Winner of the Scott O’Dell Award for Historic Fiction and awarded a Newbery Honor Book, One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia follows three young girls on their journey to discovering the mother that left them years ago, and ultimately their deeper roots as African Americans. The Brooklyn based New York natives are inundated into the Black Panther Society in California after leaving their stable environment. Delphine, the eldest, Vonetta, the middle, and Fern, the youngest, explore an entirely new world for their inexperienced minds as they fictionally take part in the movement towards equal rights for African Americans in 1968.
Threaded into the text are historical and current morals and values that pertain to African culture. The absent mother, Cecile also known as Nzila, is incorrectly blamed for leaving the family because she is not allowed to name Fern as she desires, “Afua.” This, along with Delphine’s depiction of the shame she feels in the discovery that Cecile had given her a name signifying dolphins, allows readers to feel the significance of a name. Garcia shows readers that it is not the name itself that is important, but instead the context of the name one is given; whether it is the name you give to yourself or owning the name that you were dubbed at birth. The power behind a self-proclaimed name is supported with a reference to Mohammed Ali to which the girls say is symbolic of a “mighty mountain.” Ali chose this name and used it for the betterment of himself, for his success, and to create an umbrella of unity for African Americans supporting him in his fights. In One Crazy Summer, the name of the Black Panthers has an umbrella effect as well, which offers security and strength for those who are seen as undeserving of power.
Garcia’s focus on the power of a given name also leads to a related thread of accepting the person you are and standing up for the unique qualities that make you different. The individuality of the three girls, as well as that displayed by other characters, greatly exemplifies the contributions each person can make within a community. Stemming from African culture, the sanctity of community is strongly emphasized in Garcia’s novel. Beginning the journey in their tightly knit small group, the girls are thrust into a larger community that collectively challenges the othering and belittling of African Americans. Thus, the children of the Black Panthers are taught to stand up for communal causes, for themselves, and for each other. Despite the internal chaos and fighting in the small group, Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern stick together within the larger community of the Black Panthers and outside in the intolerant world that fights against them. Delphine says, “If one of us said ‘colored,’ we all said ‘colored. Unless we were fighting among ourselves.”
The author also reflects on the importance of oral tradition and the power of the spoken word. As a poet, Cecile writes down all of her works creating in-depth structure and beautiful art, but she keeps it on paper and hidden within her kitchen. However, when her daughters read one of the poems at a rally, the crowd roars with enthusiasm and Cecile becomes an inspiration. Similarly, Fern creates her own poetry and of it states, “I didn’t write it. I said it.” Fern’s words unmask a traitor and strengthen the influence of the Black Panther society. She makes a difference because she uses the distinctive gift of her voice to reduce the power of those against her community. Fern does not shy away from the use of written language, but instead voices what is buried inside, setting herself and others free.
One Crazy Summer exemplifies children who struggle with identity, but become grounded in and happy with who they are individually and as a whole within their community. During their adventurous summer they find their roots, encouraging readers to discover where they come from and how the history of their ancestors influences them and their current world. Garcia beautifully modernizes historically significant events, helping children to appreciate and understand their rooted past through relatable context. Above all, One Crazy Summer pushes children to change the world utilizing their unique characteristics and talents. The novel allows them to see that accepting and loving one’s self as well as others is vital to bringing greater peace and equality to the world. Using the brilliant words of Rita Williams-Garcia, I repeat, “Today we’re going to be like the earth, spinning around and affecting many. Today we’re going to think about our part in the revolution.”
Recommended for Ages 9-12
HarperCollins Publishers, 2010
by Lauren Gee