91 pages 3 hours read

Rita Williams-Garcia

One Crazy Summer

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2010

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Summary and Study Guide


One Crazy Summer, a Coretta Scott King Book Award winner and National Book Award nominee, is a historical novel for children that was published in 2009 by Rita Williams-Garcia. This guide is based on the 2009 Amistad/HarperCollins Kindle edition. Set in 1968, the novel describes what happens when Delphine Gaither and her two younger sisters, Vonetta and Afua "Fern" Gaither, spend a month in Oakland, California, with Cecile Johnson, the mother who abandoned them almost six years prior. 

The girls take a flight from New York to Oakland to reunite with their mother, but they are disappointed when Cecile arrives late and is embarrassed to be seen with them. When they arrive at Cecile's house, Delphine, the narrator, is shocked to discover that it is a regular house because Big Ma, the three sisters' grandmother, always told stories that made her assume her mother was homeless. The girls are also shocked when their mother asks them to buy Chinese takeout for dinner, instead of cooking them a meal. Cecile refuses to allow anyone in the kitchen. As the girls prepare for bed that night, Cecile rushes them to the single bedroom that they share. Suddenly, three members of the Black Panthers arrive and ask Cecile to do a free printing job for them. The girls are puzzled when these new guests call Cecile “Nzila,” and they are worried when Cecile finally agrees to do the job provided that the Black Panthers “take” her daughters.

The next morning, the Gaither sisters discover that being “taken” means spending their days at the People's Center, a community center where the Black Panthers serve breakfast, provide childcare, and teach children the tenets of the Black Panthers. Their teacher, Sister Mukumbu, is kind and welcoming. Fern has a difficult first day when she is confronted by Crazy Kelvin, a Black Panther, for carrying around a white doll. Vonetta, the most social of the three sisters, begins making friends the next day. A member of the Black Panthers constantly ridicules the Gaither sisters for not being “black enough,” which prompts Delphine to watch over her sisters at the People's Center. Vonetta eventually colors Fern's white doll with a black marker, ruining the doll and upsetting Fern. Fern stops carrying the doll around after this incident. 

Back at home, Delphine forces Cecile to let her into the kitchen to cook meals for her sisters after several nights of eating takeout. While in the kitchen, Delphine sees Cecile at work and notices how important that work is to her mother. She also learns that her mother prints poems under the pen name Nzila with her printing press. Cecile warns Delphine to stop taking on so much responsibility. 

Eventually, Delphine makes friends of her own at the People’s Center, including Hirohito Woods, a boy whose father was jailed by the Oakland Police, and Eunice, another girl with younger siblings. While at the center, Delphine hears many stories about violence and police brutality that terrify her. She concludes that she and her sisters should not attend the center anymore. She also decides that the girls will not participate in a rally for Bobby Hutton, a teenaged Black Panther killed earlier that year. Despite Delphine’s resolve, Cecile forces the girls to continue attending the center. Although Delphine is upset with her mother, she is pleased when Cecile makes room for her in the kitchen and allows her to touch the printing press.

Disappointed that she hasn't seen any of California's sights, Delphine takes her sisters on an excursion to San Francisco. During their trip, Fern sees Crazy Kelvin—who supposedly hates the police—meeting with a police officer. She refuses to tell her sisters what she has seen. The sisters enjoy their trip, but Delphine is happy to return to Oakland after the girls experience racism in San Francisco. When the sisters return to Cecile’s house, they witness Cecile and two Black Panthers getting arrested. The girls pretend to live down the street from Cecile as she’s carried off. After the police leave, they clean Cecile's kitchen, which has been trashed, presumably, by the police. The Woods family take the girls in, giving Delphine a welcomed break from looking after her sisters. 

Meanwhile, the rally for Bobby Hutton develops into a rally to raise awareness about the arrest of Cecile and the two Black Panthers. Delphine and the other children at the People's Center canvas the community to post flyers about the rally. On the day of the rally, Delphine and her sisters perform one of Cecille's poems and receive applause. The crowd is stirred up even more when Fern performs her own poem about Crazy Kelvin being a police informant. The girls are surprised and pleased to discover that Cecile has been released from jail in time to attend the rally, and they are even happier when Cecile proudly acknowledges that they are her daughters. 

Later that night, Cecile scolds Delphine for not telling the Gaither sisters’ father, Louis Gaither, and Big Ma about the arrest. Cecile also tells Delphine about her difficult past as an orphan, unpaid laborer, and homeless teen. She explains that allowing Big Ma to raise her daughters was for the best, and she advises Delphine to be a child while she still can. The novel ends with the girls hugging their mother before boarding their flight home.