Monday, December 6, 2010

YA Book Review: One Crazy Summer

Rita Williams-Garcia's YA novel One Crazy Summer is perhaps the best example of dialogue and voice I've read this year.  What I admire in her writing is that each voice is distinct, each character is clearly defined, and each character plays an important role in the evolution of the story.  I teach my creative writing classes that some of the strongest stories (books, film, or otherwise) start with strong characters.  This will be a great book to draw their attention to for that reason.

One Crazy Summer wraps the radically changing political and social climate of 1968 around three children (ages seven through twelves) on a journey to meet their mother.  Abandoned seven years ago, the three sisters are put on a plane by their father so that they could meet their mother: a poet and political activist.  Upon arrival, the girls are an imposition on their mother, Cecile/Nzila, and soon their dreams of what California could be (Disneyland, beaches, plucking fruit from trees) disintegrates.  Thrust into the heart of the poor, urban landscape of 1968 San Francisco, the girls spend time at the summer camp run by the Black Panthers instead of meeting Tinkerbell.

There are several journeys at play here: the girls relationship with their mother; the oldest sister, Delphine's social and political education; the youngest sister, Fern/Afua's growth from carrying a baby-doll to becoming a poet; and the reader's re-education to the fact that children are always directly impacted by everything in our communities on small and even global scales.  Williams-Garcia notes at the end of her book that she did a lot of research to help her do justice to climate of the times, and she adds:
I wanted to write this story for those children who witnessed and were part of necessary change.  Yes.  There were children.
 It is her attention to the detail of the children, her strongest characters, which give the book a lot of charm and make it a really enjoyable, energetic, read.  There is a wonderful balance among the characters: aside from their personalities and interests, the older sister takes care of the younger sister, while the middle sister clamors for attention of her own and runs off befriending other girls.  Also, each is viewed similarly by the mother at the start of the book, then that view separates as Delphine is allowed privileges the other two are not.  Interestingly, the youngest receives the negative attention, while the middle, Vonetta, receives hardly a glance by the mother throughout the novel until the very last scene.

Meanwhile, part of me doesn't see this as a novel about the girls, even though the oldest, Delphine, narrates it.  I am so tempted to say that this is indeed the mother's novel.  It is her story.  Their mother starts as an enormous physical and emotional barrier and slowly throughout the novel, each layer of her wall comes down: she abandoned the girls before the story starts; when they finally meet her she throws the girls out of her house all day; she doesn't cook for them; she forbids them to go into her kitchen; she refuses to call her youngest daughter by her name, she just calls her 'Little Girl,' and she doesn't even physically touch them, no warm hug, no hand on the back or in the hair; and then bit by bit the girls make progress, which I don't want to reveal, until the final moments of the novel.

Standing in line to board the plane to return home to Brooklyn, the girls physically begin to tremble and shake.  Tears?  Perhaps.  But there is a sense in Garcia-Williams' writing that this is a more base emotion, something erupting from the core of what it is to be human.  The girls need to hug their mother...for the first time:
How do you fly three thousand miles to meet the mother you hadn't seen since you needed her milk, needed to be picked up, or were four going on five, and not throw your arms around her, whether she wanted you to or not?
The girls get their hug, but reading between the lines, Cecile/NZila gets her hug.  And an education.  She has daughters and always will have daughters.

Highly recommended for 6th grade through 8th grade (and beyond) this is a terrific story just for story's sake, but it will also be a nice teaching tool in a creative writing class because some of the author's skills here are just so strong.

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