One Crazy Summer
By Rita Williams-Garcia
Published by Amistad, an Imprint of Harper Collins
Grades 5 and Up
In 1968, the nation was in tumult; Martin Luther King was shot in April, Bobby Kennedy in early June. Right in the middle of this year of change, Delphine and her sisters arrive in Oakland, California to spend “one crazy summer” with the mother who left them years before. Cecile is not interested in being a mother, not interested in doing “what mothers do.”Delphine observes: “In the animal kingdom, the mother bird brings back all she’s gathered for the day and drops it into the open mouths of each squawking bird to be fed. Cecile looked at us as if it didn’t occur to her that we would be hungry and she’d have to do what mothers do: feed their young.” As the summer progresses, Delphine and her sisters, attending a summer camp run by Black Panthers, are introduced to new ways of thinking about race and identity, responsibility and community. Delphine’s worldview shifts as she compares and contrasts the beliefs of her Southern grandmother, who is the primary caregiver to the girls alongside their father in Brooklyn, to those of her mother in California, beliefs introduced more through her mother’s words than through her actions. With honesty and humor, Williams-Garcia has crafted a variety of strong and passionate girls and women. The growing pains Delphine and her sisters experience mirror the larger pains of a nation acclimating to the changes brought forth by the civil rights movement, the cultural revolution, and anti-war efforts, and foreshadow the shifting family dynamics ushered in by the women’s movement of the 1970s.
- Witnessing History. In the acknowledgments, Williams-Garcia states, “I wanted to write this story for those children who witnessed and were part of necessary change. Yes. There were children.” What other ways have children been witnesses to or participants in history? Have different groups read different selections from Phillip Hoose’s two works We Were There, Too: Young People in US History and It’s Our World, Too: Stories of Young People Making a Difference. Have students make comparisons and contrasts between Delphine’s experiences, the children in the books, and their own lives.
- Poetry Study. In the acknowledgments, Williams-Garcia lists the poets that influenced her as she wrote One Crazy Summer: Nikki Giovanni, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, Sonia Sanchez, and Kattie Miles Cumbo. Share some of this body of your work with your students, and see what connections they make between the themes and conflicts in the novel and those at work in the poems.
- Black Panthers. Who were the Black Panthers? What do your students know? What questions do they have? Have students research the organization using some of the online sites below.
- Exploring Motherhood. One Crazy Summer provides readers with a snapshot of a reluctant mother, of a woman who was not ready to have her children, who left them in order to forge her own identity, who needs to write to create and preserve herself; Nzila, not Cecile. Students may be surprised by this characterization, more used to stereotypical images of mothers in the picture books and chapter books they’ve read, and the media images they’ve absorbed. Have students explore images of motherhood in print advertisements, commercials, music, art, and books for children. What images are presented? What do they have in common? How do they differ? How are they idealized?
- Dolls and Representation. At the beginning of the novel, Fern can’t go anywhere without her doll, Miss Patty Cake, who has white skin, blonde hair and blue eyes. After “Crazy Kelvin” criticizes Fern for carrying “self-hatred” in her arms, Vonetta colors the doll’s face with black magic marker. Why did Fern have a white doll? Do boys and girls have more options today for buying dolls that look like them? Have your students, with a parent, do research at local stores that sell dolls, from the grocery store, to the pharmacy, to locally-owned and chain toy stores. Some families might choose to look at online stores. How does the stock in actual stores compare with virtual stores? What skin colors are represented in what kinds of ratios? Do boys have the same options as girls? Why or why not? If you are doing this with middle or high school students, you might want to read some of the online stories about dolls and race in America. Additionally, the Philadelphia Doll Museum, devoted to preserving and studying black dolls, has an online collection of artifacts to explore.
- Oral History Project. Read Brown University’s 1968 Oral History Project (see below). Using that as a model, have students conduct their own oral histories of 1968, interviewing teachers, administrators, parents, grandparents, and neighbors face-to-face, via email, over-the-phone, or on Skype. As students complete their interviews, organize them in groups by age, location, events, or whatever makes sense given the results. Investigate the personal stories for common themes. Have students do further research using digital newspapers from 1968. How do the personal memories compare and contrast to one another? How did people from different races, ethnicities, religions, and regions of the country remember the year differently? Why? What lessons do these multiple perspectives teach us about both the past and the present? Create a forum for student work via a webpage, a presentation for the community at school, your local library, bookstore, or town hall, or record it as a podcast.
Rita Garcia Williams
Oral History of 1968 from Brown University and a Providence, RI High School
The 1968 Exhibit
A Huey Newton Story: Website for the 2002 PBS Documentary on the Founder of the Black Panthers
Smithsonian Institute Recording of Bobby Seale and Black Panther Party Platform
Oakland Museum of California: History
Dolls and Race in America
Black and White Barbie Sales at Walmart
Philadelphia Doll Museum
Hoose, P. (1999). It’s our world, too: Stories of young people making a difference. New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux.
A collected biography of young people in the 1990s who were making valuable contributions to their communities.
Hoose, P. (2001). We were there, too! Young people in U.S. history. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux.
A collected biography of young people who were witnesses to or important players in United States history.
Magoon, K. (2009). The rock and the river. New York: Aladdin.
Set in Chicago in 1968, fourteen-year-old Sam is caught up in the tension surrounding the Democratic National Convention, and torn between his minister father, a participant in the non-violent Civil Rights Movement, and his brother, who has joined the Black Panthers.