“One Crazy Summer” by Rita Williams-Garcia

My choice for the Newbery Award for 2011 would have gone to “One Crazy Summer” (Amistad – HarperCollins 2010) by Rita Williams-Garcia. It is6609764 one of the group of five winners. That is, a Newbery Honor.

In 1968 at the height of the civil rights movement, three black sisters, Delphine, (eleven years old), Vonetta (nine), and Fern (seven) travel from Brooklyn to Oakland, California to visit their mother, Cecile.

Delphine only has fleeting memories of her mother who abandoned them and Papa days after Fern was born. Now Cecile, who calls herself Nzila, writes poems and prints them on a press in her kitchen. She has neither time nor warmth for her children and so sends them to the People’s Center summer camp each day. The Black Panthers run the camp, feed the poor, and educate the children of poor black Oakland to what they called revolution, but we today see as “black pride.”

Through Delphine’s practical eyes we begin to understand a changing world where she, in charge of her sisters, does not want them to make a “grand Negro spectacle” of themselves on the airplane and where the summer camp teachers insist they are “black” when she and her sisters insists they are “colored”.

Through the responsible and straight-forward Delphine, we experience the rifts that occur between “showy crowy” Vonetta, sweet baby Fern, and herself. Each character is distinct and well-developed, and we feel we know and love this family. In fact, we’ll never forget them.

As the story unfolds, and as the girls develop black pride, we begin to discover, through Delphine’s eyes, why their mother left them. We see the fragile connection between mother and daughters build to an honest, aching climax. We see how a political movement affects personal life in the example of one family. This is an emotionally charged and honest—oh so honest—novel. A jewel.

My second “reading” of this book was listening to the Recorded Books production of “One Crazy Summer,” read by Sisi Aisha Johnson. Ms. Johnson’s inflection is a perfect portrayal and support of the author’s voice, giving just enough softness to Delphine’s voice and Fern’s gentle little girl-ness with one half ounce of sass added in. Her adult voices and men’s voices are all spot on. What a fine collaboration between reader and author.

“One Crazy Summer” also won the Coretta Scott King Award, I’m happy to report.

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4 comments on ““One Crazy Summer” by Rita Williams-Garcia
  1. Sheila Welch says:

    I was a teacher in an inner city school in 1967 — 1969, and all but one of my students were black. When one of the girls came to class with her hair in an Afro-style, another teacher reprimanded her and sent her to the washroom to “fix” her head. This was an excellent black teacher who felt strongly that the girl was expresssing a radical opinion with her hair. I’d already told the student how much I liked her new look. I wasn’t totally blind to the racial issues of the time, but I really didn’t comprehend their complexity. ONE CRAZY SUMMER is a great book that opens eyes and hearts. It was my choice for the Newbery although I have not read all of the honor books. Thanks for your detailed review!

  2. Sheila Welch says:


    I attended my husband’s reading club yesterday because they were discussing THE HELP. I’d heard the author interviewed on NPR when the book first came out but only read it recently. The comments made by the people around the table were really interesting — all white, all well educated and well read and all over 50. Several had stories to tell about their own lack of awareness of racial issues as they grew up. I liked the book a lot and think its most important attribute is the way it has sparked discussions. Anyone who is remotely concerned with how race impacted (impacts?) society in the USA, could learn a lot from reading and discussing ONE CRAZY SUMMER, THE HELP, THE DARKEST CORNER , and WARRIORS DON’T CRY.

    Maybe we could get a group together sometime. 🙂

  3. A discussion group sounds like a good thing to me. I’d like to take part.

    I read The Help and liked it. When I was about to see the movie I was advised to boycott it. I had to wonder how different was the movie from the book. I discovered that members of the academic black community were offended by the movie (and the book) because it was a white person who instigated the change. And black men were depicted as violent.

    At some point, I decided to see the movie and I thoroughly enjoyed it– and to a surprising degree. I felt that the black women were heroes–even more so than the white protagonist, Skipper. That is, I championed the black maids–sided with them a hundred percent. As for the violence of the black men, it was all off-stage or off-scene and only suggested, so that didn’t offend me.

    I feel that the author Kathryn Stockett has every right to tell her story and her story was one instigated by a young white woman.

    Still it’s interesting to know that a segment of the black population is offended by what I found enlightening and did not dream would be offensive. We still have a lot farther to go in our nation with race relations, of course.

  4. Sheila Welch says:


    When my writers’ group met yesterday morning, we talked for a little while about The Help. Everyone except our 13-year-old member had read and/or seen the movie. Everyone felt it was well done and enlightening. I mentioned how some people want a boycott of the movie, and several in our group thought that the reason was racist — whites objecting to such an honest portrayal of Jim Crow mentality. They were surprised to learn that the objection came from the black community.

    Now, thinking about this boycott and the general feeling that it isn’t right for a white person to tell a story 2/3 from a black perspective, I wonder if that attitude isn’t racist on the part of the blacks who espouse it. After all, if a black writer of fiction published a novel in which several white characters narrated parts of the story and the white community objected, saying that wasn’t his story to tell, that objection would be labeled racist.

    Personally, I liked the book very much and in some ways liked the movie even better. I think this story needed to be told and am glad Kathryn had the nerve and persistence to tell it as honestly as she could.

    Many years ago my husband and I adopted our first child, a black infant. Not long after that, black social workers began to object strongly to the placement of kids across racial lines. In some ways, I understood their reasons, but at the time, our son would probably not have found a family at all if we had not adopted him. He would have grown up in a series of foster homes. Some things just need to be done — whether they fit long term, worthy societal objectives or not. Our family now includes seven kids and seven grandkids with a nice mixture of skin tones.

    Getting back to the rights of authors to tell others’ stories . . . when our kids were little, I was delighted to discover books by Ezra Jack Keats. Perfect for our kids! Only years later did I discover Keats was white. Now there are books published by talented black authors and illustrators. Maybe The Help will inspire more blacks who lived during the 50s, 60s, and 70s to tell their stories. I have a feeling that publishers and readers would be delighted.

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