The cover of One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia indicates that this is a book for kids 9 to 12. And, sure, the reading level will fit that group of kids.
But what makes the book so rich and courageous is that it deals with issues that kids will have to think about and deal with as adults — issues that are far from simple and aren’t likely to ever go away.
Set in 1968, One Crazy Summer is about three African-American sisters from Brooklyn — Delphine, 11; Venetta, 9; and Fern, 7 — who fly across country to spend 28 days in Oakland with the mother who walked out on them when Fern was a newborn.
Nearly everyone the sisters meet during their visit are black. This is a book about the black experience in 1968 and the black experience today, and its target audience are African-American kids. Even so, its secondary audience is all other kids.
The questions raised in this book have to be faced most directly by black kids and adults. But non-black kids and adults have to come up with their own answers to these questions as well.
For instance, the sisters spend their four weeks in the predominately black city of Oakland while, across the bay, is the predominately white city of San Francisco. Williams-Garcia doesn’t stress this fact, but it says a lot about the separation of the races in 1968. And it’s not much different today.
African-Americans confront that separation in many ways, whereas whites, often, can simply choose not to think about it. One Crazy Summer is a reminder to its non-black readers that they have to take responsibility for how they perpetuate this separation or break it down.
Let me list some of the questions this book raises:
- Why are Delphine and her sisters uncomfortable around whites?
- Why do they fear to cause “a grand Negro spectacle” in the midst of whites?
- Why didn’t the New York City-born mother of the sisters not get along with their father’s rural-born mother?
- Why did their mother feel she needed to leave them to go to Oakland to write poetry?
- Why is their mother associated with the Black Panthers in Oakland, a group feared by many whites as a violent revolutionary organization?
- Why do black men and women become Black Panthers?
- Why do the photos at the Black Panther Center include the party founder with a rifle but not Martin Luther King Jr.?
- Why do the people associated with the Black Panthers fear the police?
- How does the Black Panther reputation for violence mesh with the free breakfast and summer camp that the group runs?
- Why are non-blacks given a free breakfast too?
- Why do the sisters talk of themselves as Negroes or colored while, in Oakland, the term most used is black?
- Why does the kindly Black Panther teacher give a lesson in revolution?
- Why does Delphine say that two Black Panther men were using a lot of words “like talking was their weapon”?
- How good of a weapon are words?
- How powerful are the words in the poems that the mother of the sisters writes?
- Why does one Black Panther make mean-spirited fun of Fern’s white baby doll?
- Should Fern have a white baby doll?
- What does it mean when Delphine calls a boy in her class a Chinese-American when he’s a Japanese-American?
- What does it mean when Delphine’s mother criticizes her for being “so quick to pull the plow”?
- Why does the latest issue of Jet magazine have a list of TV shows on which blacks will be appearing in the coming week?
- Why is Delphine afraid that a Black Panther rally will be a dangerous place for herself and her sisters?
- When police come to arrest two Black Panthers who are talking with Delphine’s mother, why do they arrest her as well?
- Why is one of the Black Panthers an informant for the police?
- Why is it that a store owner in San Francisco acts like he is afraid that the three sisters are going to steal something when they come in his store?
A good book to read
All of these questions — and many others that could be asked — have to do with what it’s like to live in the United States as an African-American.
Some of them, such as the Jet magazine question, are rooted in the experience of 1968. Some things have changed since then, or have they? There may be more African-Americans on television today, but do numbers equal equality?
Most of the book’s questions can be asked about today as well as 1968.
Many books for kids 9 to 12 are meant to be read for fun. They may be adventures or comedies. Some may deal with a single tough issue, such as living in a single-parent family or facing an experience of racism.
Earlier, I described One Crazy Summer as a courageous book. That’s because Williams-Garcia has written a story that raises a host of related questions that have an impact on everyone who is black — and everyone who isn’t.
Her book shows a robust African-American way of life despite the way in which white society hems in blacks with limits and a lack of options.
Yet, it is also a fun read, a complex tale that, even amid the pain, is often joyful.
One Crazy Summer is a good book for kids to read. Adults too.
Patrick T. Reardon