Thursday, August 29, 2013

One Crazy Summer and One Fabulous Story

Every student who makes it to middle school has heard of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but how many know about Malcolm X or the Black Panthers? An underrepresented piece of this important history comes alive in this tale of sisterhood, motherhood, and a bigger need to be heard and treated with equality. In Rita Williams-Garcia's beautifully written story, One Crazy Summer comes alive with the way the world existed in Oakland in 1968.

Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern are packed up and ready to be shipped across the country to spend the summer with their mother Cecile who they haven't seen in years. Once Fern was born, Cecile left them to be cared for by their father and grandmother in Brooklyn and never looked back. While Big Ma questions Papa's judgment for sending them across the country to a woman who doesn't want them, the girls are full of nerves and excitement. As the oldest, Delphine is expected to make sure her sisters behave and don't embarrass Big Ma and Papa by being the "black girls everyone expects them to be". The color of their skin means they have to be better behaved than any white girl would have to be. 

When they arrive in California, it is clear Cecile didn't want them to come. She sends them by themselves to get Chinese food for dinner every night and to the Center to get free breakfast every morning. She won't even let them into her kitchen to get a proper glass of water. And she doesn't hold back from reminding them that she didn't want them there in the first place. When there is a knock on the door, she shoos them into the back room and tells them to stay back there and stay quiet. But Delphine can't help but peak and she sees men in black clothes with large afros: Black Panthers. She had seen some Panthers in Brooklyn, but they weren't like the men she sees now, with her mother. As the days continue on and Delphine continues to take care of her sisters while her mother ignores them, she starts to learn more and more about who she is as a young black woman. The Center is full of Panther information and the summer classes revolve around learning not to trust The Man. While others are content to fight in any way they can, Delphine can't help but remember her one priority: keeping her sister safe. And if the Man shot an unarmed black boy in his underwear just because he was a Panther, they wouldn't think twice about three little girls who their own mother doesn't even want.

This story was so rich with amazing historical facts and personal, real family emotions that I can barely wrap my head around it all! First and foremost is the emotional family dynamic. Williams-Garcia must have younger sisters because this incredibly realistic portrayal of three sisters is so perfect it made me laugh and cringe thinking about my own childhood with my sister. Everything from the way they parrot their older sister, to their precocious goofiness, to their enthusiasm about everything Delphine doesn't want them to do, all of it is so skillfully written you would think you were there with your own sisters! 

Then you have Cecile. At first I was shocked their father would just ship them out to her, but I realized by the end that he cared about her and trusted her with his kids. Cecile was such a dynamic yet subtle character that you really had to read between the lines to fully appreciate the character Williams-Garcia created. At first it appeared she was working for the Black Panthers, and then it felt like she was somehow forced into it. Then it seemed she didn't believe everything they stood for and then she lectured her daughter about being her own woman and not adopting the housewife subservience her gender has been forced into. It was a little confusing at times, but it made Cecile more human, more real. But more importantly, this story gave life to the Women of this movement, the women caught in between a war of men. From Big Ma back home, a poor but strong southern woman, to the ladies at the Center to Cecile, this was a wonderful book to allow your young readers to see a side of the story never talked about: how it affected the women these men belonged to. I loved this angle on the story, especially since we never hear about the women of the Black Panther movement.

And finally, this story is a much needed addition to the world of our cultural and racial history in this country. Everyone likes to talk about MLK, but what about the other side of the movement? They are an important part of our legacy, but it isn't taught as openly in schools, so I am glad to see a book that is appropriate for middle readers that also opens their eyes to a part of their cultural they most likely haven't been exposed to yet. There isn't a deep understanding of the Panthers, but enough to pique their interest. This might be a story best taught in a class or read with a parent in order to help them fully understand the nature of the revolution. I am really glad there is a book like this out there. It is a great addition to the shelves of our libraries and our classrooms. 

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