Book review: One Crazy Summer

Rita Williams Garcia’s One Crazy Summer hooked me right away. Narrator Delphine, a spunky 11-year-old girl, travels across the country with her sisters to see their mother, but spends her summer at a Black Panther camp for kids in 1960s Oakland, California.

Having just read Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, similarities jumped out: the strong first-person voice of a young black girl coming of age in the 1960s, and an absent mother who returns and struggles with her own identity. Although One Crazy Summer is fiction and Brown Girl Dreaming is memoir, both resonate with an unforgettable, confident character growing up in a turbulent time and place.

Traveling alone from New York City to Oakland to visit their mother, who deserted them six years earlier, Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern hope that Cecile will greet them with open arms. Instead, a woman dressed like “a secret agent” strides ahead of them, demanding that they “keep up.” This mother doesn’t want them in the house–especially the kitchen–so she sends them to the Black Panther-led Community Center down the street for free breakfast and activities.

This is a different view of the Black Panthers than Delphine–or most readers–has from TV (or history books). At first, the girls are frightened of the tall men with black berets, and Crazy Kelvin seems to enjoy being a bully, but soon they are welcomed to a hot meal, free clothing, and arts and crafts with kind Sister Mukumbu and Sister Pat. As Delphine says, “I started to think, This place is all right. I watched the white guys leave unharmed, laughing even. I couldn’t wait to tell Big Ma all about it.”

The mystery is their mother. Why does she refuse to call Fern by her name? Why does everyone call her Nzilla instead of Cecile? What’s she hiding in her kitchen? And most of all, why isn’t she the mother the girls want her to be?

As the summer wears on, the girls find a sense of belonging, which inspires them to overcome their fears. Delphine undergoes an unexpected transformation, from overly responsible mom-substitute to independent young woman learning to speak up for her own needs. Her sisters flourish and grow into themselves, too.

Although real trouble affects the characters, Williams-Garcia keeps the story age-appropriate while not sugar-coating the girls’ experiences. Their mother doesn’t become a traditional “mommy, mom, or ma,” but she and the girls learn to appreciate one another’s strengths, coming together as family by the end.

Overall, this is an uplifting, sweet, empowering novel with doses of poetry, history, and community responsibility. I highly recommend it for kids between 8-12 (and grown-ups too!).