Friday, October 29, 2010

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

This is the fourth of Kathleen's reviews of the 2010 National Book Award finalists in Young People's Literature.

As you may have heard, One Crazy Summer is the story of three sisters who are sent to spend a month with their mother, in Oakland, California, in 1968. Their mother doesn't seem to particularly want them there, so she has them spend their days at a Black Panther day camp. In day camp, the children learn "Power to the people"-style slogans, make "Free Huey" posters, and post flyers for a big Black Panther rally, which is the climax of the book.

The story is told through the older sister, Delphine, who is the only one old enough to remember their mother at all (she was four or five when her mother left them). She's eleven in the book.

It was a quick read for me; I think it's well-paced for middle grade children. The period details are good, but not overwhelming -- the focus is really on the story, and the mother and children finally coming to terms with each other. Delphine's voice is well done; she's an eleven-year-old who's had to grow up too quickly and help take care of her sisters, but she still has the emotional maturity of an eleven-year-old.

I also thought the development of Cecile/Nzila was well done. She's totally off-putting at first. I wondered what in the world their father was thinking, sending them out there. And she doesn't change that much during the book. But there are little things along the way. She starts accommodating the children in small ways: giving them a radio, letting Fern into the kitchen to cook, and getting a stool for Fern to sit on in the kitchen. And more. It's subtle, and gradual, and she's not a completely different person at the end of the book. But she has made a little bit of room for the children in her heart, and (one hopes) in her life.

I've noticed elsewhere that people have nitpicked on the geographical details. I've lived in Oakland, and felt like the atmosphere described in the book fit. The geographical details are fairly vague (or renamed, or made up; I'm not sure), and this was well before I lived there, so I never placed the story in any particular location in my head.

Overall: excellent story and writing. I can see why it's in the award-watch category.

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