Loving the Books of Rita Williams-Garcia

My kids and I are ready for summer. Perhaps even a “crazy summer.” But I suspect that any summer plans we make or carry out will not be as crazy as the summer the Gaither sisters have in Oakland, California, in Rita Williams-Garcia’s book One Crazy Summer (2010). Delphine, age ten, and her younger sisters Vonetta and Fern travel on an airplane from New York City to Oakland to spend a month with their mother, a woman named Cecile whom they have not seen in several years. They do not remember her. She took off right after Fern was born, and the story goes that she left because she could not name Fern what she wanted: Afua.

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This is, of course, a simplified and mythic version of the story. As we follow the sisters through their summer adventure of getting to know their mother, who is cold, distant, quirky, and unaffectionate, we learn more about why Cecile is that way and that she and her daughters can learn to love each other.

This children’s novel is set in 1968. It is a time of tumult and civil rights demonstrations in the United States. The Gaither sisters and their mother are African American, and while their narrative represents the bond of families and the adventures of ordinary life for children, it also presents us with an informative view of history, especially from the perspective of children for children.

The girls attend a summer camp at the “people’s center” near their mother’s home. They quickly realize that they are learning about “power to the people,” and Black Panthers often hang around. While Delphine is skeptical, as she is the responsible oldest sister who must keep her younger sisters in line, especially at home under the watch of their grandmother Big Ma, she eventually loosens up and learns lessons about being herself and standing up for what is right. Vonetta and Fern also gain confidence, and Fern shows remarkable talent for poetry, just like her mother Cecile.

The girls also venture out on their own for a secret day trip, taking a bus to San Francisco and experiencing Chinatown, the wharf, trolleys, and hippies. They do this all without Cecile, who sends them to the summer camp each day for breakfast and lunch so she can work on her poetry. At the end of this San Francisco adventure, they return home to see Cecile be arrested with some Black Panthers. They find refuge with a neighbor and trust that she will return. She does.

The book ends with the girls returning to the airport to head home. They leave their mother, but quickly run back to her for a hug before boarding the airplane.

When I finished reading this book to my daughter, I craved more. I wanted to know what else the Gaither sisters would do. Their story was sweet and straightforward, but also contained the complexity of families and cultures that often make childhood confusing and difficult.

My own childhood consisted of regularly boarding an airplane with my two sisters to fly to San Jose, California, to visit our dad. I was the oldest, and I often felt responsible for my sisters’ behavior on the plane. I identified with Delphine while reading this book, and I remembered just how complicated a broken family can be, but also how much I learned from those experiences and travels.

So I looked for more books by Williams-Garcia. It turns out there are two more books about the Gaither sisters. There is a series! Book two is P. S. Be Eleven (2013), which I am reading to my daughter right now. It consists of the sisters’ experiences after returning home to New York City and starting school again. They discover the Jackson Five and have crushes on Michael and the others. Delphine also attends the sixth grade dance. The third book is Gone Crazy in Alabama (2015), which we will read next.

If you are looking for engaging, realistic, and multicultural historical fiction for your children, check out these books. I hope there are more to come after we finish the third one.

And now, we have just a few days left until my girls and I can have a crazy summer of our own. School is almost out!