With one eye on the Common Core Standards, you may be looking for ways to prompt informational and persuasive writing practice. A provocative new book by Rita Williams-Garcia could provide one answer. Riveting and skillfully written, One Crazy Summer is a Newberry Honor Book, National Book Award Finalist and winner of the Coretta Scott King Award . . .
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams Garcia
New York: Amistad (an imprint of HarperCollins)
Genre: Historic fiction, transitional young adult literature
Ages: Grades 4 through 8 (with text compelling enough to capture adult readers)
It’s the summer of 1968. Eleven-year-old Delphine, along with her younger sisters Vonetta and Fern, is flying on a plane to Oakland–and she’s about to run headlong into some startling truths about her past. The girls have been sent by their father to meet Cecile, the mother who walked out of their lives when Delphine was not yet five. Their grandmother, Big Ma, who has raised them, is unforgiving toward Cecile and vehemently opposed to a trip she views as potentially dangerous: “How can you send them to Oakland?” she asks their father. “Oakland’s nothing but a boiling pot of trouble cooking. All them riots” (p. 5). The girls have their own vision of California: Disneyland, sunshine, beaches everywhere. What they encounter puts their daydreams on hold: a mother who is a revolutionary poet and avid supporter of the Black Panthers. Cecile doesn’t make home cooked meals. She is far too busy printing pamphlets. Instead, she sends her children to the local Chinese take-out store (with their own money), or to a summer camp (with free breakfast) sponsored by the Black Panthers. She tells them unhesitatingly, “I didn’t send for you. Didn’t want you in the first place. Should have gone to Mexico to get rid of you when I had the chance” (pp. 26-27). This story, told in the unforgettably honest voice of Delphine, is unflinching and unsentimental. Yet it is charged with raw emotions at every turn. Delphine, already mature far beyond her years, is challenged to deal with social unrest, political upheaval, and her mother’s seeming indifference–all while looking out for two very young siblings. As we cheer for Delphine and struggle to fathom Cecile, it’s easy to find ourselves wishing for a fairytale ending–but Williams-Garcia is far too fine a writer for that. She propels us headlong through her tale toward an ending that is wholly satisfying even with no sugar coating in sight. Here is a story of abandonment and the search for freedom–on many levels. This book will keep you thinking long after you put it down.
In the Classroom
A book of this depth and complexity can spark excellent discussions as well as opportunities to engage in written informational or persuasive responses. Following are a few suggested topics for students to pursue. With these, or topics of your own choosing, remember the Common Core Standards’ emphasis on supporting any and all assertions with examples and quotations from the text or from any other sources they may consult.
1. Informational. Consider the time in which the novel is set: 1968. What do your students imagine life was like in 1968? Encourage them to interview several people who lived during this time, and to create a brief written history based on what they learn.
2. Informational. A large portion of this book involves interaction with a revolutionary group called the Black Panthers. Have any of your students heard of this group? Do they know what the group stood for or what social changes they called for? Invite students to research the group, describe their goals and aims, and place them in the historical context of the 1960s.
3. Persuasive. Would the 1960s social response to the Black Panthers be the same if such a group existed today? What is the same–and what has changed? What specific economic or cultural factors influence a society’s response to the Black Panthers or any group that protests cultural norms?
4. Informational. Which amendment gives citizens the right to protest what they view as a violation or infringement of their rights? What limitations, if any, are imposed on such protest–and when does it cross the line? What examples of lawful or unlawful protest can you cite from any point in history?
5. Informational. One theme of this book is abandonment. Who is abandoned–and why? Cite passages from the book to support your answer.
6. Informational. It is often suggested by critics that a great narrative is one in which the characters undergo growth or change. Pick one or more characters from the book and cite specific passages to show how they change in terms of knowledge, wisdom, perspective, or capability.
7. Persuasive. Does Cecile love her three children? Make an argument for or against this idea, citing specific passages from the book to support your point of view. (It is fine to argue that her feelings change through the course of the novel if you believe this is so.)
8. Persuasive. Who is the strongest character in this book? Take a position and support it, referring to specific events and citing passages from the book.
9. Persuasive. One of the primary unanswered questions for many readers is this: Why does Delphine’s father send the girls to Oakland in the first place? What does he hope to achieve through this–and does he achieve his goal? See if you can answer this question in a way that would satisfy a curious reader. Cite specific events and passages from the book to support your answer.
10. Persuasive. One objection to this book–and to sharing it with young readers–has been the idea that Cecile is not a “sympathetic” character. In other words, it is hard to identify with her or to have strong feelings for her or care what happens to her. She seems a cold and distant person, and some adults worry that this could be disturbing to young readers. Should the writer have made Cecile more warm and loving toward her children? Would this be a good idea–or would it change the book in a negative way? Take a stand and defend it, using quotations from the book as well as any personal experience or observation you feel is relevant.
11. Informational. In one chapter (pp. 116-120), the three sisters–Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern–are seen counting the number of times black people appear on television, not only in shows but also in commercials. Clearly, this situation is different today–but how different? Are various cultures well-represented in films and on television these days? Research this, via Internet or print, but also through interviews, if possible. Also see if you can uncover some of the history regarding people or events that made a difference in minority representation.
12. Informational/Persuasive. A number of figures from black history are mentioned in the course of the book, including Reverend Martin Luther King, Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and others. Research any one of these characters and write a short bio of the person’s life. Then, write a persuasive paragraph arguing whether it is or is not important for readers to know who such people are in order to fully appreciate a book like this one.
Following are some additional questions to which students can write a personal response. And of course, they are likely to think of questions of their own to answer!
1. The conclusion to this book is not what many people would call a “happily ever after” ending. Does it feel “right,” though? In other words, is it a satisfying ending–or would you have closed the book another way?
2. What will happen after the conclusion of this book? How do you envision the relationship between Cecile and her children? What about Cecile and her father–or Big Ma?
3. Is this a book you would recommend to other readers your own age? Why or why not?
4. This book is written in the voice of Delphine, the oldest of the sisters. Was that a good choice? How does it change the book? For example, what if it were written in Cecile’s voice–or Vonetta’s? Pick one short passage and rewrite it in the voice of a different character.
5. Names seem to be important in this book. Do you think Cecile really left home because she could not have her way about Fern’s name? Or was that just a symbol of something else going on in her life?
6. Cecile herself is a poet–and is known by another name. Why is this significant, and what does it tell us about her?
6. What if you suddenly discovered that your mother had given you a totally different name–as Fern does when she discovers she was originally Afua? How would you respond to this?
Coming up on Gurus . . .
One of the greatest informational writers of our time, Albert Marrin, transports us to New York in 1911, a century before the attack on the World Trade Center, to explain events preceding and folliwng the infamous “Triangle Fire,” which for ninety years held the record as New York’s deadliest workplace fire. Flesh & Blood So Cheap is that most masterful of informational works–a virtual documentary in book form. We’ll review it here, and offer suggestions for informational and persuasive writing. Thank you for coming, and please visit us often!