I worked at our school’s Scholastic Book Fair recently and bought several youth lit titles that sounded interesting and/or won awards. One Crazy Summer fits the bill on both counts. It was a National Book Award finalist, a Newberry Honor Book, and winner of both the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction and the Coretta Scott King Award, among many others. Set in 1968 California and narrated by an 11-year-old African American girl named Delphine, it tells the story of Delphine and her two younger sisters’ summer with their mother Cecile. Cecile walked out on the family in Brooklyn 5-6 years earlier, and against her will, her daughters have come for a visit for the first time since then.
Oakland, California, in 1968 was a turbulent place. As the author says in her acknowledgments, “I wanted to write this story for those children who witnessed and were part of necessary change. Yes. There were children.” In reading about the year 1968 in the US, it’s easy to forget that the tumult of that year — assassinations and race riots — had an impact on children. They saw it and lived in its midst. Delphine, Vonetta and Fern become acquainted with the Black Panthers firsthand in Oakland. Cecile wants nothing to do with her daughters and sends them out of the house for the day each morning, requesting that they stay away as long as possible (and stay out of her kitchen) so as not to disturb her work. Cecile is a poet who goes by the name Nzila and has her own printing press (a matter of some interest to the Panthers). Cecile directs them to the community center run by the Panthers where the girls get breakfast and attend the day program.
Initially, the girls are uninterested in the camp because their expectations upon arrival in California were so different. They envisioned Disneyland, sightseeing and generally being mothered by their mother. Instead they got classes on current events with neighborhood kids, taught by Black Panthers. The teachers and the service they provide don’t initially align with Delphine’s image of Panthers from TV. At the center, she sees people who are helping in their community, although one — Kelvin — strikes a nerve when he makes fun of Fern for having a white doll. The white doll becomes an issue later in the story and is a factor in the final (and very satisfying) resolution of the novel.
While Delphine as narrator and oldest sister is the dominant character, each sister comes into her own by the end of the story. Cecile is a source of both fascination and terror for the girls and we finally learn her story at the end, too. I really enjoyed the characters — Cecile, the sisters, the other kids at the center, the Black Panthers — because they’re colorfully drawn, from the perspective of an 11-year-old. There’s the humor, love and bluntness we’d expect in someone that age. It makes it fun to read.
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and applaud the other for taking on a time period and topics that might seem inappropriate for young readers. The fact is, kids often know more about the gritty reality of their world than we imagine because they do live in it. They are there, and while their perceptions might not be fully informed, they are important because their experience influences who they become.