One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

This book is not new, nor am I the first to talk about how wonderful it is. One Crazy Summer was well-received when it was published in 2010, winning plenty of deserved accolades––look at all those lovely stickers!––including the Coretta Scott King Award.

I finally got to dive into this middle grade novel a couple weeks ago. And there’s no way I can’t blog about it. It’s just that good.

one-crazy-summer-cover
ONE CRAZY SUMMER––PUBLISHED BY AMISTAD

Hearing Rita Williams-Garcia at SCWBI-NY last February was one of the highlights of my year. She spoke frankly about being a writer, being a black woman writer, her early career, and especially her journey to publication. Lucky for us, she persevered until she got there––because her books have so much to teach us as readers, authors, and human beings.

Here are a few things One Crazy Summer can teach kidlit writers, especially those taking on tough, complex topics from a young person’s perspective.

1. Don’t let your readers off easy.

One Crazy Summer is the story of the three Gaither sisters, who fly from New York City to Oakland, California, to visit their mother. Their mother left them and moved across the country when the youngest one was just a newborn.

Cecile, also called Nzila, is one of the most complex mother figures I’ve seen in a children’s book. Often moms in kidlit fall into very clear Good or Bad camps. They’re present and caring; or present and standing in the way of whatever the protagonist wants to achieve; or completely absent (hello, every Disney movie ever), thus enabling the young MC to get up to their shenanigans, no maternal supervision involved.

But Cecile is different.

For a long time, she’s chosen not to be part of her three girls’ lives. And when the girls arrive to California, Cecile makes it very clear she didn’t ask for them to come visit her, and didn’t particularly want it. She prioritizes herself and her poetry, and guards her resources and her time carefully.

Delphine, the oldest sister and the narrator, arrives to California hungry for what, in her mind, qualifies as traditional “mothering”: home-cooked meals, affection, and hugs. But Cecile’s not giving any of it. In fact, she promptly sends the girls off to a nearby day camp run by the Black Panthers, so she can continue writing her poetry in peace.

But Cecile does offer her girls something: a hard-won wisdom, which she imparts especially to Delphine.

Delphine is practical and responsible, tough on herself and those around her. She’s a planner and a cook and caretaker. After many days of watching Delphine care for the younger girls, Cecile tells her, “It wouldn’t kill you to be selfish, Delphine.” And it’s tough to take, even for the reader. Because Delphine is like this in large part because she’s grown up playing stand-in mother to her younger sisters.

Cecile has a point, though. And she expresses it––and embodies it––beautifully:

“We’re trying to break yokes. You’re trying to make one for yourself. If you knew what I know, seen what I’ve seen, you wouldn’t be so quick to pull the plow.”

Cecile also questions her daughters’ obsessions with television and movies and challenges them to critique what they see. She offers them freedom and independence, and models a different way of moving in the world as a woman.

Williams-Garcia never makes it easy for us to love Cecile. Instead, she respects her character and her readers, challenging us to see all the shades and gradients in Cecile, as a mom and as a human being.

2. Great middle grade books are incredibly simple and wonderfully complex, all at once.

On one level, One Crazy Summer is a very simple story. Throughout the book, Delphine’s main goal is to keep her sisters safe, fed, and happy while they’re reconnecting with their mother. She needs to convince her mother to let her cook for her sisters. She worries when her youngest sister is mocked for her doll. She wants to get along with everyone at the Black Panthers day camp, and thinks, maybe, maybe, the cute boy she met there might be interested in being friends…

Yet there’s a whole other level to the story, too. The girls are uncovering new parts of their family history and discovering what it means to be young and black in the US. They’re absorbing disturbing, dissonant realities about power and policing, a government that isn’t protecting all its people equally, and a mother who may not be able to give them the kind of love they expect.

In the tradition of the best middle grade books, One Crazy Summer deftly mixes small, day-to-day conflicts with larger, more nuanced questions and themes. It’s this mixture of the low and high, the simple and complicated, the specific and the universal that makes One Crazy Summer such a powerful work.

Williams-Garcia is a master, and I could go on and on about what this challenging, heartwarming, wonderful novel has to teach us. But my best advice is just…

Read it! Love it! And share it with a friend.

And––perhaps the best news about One Crazy Summer? It’s only the first of three Gaither sisters books! P.S. Be Eleven came out in 2013, and Gone Crazy in Alabama came out just last year.

I know I’ll be reading the rest soon. The only thing holding me back is how sad I’ll be when it’s time to finally tell Delphine and her sisters goodbye.

Want to chat about One Crazy Summer and other great MG and YA titles? Find me on Twitter @beckererine.

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Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk

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WOLF HOLLOW––PUBLISHED BY DUTTON BYR

Lauren Wolk’s debut children’s book is a likely Newbery contender and a poignant historical novel set in rural Pennsylvania during World War II.

Told in poetic, satisfying prose, Wolf Hollow is a coming-of-age story that shows narrator Annabelle dealing with the arrival of Betty, a new girl at school. Betty is cruel to animals and younger kids. She was sent to the countryside to live with her grandparents, after her mom deemed her “incorrigible.”

Annabelle doesn’t know what “incorrigible” means, or how far Betty is willing to take her cruelty. But she finds out soon enough, and must grapple with the evil present in the world—and the fact that, sometimes, there are no easy answers for how to make things right.

Here are a couple things writers can learn from Wolk’s sad, lovely story of growing up.

1. Used right, setting details—from the large to the small—add texture to story and character.

Both World Wars loom large in this novel, with reclusive World War I veteran Toby suffering his memories in silence, and the current global conflict, World War II, fostering prejudice against local Germans and a general sense of fear. In Annabelle’s small country town, families plant victory gardens, pray for their sons, and wait for good news from afar.

Annabelle’s family farms. Throughout the story, Wolk keeps her story close to the land, to the tastes and smells of nature, the rhythms and routines of daily household chores. The descriptions add a beauty and a texture to the story, as well as an authentic window into life in this time and place—still innocent and simple, even in the shadow of war:

“They didn’t look like much, those beets. Tough skins clotted with dirt, hairy with fine roots, hard as stones. But inside were sweet rubies, eager to be warmed into softness.”

Wolk also shows Annabelle using the natural order of things to comprehend what’s happening around her. When she can find no explanation for Betty’s cruelness, Annabelle turns to nature to try to understand. This gives readers a new insight into Annabelle’s character—and into Betty’s:

“Even a wolf has reasons for what it does. Even a snake makes sense when it eats a robin’s egg.”

Like Wolk, writers must strive to explore their setting through their characters’ eyes: the things their protagonist notices, the way their narrator perceives the world. In this way, the setting becomes more than a backdrop for the story action. It becomes a way to deepen readers’ understanding of the plot, characters, and theme—and craft a richer story overall.

2. The everyday and the universal meet to create the perfect conflict for a coming-of-age novel.

At the story’s opening, the war and the fear are scary, but distant. Annabelle feels safe in her warm, comfortable home; in her cozy one-room schoolhouse; with her brothers, her parents, and the abiding sense that somehow, everything will be all right.

With the arrival of Betty, that sense of security begins to unravel. The fears start small: will Betty hit Annabelle with a stick? Scare one of her little brothers? Make school less carefree than it was before? But soon, Annabelle is confronted with the reality that not all suffering has a purpose. That the hatred born on faraway shores might have consequences in her hometown. And that Betty might be capable of much more damage than it seems.

As Betty’s transgressions grow crueler and more serious, World War I veteran Toby is embroiled in her schemes. Annabelle learns more about Toby’s experiences in the war as she struggles to set things right. Wolk skillfully weaves together Annabelle’s small, day-to-day conflicts with Betty, and large ones about war and suffering and what is right and wrong. The story progresses, and Annabelle begins to realize the world isn’t always safe. She learns there’s a real, tangible possibility things might not turn out okay. And that she—not her parents or her teacher or any other adult—might have to be the one to set things right.

In this way, Wolk captures that in-between-ness, that strange, exciting, frightening feeling of growing up and knowing things will never be the same again:

“For a while, being included in these conversations had made me feel tall. Now I was ready to be eleven again and back up in bed like my brothers.”

There’s a lesson for all writers here, particularly those who write middle grade. When crafting a coming-of-age story, an author must search for the place where the quotidian conflict meets the deep, universal one, and plant the seeds of the novel there. Many middle graders are learning that the world is a scary, dangerous place. But they’re also learning they might be capable of more than they ever imagined. Writers must work to evoke this tender moment in readers’ lives—so those readers can be as brave as Annabelle when it’s their turn to stand up for what’s right.

Want to chat about Wolf Hollow or other great MG and YA titles? Find me on Twitter @beckererine.

I Lived on Butterfly Hill by Marjorie Agosín and E.M. O’Connor (translator)

I Lived on Butterfly Hill by Marjorie Agosín
I LIVED ON BUTTERFLY HILL––PUBLISHED BY ATHENEUM BOOKS FOR YOUNG READERS

Marjorie Agosín’s I Lived on Butterfly Hill is a middle grade novel set in the early 1970’s. E.M. O’Connor translated it from the Spanish. Butterfly Hill follows the journeys of Celeste Marconi as she deals with life under the military dictatorship. When Celeste’s parents are labeled “subversives” for their medical work with the poor and their support for Presidente Alarcón (a fictional parallel to the historical Salvador Allende), they must go into hiding, leaving Celeste with her nana and abuela in their house in Valparaíso. Soon, as the country becomes more oppressive and even some of her classmates turn against her, Celeste must flee to live with her aunt in Maine.

My spouse is Chilean and I lived in Chile for two years, so I read Agosín’s account of this dark period in Chilean history with interest. Her descriptions of Valparaíso, especially, stuck with me: the houses that ramble up the hillsides, the colors, the smells (Rain! Sopaipillas! Cilantro! Empanadas!), and the way the ocean forms the backdrop of it all. As kidlit writers, we have a lot to learn from Agosín’s sad, hopeful, lovely book. Here are three things we can take away from I Lived on Butterfly Hill.

1. You have your creative license. Use it.

The first night I was reading this novel, I had a lot of questions for my spouse.

“Alarcón? Who’s Alarcón? I was sure this was about Allende…”

After spending some time on Wikipedia, we confirmed there was no Alarcón. And as the book progresses, Agosín continues to veer from history: the dictatorship lasts three years instead of 17; the General (clearly based on Pinochet, but never named) dies of a cold, rather than leaving office after a referendum. A female president, Mónica Espinoza, is elected shortly after––perhaps a Michelle Bachelet figure, though Bachelet didn’t become president of Chile until 2006.

Tellingly, the only real historical figures here are poets: Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral.

The book becomes a strange, vivid mixture of authentic history and artistic license, of fictional characters and painfully real tragedies. At first, I felt a bit cheated. I wanted to see Chilean history, in all its messiness, and perhaps learn something new along the way. But Agosín’s decision to leave the names out of it––names that carry so many connotations, so much weight––allows her to simply tell the story.

Many readers have mentioned wanting a historical endnote, explaining who the figures really are, which things are true and which are fictional. For a Chilean audience, however, Celeste’s story becomes a powerful opportunity to reconsider a tense, tragic point in national history, without getting caught up in the politics of it all. We can’t be distracted by our preconceived notions of Allende or Pinochet, or which side of history we’ve been taught to stand on. This isn’t a book about Communists or Chicago Boys. Simply, it’s a book about Celeste, and her life during a scary, confusing time.

2. It’s not how long your book is––it’s how long it feels.

At 455 pages, this book is long, especially for a middle grade audience. But it flies by with the speed of a book half its size. Agosín’s sparse, poetic chapters, with an extra lift from gorgeous illustrations by Lee White, move along quickly as seasons change and political powers shift. The novel covers a lot of ground––emotional, historical, and geographical––in a short time. All the while, a few terrible, suspenseful questions keep the tension high: Where are Celeste’s parents? Will Celeste adjust to her new life in Maine? Will Chile ever be peaceful again?

Agosín’s novel reminds us that it’s not about word count––it’s about pacing. The felt experience of a book can’t be measured by its pages, and length guidelines aren’t law. Here, Agosín tells the story that needs to be told, and it reads beautifully, with just the right number of words.

3. Food is the universal language.

Returning to those sopaipillas and that cilantro! Of course I have a special place for Chilean treats in my heart, but anyone can appreciate the comfort food you eat on a rainy day, those delicacies you buy from the streetcart, that favorite dish your grandma used to make to help you feel like everything was going to be okay.

When Celeste is far away from her home and living in Maine, she stays with an aunt who doesn’t know how to cook, and feeds her crunchy cereal in the morning. This adds to Celeste’s isolation––but as she grows accustomed to it, we see her adaptability, and her resilience.

By including so many details about food––its smell and texture, its relationship to happiness and sadness and family and celebration––Agosín makes her book rich with cultural and sensory detail, and helps the characters and the setting come alive.

(Now I really, really want to go to Valparaíso…)

Want to chat more about I Lived on Butterfly Hill? Find me on Twitter @beckererine.