One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams Garcia introduced me to a new author and added new insight into the era of Civil rights. The setting is 1968 in Oakland and three children are being sent to see and get to know a mother who left them behind years ago shortly after the youngest was born. A mother who suddenly abandons her children is a wicked mother indeed, right? And a mother who shows no interest when they arrive is worse yet. And if this mother turns out to have turned her back to be a poet allied with Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, then she can never ever be forgiven.
Such were my preconceptions until this author rolled out her story with belly laughs. The first page has eleven-year-old Delphine, the oldest of the three, trying keep her two younger sisters in line despite all the sisters being frightened to death by the plane ride and the visit to come. She has grave responsibilities indeed because she has counted only twelve "colored people" aboard the plane and she bears the responsibility for the sisters not disgracing the whole "Negro" race. But they are children whose antics soon become as funny as any episode of I Love Lucy. And so are the stereotypes that they observe, from the black Jackie Kennedy passenger who Big Ma assigned to watch after them who never looks their way, to the fat white lady who thinks they are such well behaved little black dolls and gives the youngest a nickel for each.
And the fun continues even though their their mother picks them up with all the warmth of Cruella de Vil, takes away all their spending money and doles out just enough for them to purchase Chinese takeout of her choice. And they eat it picnic style on a table cloth because they are not allowed in the kitchen. But Delphine is tenacious and enterprising, finding ways to change the menu, work her way into the kitchen, cook, save little bits of change for the California Hollywood tourist adventure that they have planned.
And how can the sisters who are as different as three corners of a triangle work and grow together? And how can we watch both mother-daughter bonds and an understanding of what it was like to be these people in this place at this time emerge through one comic scene after another? That is the gift of this author. And that is why this book was a National Book Award Finalist, a Newbery Honor Book, the winner of the Coretta Scott King Award, a winner of the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction and more. It is all of that. The reading for the younger or less mature children might need to be guided but it is a wonderful choice for so many reasons.
More about Rita Garcia Williams can be found here.