My friends have been raving about this series since the first book came out, but I waited until the whole series was out to dive in.
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia. Amistad/HarperCollins, 2010.
It’s 1968, and 10-year-old Delphine is in charge of flying her two younger sisters, Vonetta and Fern, to California for the summer, to meet their mother, Cecile, who left shortly after Fern was born. Delphine is under strict instructions from Big Ma, who’s helped their father take care of the girls since then, not to let them be a “grand Negro spectacle”. She’s disappointed but not surprised when Cecile tells them to call her Nzila, and rather than taking them to Disneyland, sends the off to the Black Panthers for breakfast and summer camp so that she can continue her work of printmaking and poetry writing undisturbed. There they learn about the Black Rights movement for the first time, so different from Big Ma’s trying to fit in and be especially respectful to whites. The tension ratchets up as the Black Panthers get in trouble with the police and people start to go missing.
This won four awards when it came out, including Scott O’Dell, Coretta Scott King, Newbery Honor, and National Book Award Finalist. I am not surprised. You’d think, when dealing with heavy topics like civil rights and a neglectful mother, that this would be a depressing book, one that adults would want kids to read but that kids might not necessarily enjoy. But Williams-Garcia handles it with such a deft touch that this is also a completely relatable book of funny sibling squabbles, first crushes, and out-of-control go-kart rides. There are Symbols, Layers and Character Growth to this book, folks, found in things like Fern’s beloved baby doll and Delphine’s changing attitudes towards the neighborhood Safeway. I’d recommend this to fans of realistic and funny family fiction as well as to fans of historical fiction, and can’t wait to read it with my daughter.
P.S. Be Eleven by Rita Williams-Garcia. Amistad/HarperCollins, 2013.
Back in Brooklyn, Delphine, Vonetta and Fern are trying to fit back into their old life – so hard when Big Ma hasn’t changed and they have. Their beloved Uncle Darnell is back from Vietnam, but instead of being the cheerful man they remember, always ready to play with them, he’s sullen and withdrawn and wants to sleep all the time. Even more momentous: their father has started whistling, and while it’s great that he’s happy again, all the girls are very suspicious about the cause. In the outside world, the Jackson Five are making waves, and the girls are determined to earn enough money to go see them when they come to New York. Delphine keeps writing Cecile back in California, even though the advice she gets back is hard to understand: “Be eleven.”
Gone Crazy in Alabama by Rita Williams-Garcia. Amistad/HarperCollins, 2015.
First it was the plane, and now the girls are taking the Greyhound to visit family in rural Alabama. Delphine is almost 12 now, but even little Fern remembers their last visit to the tiny cabin where their grandmother Big Ma lives with her mother, Ma Charles. Just across the creek is their cousin JimmyTrotter and his great-grandmother, Ma Charles’ half-sister Miss Trotter. There’s Vonetta’s shock and being expected to drink milk that doesn’t come from a carton and and Fern’s at discovering where meat comes from. Delphine, meanwhile, is feeling oppressed by the mere idea of starching and ironing Ma Charles’s sheets in the Alabama heat. This book, besides bringing all the relationship problems in the immediate family to a head, delves deep into a tangled family history. It’s full of just as much heart and humor as the previous books.
I’ll now join my friends in loving this series, which would pair well with Christopher Paul Curtis’s The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963. Now I’m eagerly waiting for my daughter to be old enough to read it together.