By Jeana Gockley
JOPLIN, Mo. —
“One Crazy Summer”
By Rita Williams-Garcia
Grades four through eight
It’s the summer of 1968 and 11-year-old Delphine and her two younger sisters, Vonetta and Fern, fly from Brooklyn to Oakland, Calif. They want to visit their mother, a poet who abandoned them after the birth of Fern.
Cecile’s tall, imposing presence is intimidating and not what the girls, at least Vonetta and Fern, were expecting. She picks them up from the airport wearing dark sunglasses and a head scarf — as though she does not want to be recognized — and hustles them into a taxi cab, onto a bus and finally to her green stucco house.
That’s where the three sisters discover they have to share one room for the length of their 28-day visit.
Cecile, or Inzilla as she now prefers to be called, refuses to allow the girls in her precious workspace — the kitchen — where, Delphine later finds out, she houses a printing press. So instead of home-cooked meals, she sends the girls out on a nightly basis to buy greasy, Chinese takeout.
It is after their initial night of takeout, when two men dressed in black visit Cecile’s house, that the girls discover that Cecile is involved with the Black Panthers.
It is through Cecile’s involvement, and her desire to have the girls out of her way, that the sisters spend practically every day during the next four weeks at the Black Panthers’ summer camp: They eat breakfast and take daylong classes on civil rights, revolution and the meaning of “Black Power.” They also have instructions from Cecile not to hurry home.
While little has been written for children about the Black Panthers, Rita Williams-Garcia — a Coretta Scott King Honor Author — approaches the topic with insight and honesty. She uses memorable, outspoken characters and an emotionally charged time in America’s past to create a superb historical fiction chapter book about children looking to reclaim their mother’s love.
Delphine’s narrative is spot on and Vonetta and Fern make equally unforgettable characters, with distinct personalities of their own. Readers who are looking for a traditional, cookie-cutter ending will not find it here. But they will get the closure they need and applaud Williams-Garcia’s brave finale.
Jeana Gockley is the children’s librarian at the Joplin Public Library.