In my continuous adventures of black YA fiction, I discovered these stories that took me back to the childhood of my big brothers and sisters - 1968. I would have been a little younger than the baby sister, Ferm AKA Little Girl AKA Afua and would have been absorbing all the changes happening around me. I would four years old in 1968, the year my mother died, the year the world changed, the year that helped usher in the moving Black Power movements of the 1970s and young people stepping courageously out into the world won through the Civil Rights Movement.
One Crazy Summer finds the three sisters - Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern - being sent from their home in BedSty, New York to their barely remembered poet mother in Oakland, Carlifornia.
When I first purchased the book for my daughters, I almost put it down because I didn't want them to read stories about an absent mother. I'm glad I overcame my initial reservation and allowed myself to be transported back in time that is still a cherished memory for my older siblings.
1968 was the year of a Presidential election, an assassination, race riots, and lots of lots of change. Young black people were shedding the gloves and pressed hair in favor of the afro and diashiki. There was a clash of generations happening among the Negro (or Colored, as the older generation was still calling themselves) and the emerging Black identity of 1968. There were the older ones like Big Ma who fondly remembered the Republican Party that was the Party of Lincoln and there were the younger ones, like Pa, who wouldn't trust them and shifted to the Democratic Party of Senator Robert Kennedy.
The story finds the girls traveling along the first time on an airplane, being greeted at the airport by a mother in "men's pants" with a big afro and who used her kitchen as a studio/printer. At only eleven, Delphine had the responsibility of going out at night to "Mean Lady Ming's" for some takeout Chinese, something that would never have crossed their lips in Big Ma's kitchen in New York. Delphine already knew how to cut up a chicken and cook a proper meal but their mother, Cecile, AKA, Nzinga, would never let them cross the threshold, all their meals on paper plates sitting on the floor in the bare living room.
Life in Oakland in that tumultuous summer found them at the Black Panther Party summer program learning about black history and protesting the mistreatment by the police, AKA "the man" or "the pig." They encountered the iconic dark sunglasses, beret, and black turtleneck of the idealistic young people who wanted to provide better opportunities for their community.
Delphine encountered new friends, felt the tingle of first crush, and began to understand and forgive a mother who left for her own reasons, never married to her father and never accepted by Big Ma.
The story ended with the girls receiving something none of them could remember - a hug from Cecile at the airport and a promise to keep writing.
When that eventful summer ended, Delphine had a new understanding, Vonetta continued to be the craver of attention, and Fern AKA Little Girl AKA Afua proved herself to not be such a baby after all.
P.S. Be Eleven picked up in the fall where One Crazy Summer left off. The author, Rita Williams-Garcia indicated she felt there was more to tell of the three sisters in that fall of 1968.
Delphine was starting sixth grade and they came home to their smiling, happy father who had a new love interest who eventually became the Mrs. I remember what that was like, mine happened in the summer of 1972 when my father came to pick up my brother and I with his new Mrs. We were seven and five, respectively.
The girls dealt with the changes of their neighborhood, including those returning from the War. They discovered their Uncle Darnell in Vietnam was coming home and came home "sick." Later in the story, the sickness is revealed that became another plague on a lost generation.
Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern discovered The Jackson Five and were focused on going to the December 1968 concert in Madison Square Garden. They had to wade through the comments and feelings of their father who thought they were "a bunch of finger popping hoodlums" and their Big Ma who only wanted to play gospel. Their father would play Johnny Mathis on Christmas. It was a clash of three generations all experiencing a great deal of change.
The girls wanted to wear their hair in an afro even though Big Ma still wanted them to have that earlier generation press and curl. Delphine felt boxed in when shopping for her sixth grade attire and wanted one of those "mod pant suits" that one of her friends was getting while Big Ma wanted to continue to purchase the plaid skirts she thought appropriate for a little girl.
Throughout the story, the girls kept a correspondence with their mother who always ended her notes to Delphine to "p.s. Be Eleven." It was a message to not take on so many grown up issues, to stay a little girl, and even to wait until she was fourteen or sixteen to read certain books. Cecile was being as much of a mother as she could to her daughter who quietly remembered sitting at her feet while Cecile wrote her poems on everything from Cream of Wheat Boxes to the Walls (in One Crazy Summer.)
The girls dealt with Vonette growing up and showing herself to be a responsible banker who held onto her grudge and anger when Uncle Darnell ripped them off. Fern continued to blossom and was more perceptive than her big sisters often let her. All three adjusted to the Mrs. who gave them the love and affection of a mother that they all thought they didn't need.
Change seemed to be the theme of both books and both are highly recommended for the tween market who want a little glimpse into the world of the baby boomer teens. These were the children of the movement, the children who are adults, parents and grandparents today, who perhaps carry within them some of the idealism, hope, and optimism they held in 1968 when they were eleven.
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