stuck in a poor black Oakland neighborhood, spending their days at a youth summer camp run by revolutionary Black Panthers because their mother will not have them around all day, distracting her from her cryptic work as a poet. Will the sisters be able to get through these four weeks nearly on their own, and will they figure out the multitude of mysteries surrounding their mother, who won’t even let them set foot in her kitchen?
Delphine, at eleven years old, is one of the more mature, practical and memorable characters I’ve ever encountered in children’s literature, a strong and steady oldest daughter taking on the role of mother for her two little sisters. She deftly negotiates her sisters through numerous tense and tumultuous situations, showing great wisdom. Through Delphine’s eyes, the author shows us what it was like to be a black child in the midst of the radical late 60s. From the way she smartly calms her sisters on the plane to avoid them “making a grand negro spectacle of themselves,” to her studied assessment of the revolutionary rhetoric the girls are taught at the People’s Center as it compares to what she has learned from her father and grandmother, she shows a great understanding and gives the reader an insightful view of these times.
This would be a great book for any child who has ever been or felt abandoned by a parent. It gives no easy answers, neither unfettered condemnation nor forgiving justification for the mother’s actions, but rather shows things how they really are, without a false happy ending. It is also a great piece of historical fiction, giving readers an appreciation for the challenges and complexities of the times. Although its appeal may actually be more adult and I suspect most young readers won’t be busting down the library doors to read this one, One Crazy Summer is the best-written children’s novel I have come across this year, and therefore the strongest contender for the Newbery. (We’ll find out tomorrow.)
One Crazy Summer
Written by Rita Williams-Garcia
Amistad / HarperCollins
Release Date: January 26, 2010