When I read historical fiction for intermediate or young adult readers, I look for three things:
1. 1. A well-written, engaging story that resonates as true to life.
2. 2. Historical information that is subtly woven into the text and increases my knowledge of the time and place.
3. 3. Poetic language. In other words, good use of figurative language communicated through imagery, metaphors, and similes.
Eleven-year-old Delphine is in charge of her two younger sisters as they fly to Oakland, California to visit their estranged mother. The year is 1968 and they haven’t seen Cecile since she left when Fern, the youngest, was born seven years ago.
Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern find everything about their mother to be "crazy": her lack of maternal affection, her home, and her preoccupation with keeping her work a secret. Dismissively, the girls are told to spend their days at a Black Panthers summer camp. While there the girls learn about the movement and eventually, about the role that their mother and her poetry play in the organization.
Cecile’s poetry is central to the plot, but ironically, the one thing that I felt the book lacked was poetic language. Here is an example of powerful imagery that I loved. I wished that Williams-Garcia had included more descriptions like this. Here Delphine is remembering a time back home in New York when she was a young girl:
Although no one thinks I can, I remember a time when smoke filled the house. Not coughing smoke but smoke from a woman’s smooth-voiced singing, with piano, bass, and drums. All together these sounds made smoke. Uncle Darnell would say, “You can’t remember that. You were two. Three, maybe.” But I do. I still see, hear, and feel bits and flashes. The sounds of musical smoke….And when Uncle played the albums Cecile had left behind—the ones with piano, bass, drums, and smooth-voiced Sarah Vaughan—in my mind, smoke still filled the house. (p.81)
The image of music described as smoke filling a house is beautiful; and one that I will probably remember for months.
Although I expected that there would be some form of reconciliation between the family members before the ending; I was pleasantly surprised with how Williams-Garcia tied up the different story strands. I haven’t come across many books that portray this time period so I think this novel fills a unique void in American historical fiction. Since there is only one minor male character, I think the book will appeal mainly to girls in 4-7th grade.
One Crazy Summer, Black Panthers, book for girls, Rita Williams- Garcia, African American literature