Monday, November 25, 2013

Book Review: One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

I guess the NBA folks, Coretta Scott King people, Newberry group and Scott O'Dell crew knew something I didn't - until now. And now I'm getting on the bandwagon, so scoot over.

I've read a lot of good middle grade books in the past eighteen months, and One Crazy Summer perches near the top of that list. It's one of those books that whispers to me every now and then, although I read it almost a year ago.  References to Cassius Clay, Oakland's riots, and President Kennedy, help to set the tone and perspective of our young black story teller.

Expertly told in first person, the first chapter whisks us away with three little girls as the oldest child considers why she and her sisters are on a plane, flying to Oakland from JFK. In her mind, there seems to be no good reason for the summer trip to California, leaving her father behind in Brooklynn. Their mother left them, after all, so why was their father sending the girls across the country to a mother they barely knew?

It's not until the middle of chapter two when we actually learn our narrator's name. But by then, we already know Delphine and root her on, hoping the mother she seeks to know in Oakland will show some motherly behavior to - if not her - then at least her younger sisters, who do not even remember the person who gave them life.

The beloved pink baby doll, which youngest sister Fern totes everywhere she goes, takes on special significance throughout the story. Especially when a black magic marker "colors" the doll and introduces new conflict among the girls.

There's a lot happening in Oakland during 1968, and Delphine senses some of the significance of the time and place. But mystery surrounds Delphine's mother and what her mother does in the kitchen. Why does she so fiercely protect whatever the kitchen harbors while seeming not to care for the girls? Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern just can't understand.

But Delphine continues to care for her sisters while slowly discovering a bit more about her mother, a poet and Black Panther. With the backdrop of turbulent racial struggles, this is still a story about belonging. Or maybe a combination of fighting for justice while trying to fit in. In any case, One Crazy Summer shows a small family, and a larger community, struggling with universal issues of belonging and fairness.

Readers will appreciate the developing relationships and changing dynamics the children face as the girls careen from one situation to another. This book is rich with effortless metaphors and social commentary without feeling didactic in the least.

Rita Williams-Garcia penned a simple yet multi-layered historical fiction work in One Crazy Summer. I highly recommend this book to anyone.

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