One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

One Crazy Summer, by Rita Williams-Garcia. HarperCollins, 2010, 215 pages.

Reading level: Middle Grades, 10-12one-crazy-summer

Maturity level: 4 (ages 10-12)

Bottom line: One Crazy Summer is a good way to introduce middle-grade readers to the Black Power movement and the  civil rights revolution of the 1960s.

Three girls–Delphine (11), Violetta (9), and Fern (7)–fly from Brooklyn to spend 28 days in Oakland with their mother Cecile, who (according to their grandma) is no kind of mama. It’s 1969, and Cecile is deeply involved in the Black Panther movement–though really, she’s even more involved in her own art and poetry, and the Movement is a convenient hook to hang her free expression on. “It wouldn’t kill you to be selfish, Delphine,” she tells our narrator. In a later conversation, she comes as close as she can to explaining herself: “‘I’ve been fighting for freedom all my life.'” But, reflects Delphine, she wasn’t talking about protest signs, standing up to the Man, and knowing your rights. She was talking about her life. Just her. Not the people.  Meanwhile, there’s a movement going on. Cecile shuttles the girls into the Panther-sponsored People’s Center summer camp, where they go through a period of adjustment: “We didn’t come for the revolution,” says Fern, in answer to Sister Makumbu, the director. “We came for breakfast.” Nevertheless, the revolution is well underway and Oakland is the epicenter of it–Huey Newton is in jail and “Li’l Bobby” Hutton has been gunned down by police while trying to surrender. Some of the outrage and intensity filter down to the girls, who all gain appreciation for the movement and for their own prickly mom–especially after she’s arrested and spends a few nights in jail. The climax is a community rally where the girls recite poetry and Cecile shows up to sort of congratulate them.

One Crazy Summer contains some radical rhetoric but no offensive language, adding up to a soft-focus intro to the Black Power revolution. Read with discretion, it’s a good way to introduce young people of no particular color to the innumerable slights, abuses, and injustices that characterized race relations at the time–which still wreak havoc today. One Crazy Summer romanticizes the Black Panthers but shows why their message was so compelling. And no doubt there were plenty of well-intentioned folks like Sister Makumbu to give the movement its gentler side. Delphine’s voice is clear and distinct and a joy to read. Her crazy summer widens her outlook without disturbing her essential character, which is dutiful, resourceful, and decent.  Also by this author: P. S. Be Eleven

Cautions: Violence (mostly off-stage), Worldview (intense racial rhetoric)

Overall value: 3.75

  • Worldview/moral value: 3.5
  • Artistic value: 4

Categories: Middle Grades, Historical Fiction, Multicultural, Award Winners, Discussion Starter*, American History, Life Issues

* Discussion Questions:

  • Literary element: How did Delphine change during the summer? How does the story show this change?
  • Thematic element: Cecile is what we might call a “difficult” character, meaning she’s hard to like. Is there anything you like or admire about her? What incident in the book illustrates this?
  • Extra research: Find out what happened to Black Panthers Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and Eldridge Cleaver. You may be surprised!

Cover image from Amazon; buy button is for the paperback edition

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Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

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