One Crazy Summer is a salient read that illuminates revolutionary ideas and emotional nuance through a child’s perspective.
Rita Williams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer initially drew me in because its setting is Oakland, a city that’s near and dear to my heart. For a whirlwind of a year in college, I covered art and worked at a cultural nonprofit there. One Crazy Summer isn’t exactly a love letter to the city, but it captures the essence of what makes Oaktown so special. It’s truly a vibrant and down-to-earth community with a rich history of resistance.
One Crazy Summer takes place in Oakland in 1968 during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Three Black girls — Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern — leave their Pa and Big Ma in Brooklyn to visit their estranged mom Cecile in Oakland. They find their dreams of Disneyland and beaches quickly squashed as they skirt around their eccentric mother in her green stucco house. Cecile, who goes by the name Nzila, is a prolific poet and supporter of the Black Panthers. She isn’t keen on having her children around — they do their best to mind their own business and subsist on takeout Chinese food. The girls spend their time at a summer camp sponsored by the Black Panthers at The People’s Center. They eat breakfast there each morning and help with organizing newspapers, coloring posters, and sharing flyers with other young kids. The organizers who lead them bring to light the police-inflicted death of Bobby Hutton and arrest of Huey Newton.
I really loved how Williams-Garcia spotlights the perspective of young children in One Crazy Summer. Because, obviously, there were children in one of the most revolutionary moments of American history. We see how insidiously social inequities affect their lives — children go hungry and parents get arrested. The kids, for the most part, just want to play. But circumstances make them increasingly aware of injustices. They soon become part of the resistance and experience a social awakening of their own.
Williams-Garcia beautifully toes the line between lively and somber when it comes to the book’s tonality. She illuminates the story through Delphine’s perspective, rendering the story both heartbreaking and empowering. Delphine has been through difficult times, put into a circumstance that requires her to grow up fast and care for her younger sisters. She’s emotionally mature and astute. She doesn’t want to create trouble. But Delphine is also 11-years-old. She wants souvenirs like the fortune slips in fortune cookies and postcards from San Francisco. She desires her mother’s affection. Williams-Garcia’s words reflect this nuanced point-of-view. We see Delphine, in her narration, approximating her sisters’ emotions as a mother would. But she also speaks with snappy and short sentences, sprinkling in phrases such as “monkey grinder’s accordion” and “big-beaked Crazy Kelvin.”
One Crazy Summer beautifully marries a young girl’s radical political awakening with the development of her emotionally complicated relationship with her mother. Powerful without being overly sentimental, it asks us to remember the children.
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