In the summer of 1968, Louis Gaither decides that it’s time for his three girls to spend some time with the mother who walked out on them a half-dozen years ago. With Delphine in charge, the sisters fly from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Oakland, Calif., to be met by Cecile Johnson, a woman who’d rather they spend their days at a Black Panthers’ summer camp than at home getting to know their mother. Here, we talk with Rita Williams-Garcia about her book One Crazy Summer, a story that is "energetically told with writing that snaps off the page," according to its Kirkus starred review.
Why is it important for readers today to know about the events of the summer of 1968?
1968 was a time of profound change. It was relatively acceptable to think of African-Americans and other minorities as inferior. It was acceptable to bar people from living in certain neighborhoods. Attending certain schools. Voting. Applying for certain jobs. Marrying outside of their race. Change during those times came out of the efforts of many, particularly young people, and not only those being discriminated against but those who refused to support inequality. It’s important for young people today to feel that they do matter, and that they can effect change.
You do such a terrific job of filling in the details of the era without exposition. How did you choose what to include and what to leave out?
I stuck to my basic rule, which is to always see things through my viewpoint character’s eyes. It was very hard to leave Angela Davis out. Monterey Pop [Festival]. Robert F. Kennedy’s campaign speech at Monterey airport. But luckily, I had the constraint of one month in the summer of 1968. If I felt I’d already covered the experience or sentiment, I excluded the chapter or scene. If I didn’t do it, my editor, Rosemary Brosnan, would. Delphine dictated where we would go, and I followed.
Is it coincidence that Pa sent the girls to visit their mother when Delphine is 11, the same age as Cecile was when she lost her mother?
There are no coincidences! I believe Cecile looks at Delphine and sees herself. I’m hoping Delphine can have some empathy for her mother, although that might be too much to ask of her at this juncture. These things take time. Even knowing her mother’s story, her own pain is too great to truly understand. The healing will take a long time, as childhood trauma generally does.
Cecile Johnson is one tough lady.
Tough women are generally women who see and express things clearly. They cut to the quick of it. Women do it as a form of protection to not shield the young from the harshness of an unjust world that will surely greet them. The best they might have to offer is truth or clarity. I’m reminded of Jamaica Kincaid’s stirring prose piece, “Girl.” It doesn’t get any straighter or tougher than that. But even though the speaker/mother is relentlessly harsh, you can see that she takes her charge and education of the girl quite seriously, and what she has to say is necessary and comes from a place deeper than an ideal portrait of love.
For a complete list of the historical novels for children featured in Kirkus’ Best of 2010, click here.
One Crazy Summer
Amistad/HarperCollins / January / 9780060760885 / $15.99