One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia, 2010. Amistad, 224 pages. Ages 8-12. Coretta Scott King Award winner, Odell Award winner, Newbery Honor book, National Book Award finalist.
In the turbulent summer of 1968, eleven-year old Delphine Gaither and her two younger sisters Vonetta and Fern are sent from Brooklyn, New York, to spend a month with their estranged mother in Oakland, California. They dream of Disneyland, movie stars, sight-seeing, going to the beach, and most of all, having a mother's love.
However, what they get is completely different. Their mother Cecile has absolutely no interest in being a mother, which is not surprising considering she abandoned them shortly after Fern's birth and they haven't seen her since. Cecile makes it clear she did not ask for them to come and doesn't want them around, and won't be bothered to take care of them, much less entertain them.
So they spend their days at the local center run by the Black Panthers, getting free breakfast, being indoctrinated with their beliefs, trying to figure out what to believe, and struggling to understand and cope with their mother's rejection and odd lifestyle.
I read this book out of order, after first reading and loving the third book in the series, Gone Crazy In Alabama, so I was already acquainted with the characters. Even so, I think the characters are so well-written and well-developed, that any reader would feel like they really know them. Each sister has her own distinct personality, and stays true to character throughout the story, from the responsible, quiet oldest sister Delphine; to the selfish, attention-seeking, sometimes shallow Vonetta; to the youngest, precocious Fern. As an oldest sister myself, I readily identified with Delphine, and so wanted to put the often bratty, thoughtless Vonetta in her place!
The often emotional story is well-written and well-paced, and will often leave the reader feeling angry or frustrated with the adults in the Gaither sisters' lives. I found myself angry and disgusted by Cecile's apparent complete disregard for her children, not only not looking after their basic needs such as food and safety, but repeatedly verbalizing that she didn't want them and even alluding to wishing she had gotten an abortion. She is very cold and disinterested, only opening up a little bit at the end and telling Delphine a little bit about her history. I also felt angry with their father for sending them to stay with someone who didn't want them, and obviously didn't have the capacity to care for their emotional or physical needs.
I would recommend this book to fans of Jacqueline Woodson's books such as Brown Girl Dreaming, those who enjoy historical fiction, those interested in the Civil Rights Era from a child's point of view, and those who appreciate stories about complex relationships and family dramas.
Other Books By This Author
There are two other books in the Gaither sisters trilogy, P.S. Be Eleven and Gone Crazy In Alabama, which were also Coretta Scott King Award-winners.
Rita Williams-Garcia has also written several books for teens and a picture book for preschoolers.