One Crazy Summer, by Rita Williams-Garcia
It's the summer of 1968, and eleven-going-on-twelve Delphine and her two younger sisters—Vonetta, nine, and Fern, seven—are on an airplane for the very first time, flying from their home in New York City out to California to spend four weeks with their mother. It'll be the first time they've seen Cecile since she walked out on them shortly after Fern was born.
When they get there, they quickly realize that this isn't going to be the hugfest of a reunion that they've been imagining—in fact, it seems like Cecile doesn't want them there at all. Unlike back home with their father and Big Ma, Cecile seems to only eat takeout—which she makes them pick up—and she won't even let them set foot in her kitchen.
Every morning, she shoos them out of the house to go to the People's Center for the free breakfast that the Black Panthers provide, and then tells them to either stay at the Center for the children's summer camp, or to amuse themselves for the rest of the day. Most days, they stay at the Center—and by the end of the summer, they see their mother, their family, themselves, and the whole-wide world entirely differently.
One Crazy Summer is one of those books that I'm kicking myself for only having read now, but also sad that I can't read it again for the first time. It's flat-out fantastic. It deals with a million-and-one complicated, difficult topics—including race and racism, gender and gender roles, intergenerational conflict within families and intergenerational conflict in regards to social justice, parental abandonment, the homefront during wartime, economic class—but it does it in a way feels like a middle grade book about family and friendship and life and history, NOT a middle grade book about Issues.
For instance, this passage:
There's nothing cute about dropping things carelessly. Dropping garbage and having puppies shouldn't be called the same thing. "Litter." I had a mind to write to Miss Webster about that. Puppies don't deserve to be called a litter like they had been dropped carelessly like garbage. And people who litter shouldn't be given a cute name for what they do. And at least the mother of a litter sticks around and nurses her pups no matter how sharp their teeth are. Merriam Webster was falling down on the job. How could she have gotten this wrong? (15)
In this ONE PASSAGE, we've got a hilarious, Ramona Quimby-ish misconception on the part of our narrator—the idea that Merriam Webster is the name of the lady who wrote the dictionary—as well as commentary about the importance of names (a theme that crops up throughout) and a more veiled reference to her feelings about her mother's decision to leave the family. So there are at least three levels that those nine short sentences can be read on—that makes me so happy that I'm feeling blissed-out and swoony just thinking about it.
Yes, it's a historical, but like all of my favorite historicals—and, for that matter, fantasies and SF and any other genre—there are so many connections to our own present. Williams-Garcia hits on the importance of paying attention to how stories are framed by a supposedly objective media:
It wasn't at all the way the television showed militants—that's what they called the Black Panthers. Militants, who from the newspapers were angry fist wavers with their mouths wide-open and their rifles ready for shooting. They never showed anyone like Sister Mukumbu or Sister Pat, passing out toast and teaching in classrooms. (87)
And on the power and importance of representation:
Each week, Jet magazine pointed out all the shows with colored people. My sisters and I became expert colored counters. We had it down to a science. Not only did we count how many colored people were on TV, we also counted the number of words the actors were given to say. (118)
And on what it's like to grow up—a hard thing in itself—with the added pressure of knowing that because you're part of a marginalized group, that your behavior reflects on other people, and recognizing the unfairness of that. And on what it's like to grow up being afraid:
Reading that article had made me both angry and afraid. Angry someone as young as Bobby had been killed and afraid that if he could get shot for being with the Panthers, maybe it was too dangerous for us to be at the Black Panthers' summer camp. After all, they weren't teaching us how to deal with the police for nothing. And I was tall for my age. No one would thing I was just a girl going on twelve. The police who patrolled the Center could be chasing someone, burst in, shoot first, and ask questions later. (127-128)
My comparison to Cleary up above isn't just about the humor, it's also about how the harder issues and themes are woven in with the humor—the Ramona books dealt so, so much with economic hardship, and I feel like a lot of adults forget that. In One Crazy Summer, everything blends together in that same way, and on top of that, Williams-Garcia creates a nuanced, detailed picture of a specific family in a specific place and a specific time. And the ENERGY. The energy—the energy of revolution, the energy of eyes opening, the energy of personalities clashing—is palpable and real. In terms of actual action, this is a relatively quiet book, but the undercurrents are incredibly powerful.