Friday, July 22, 2011

Audio Review - One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

If you're looking for quality reading choices for yourself or your kiddo, checking out awards lists is a great place to start. Last semester I took a children's lit class and one of the assignments was reading one title from each of ten different awards lists. For those of you who think it begins and ends with Caldecott and Newbery, guess again. There are a TON of fantastic awards programs in kidlit, recognizing everything from novels to nonfiction to picture books and lots more in between. (A great comprehensive source for kidlit awards is the list maintained by the Cooperative Children's Book Center, found here.)

As part of that assignment I chose to listen to the audio version of One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia. Williams-Garcia is herself the recipient of numerous awards, including the PEN/Norma Klein Award, and One Crazy Summer has been honored multiple times: Newbery Honor book, Coretta Scott King Winner, Scott O'Dell Award Winner, ALA Notable Recording for 2010. But as we all know, award-winning books can be critically acclaimed and still fall curiously flat in the real world.

Luckily, that's not the case for One Crazy Summer. This is a novel that delivers.

Premise: It's the summer of 1968. Delphine and her sisters Vonetta and Fern are on their way to Oakland, California to spend the summer with their mother Cecile, who ran out on the girls when Fern was just a baby. At eleven, Delphine remembers enough of their mother to be afraid about what they are in for. And when they first head home with Cecile, nothing is as she thought it would be. Now transformed as the poet Nzila, Cecile seems more interested in social change and protests than in reacquanting herself with her girls. And the Black Panther Day Camp where she parks her daughters is not at all what Delphine had in mind. Revolution? No thanks. As Vonetta puts it, "We didn't come for the revolution. We came for breakfast."

And that in a nutshell embodies all there is to love about Summer. Williams-Garcia manages to paint a story about very personal relationships on the grand stage of civil rights, social protest and upheaval that characterized Oakland in the 1960's. Even as we watch Delphine, Vonetta and little Fern try to navigate this strange new world, and their stranger mother, we see the shifting racial climate and the tensions that were produced. The girls come from a world where assimilation is the goal, and their grandmother cautions against making themselves a "grand Negro spectacle". Oakland, though, is all about standing up and speaking out, fighting for your rights and being proud of yourself. And the struggle being played out on the larger scale is personified in the girls' own struggle to reconcile the two ideologies within themselves.

So, big social themes, and lots of great historical detail. But none of that would be worth a bit without the characters. Oh, what great characters Williams-Garcia brings us! From distant and often frightening Cecile, to worrier Delphine, to look-at-me showoff Vonetta, and obstinate little Fern, these are characters you just can't forget. While Delphine slowly awakens to the prejudice and injustice that surrounds her, so too will readers. More importantly, kids will recognize bits of themselves and their friends in these children, who are just about as real as kids can get. As they see the girls living in the balance, making new friends and considering new ideas, readers will be moved to learn more about this tumultuous time -- and isn't that the mark of a great historical novel?

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the fantastic narration of the audio by Sisi Aisha Johnson. Listen, this woman is a masterful reader, and she will hook you from the first line. Johnson becomes each of the girls in turn, bringing out layers of their personalities that I might otherwise have missed. Even the most minor characters, like Crazy Kelvin and Mean Lady Ming, have their own distinct turn of phrase, and Johnson doesn't miss a trick. Kids who might be on the fence about reading a historical could easily be persuaded to give this a try on audio, and I wouldn't be surprised if they are as sad to see it end as I was.

Bottom line: An excellent historical novel with characters as fresh as if they lived today. And an audio worth a second (or third!) listen to boot.

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia, published by HarperCollins (audio read by Sisi Aisha Johnson)
Coretta Scott King Winner, 2010
Ages 9 up
Source: Library
Sample quote: "It wasn't at all the way the television showed militants -- that's what they called the Black Panthers. Militants, who from the newspapers were angry fist wavers with their mouths wide-open and their rifles ready for shooting. They never showed anyone like Sister Mukumbu or Sister Pat, passing out toast and teaching in classrooms."
Highly recommended

1 comment:

proseandkahn said...

I really love your recommendation! Thoughtful points.

I loved One Crazy Summer as well and agree that Johnson is an amazing narrator. I think I was on a Johnson binge at the time. She also did a spectacular job reading Ninth Ward and Feathers and Hush and,well, whatever she does. Red Polka Dot in a World Full of Plaid was devastating.

I'm popping your blog into my feeder. Looking forward to reading your reviews.