Part of why we like hanging out with Delphine is that she's always open with us (as readers) about how she feels. To the rest of the world? Not so much. Delphine often hides the truth from people around her, especially Cecile.
For instance, when Delphine decides she's had enough egg rolls to last a lifetime, she doesn't bother filling Cecile in on the details. Instead she asks for dinner money, the same as she does every day, before turning around and confiding in us:
I was glad Cecile handed over the money without fuss or questions. That saved me from lying about getting shrimp lo mein when I had no intention of going to Ming's. (16.4)
When it comes to Cecile, Delphine definitely brings the sass. Which makes sense—Cecile hasn't exactly earned glowing reviews or incredible deference from her daughter. And since much of the book is about Delphine and Cecile, this snarky tone often dominates, accompanied by honest asides to readers.
This book might be fiction (read: made up), but the history isn't. When Delphine first sees a bunch of signs on the wall at the Center, she's not sure what they're about. They read:
JUSTICE FOR ALL
ALL POWER TO ALL OF THE PEOPLE
REMEMBER LI'L BOBBY
FREE HUEY. (14.10)
Who the heck is Bobby, you ask? Why he's Bobby Hutton, of course, a real sixteen-year-old who was the first person recruited to the Black Panther Party… and the first person to die in the party a year later, while in a shoot-out with the police. That's why everyone wants to remember him at the Center: It's a way of encouraging them to keep up the good fight for power.
This is just one of many examples of the historical truth woven into this made-up story. Delphine might be a figment of imagination, but much of the story around the Black Panther Party is real.
As for young adult lit, we might more accurately call this very young adult lit. One Crazy Summer is centered around an eleven-year-old and her younger sisters, and it's very much written for readers of similar age. The language is simple, the story is clear, the thoughts and feelings are relatable. That doesn't mean older readers can't totally get into this one, though; after all, the Civil Rights Movement is a pretty interesting backdrop and pretty much everyone knows what's it's like to have beef with their mom.
When Delphine first arrives in Oakland, she tells us, "Cecile was no kind of mother. Cecile didn't want us. Cecile was crazy" (4.42). Well then. Right away, we think the title—One Crazy Summer—is a reference to just how crazy Cecile is (and how much Delphine doesn't like her). But there's more to the story, er, title than that: Delphine learns that Cecile is more complicated than Big Ma or Pa let on. What's crazy about the summer isn't so much Cecile as it is how much Delphine's eyes open to the nuanced complexities of the world.
We're not saying Delphine agrees with—or even understands—Cecile's decision to high-tail it out of her kids' lives, but at least she gets to know her mom a little better by the end of the book. Delphine also develops a greater understanding of the Black Panthers, shifting from seeing them as bad news to appreciating many of their members and their reasons for fighting. The title, we think, is a shout-out to this crazy process of opening herself up to new ideas and understanding.
If it's a fairy tale you're after, keep looking because Delphine doesn't get some perfect mom by the end of the book. In fact, she learns that her mom doesn't regret leaving the girls and moving to California. She was young when she had them, plus she has poetry to write and the Black Panthers to support. It might seem selfish to some people, but Cecile doesn't care. Part of Delphine's journey is accepting who her mom is instead of waiting for her to be who she wants her to be.
Just because she's not a great mom doesn't mean Cecile doesn't care for her girls. She might not be the homemade cookies type, but she sees them off at the airport with love and concern in her eyes. As Delphine tells us:
It was a strange, wonderful feeling. To discover eyes upon you when you expected no one to notice you at all. I smiled a little and faced front to find something to do with myself. (33.28)
Delphine gets that her mom wants to do her own thing in California but still cares about her daughters. Like we said, this is no fairy tale, but at least Delphine gets closer to understanding her mom's reasons for leaving them and forges a bit of a relationship with Cecile.
We know you tune your grandpa out when he rambles on about how times were different in his day, but you should listen sometime. Things were really different back in the 1960s, especially when it comes to race. One Crazy Summer is set in this turbulent time, smack dab in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement.
The Civil Rights Movement was huge. This is a time when people like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Irene Morgan were making moves and taking stands (or seats, in Morgan's case) to demand equal rights for black Americans.
For the sake of this book, what's most important to understand is that this was a time of great racial disparity in the United States and experiences varied widely based on where you lived. When Delphine arrives in Oakland from New York City, she's surprised by how different stuff is on either end of the country. Sure, racism is everywhere, but the way people deal with racist attitudes differs. She's in the city that birthed the Black Panther Party now.
You might not have been around in the 1960s, but that doesn't mean you won't be able to follow what's going down in this book. For the most part, it's about your average American kid (Delphine) and the struggles she goes through with her family. Sounds familiar, right? Sure, we'd recommend you brush up on your Civil Rights history, but just because it will only help you understand who's who in the book. Even if you aren't well-versed in 60's politics, though, you'll have no trouble following along. The truth is that Delphine is learning, just like us, so it's easy to stay on the same page with her.
Seeing things directly from Delphine's point of view makes us feel like we're old friends. And how do we talk to our friends? In a lighthearted, conversational way of course—no formalities here. Check out the way the novel starts:
Good thing the plane had seat belts and we'd been strapped in tight before takeoff. Without them, that last jolt would have been enough to throw Vonetta into orbit and Fern across the aisle. (1.1)
That sounds just like we're a couple of old pals gabbing over coffee, right? Delphine doesn't make us feel like we're reading a stuffy history book about an important time in U.S. history—instead she's relaxed the whole time, just talking about her life as she lives it. When we think about it, this makes perfect sense: We may look back on the Civil Rights Movement as this incredibly important time in U.S. history, but for Delphine, it's just what's going on around her as she grows up. The Civil Rights Movement is part of the ordinary everyday for her.
Have you ever met one of those people who has a schedule all the time? We're all for being punctual, but Delphine takes things to the next level when it comes to schedules. Her trusty Timex helps her keep track of where she needs to be. She even has the bedtime routine down pat: There are twelve minutes of baths at night spread between Delphine and her sisters, in case you were wondering.
Delphine's watch is important to her because it helps her keep her airtight schedule. This is one of the ways Delphine isn't kid-like—she can't just hang or see where her day takes her, instead planning out each moment. When she doesn't have anywhere to be, she claims, "It just felt strange, my Timex ticking and me having nothing to do" (15.10). Delphine, to be clear, never just chills. She's always so worried about keeping stuff on schedule that she misses out on her life. In this way, the Timex doesn't just show us how organized Delphine is; it shows us how rigid she is about life.
It isn't until she goes on the go-kart that Delphine's finally able to appreciate a good time. When she does speeding down the hill, Delphine experiences "letting go and time not ticking but racing away" (29.41). And you know what? She has a blast as time eludes her grasp. Because of this, Delphine learns to let go a little and live. There'll be time for schedules and rules later on in life.
Go ahead, you can admit it—you totally had a favorite toy you took everywhere when you were a kid, right? Us, too. No shame in the favorite toy game.
In One Crazy Summer, Fern is no different: She loves her Miss Patty Cake doll. Except instead of just loving it because she's a kid and kids can get totally obsessed with toys, Delphine explains that "Miss Patty Cake was there when Cecile wasn't" (9.24). Translation? Fern fills the gaping hole her mom left with her doll. Miss Patty Cake is the bandage Fern puts over the wound her mom created when she up and left.
When the girls start going to the Center, Crazy Kelvin mocks Miss Patty Cake since she's white. He thinks it's humiliating for a black girl to have to carry around a toy that doesn't look like her. To Kelvin, it's just another way black people don't have any power—toy companies don't even make dolls that look like them.
Vonetta follows Kelvin's logic and uses a marker to make the doll's skin darker. This ticks Fern off, though. To Fern, Miss Patty Cake is just a doll, a beloved companion. She doesn't care what it looks like, though she definitely cares about no one messing with her prized toy. After all, the toy's a stand-in for her absentee mother.
Who knew symbols could be so much fun? After Cecile is arrested, Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern stay with Hirohito's family for a while. And when they do, for the first time, Delphine doesn't have to take care of everyone. When it's just the three sisters, she's the responsible one since she's the oldest. Hanging out with Cecile isn't much different—even though Cecile is much older than the girls, she's not interested in taking care of them. So Delphine's been in full-on grown-up mode for a while by the time she and her sisters arrive at Hirohito's house.
At Hirohito's house, though, his mom lets Delphine play outside and just be a kid. At first, Delphine isn't sure what to do with herself without so much responsibility. Then she takes a turn on the go-kart, though, and changes her tune. Flying down a hill at top speed strapped to a lump of metal will do that to you. Listen to how she describes it:
As the go-kart went faster, I felt the rumbling of the wheels hitting the concrete underneath me. I screamed. So loud I startled myself. I had never heard myself scream. Screamed from the top of my lungs, from the pit of my heart. Screamed like I was snaking and falling. Screamed and hiccupped and laughed like my sisters. (29.43)
Delphine discovers, through the go-kart, what it's like to be carefree and act like a kid for once. It's a moment of incredible release for her—look at all the screaming she does, loosening up her "lungs" and "heart." Being a kid is awesome, and it's good Delphine finally gets a shot.
One Crazy Summer is the Delphine show, through and through. Not only is she the main character, she's also the narrator, telling us about this wild experience as it happens (we know because she uses I all the time). We get to see everything through Delphine's eyes as she goes along. Check out what she says about the Center:
I felt silly and wrong calling a grown person Brother So-and-So or Sister Such-and-Such, but thanks to Cecile, we now had brothers and sisters we had never before laid eyes on. (11.2)
Notice how she explains to us what's happening and how she feels about it? It's a pretty complete picture for us as readers. The only downside to this first-person narration style is that when Delphine doesn't know something, we don't either. There are a couple times in the book where Delphine isn't sure (or doesn't quite understand) what is happening. Instead of a know-it-all narrator jumping in and explaining it to us, we just get Delphine's limited understanding of it. She's only eleven, after all.
Delphine and her sisters start off on a plane on their way to bright and sunny California. The girls are off to meet their mom who ran away without so much as a goodbye nearly four years ago. They're a little nervous, but mostly they're excited—they picture California the way it's shown in the movies, complete with warm beaches and Disneyland. This is the exposition because it offers up the lay of the land that the rest of the book rests on.
The girls weren't sure what to expect from their mom, Cecile, but they still didn't think she'd be cold as ice. So that's a bummer to discover. It's clear Cecile's not interested in having the girls around, and in case they weren't picking up on this from the fact that she sends them out whenever she can, she also tells them as much, directly. Delphine starts wondering whether it was a mistake to go to California in the first place, and she definitely doesn't see the point in going to the Center every day. And yet here she is, growing less happy with her situation by the day.
Imagine Delphine's surprise when she comes home to finding Cecile getting arrested. The charge? Writing poetry. When Cecile is thrown in jail simply for voicing her ideas, it's a turning point for Delphine: She finally gets that Black Power isn't about rallies or protests; it's about standing up for what's right. It's downright wrong to treat someone differently because of their skin color, and for the first time, Delphine starts to see how she can help fight this in her own community.
At the Black Panther's rally, Fern steps up and delivers a poem to the cheering crowd. Cecile is released from jail just in time to see her daughters in action; she's excited they are at the rally and pleased they chose to recite one of her poems. Delphine revels in the glory of the moment, and it gives her the courage to tell her mom what she really thinks of her: It wasn't cool that Cecile ditched them. This is a big moment for Delphine because she's finally being honest about how she feels, ready to speak her truth and accept whatever happens next.
The girls head back home to Brooklyn after learning a lot more about their mom. Sure, she's no Mrs. Brady, but she has her own stuff going for her. Delphine realizes things are way more complicated than what she thought before their visit, and while she might not become besties with her mom, she's one giant step closer to understanding the gal. Cecile and Delphine promise to keep in touch, which is way more of a resolution that we thought we'd get based on the beginning of the book.