I Am A Good Liberal – Rita Williams Garcia’s “One Crazy Summer” & Reflections on Diversity in YA

I am a good liberal.

In fact, I am a good liberal about being a good liberal.  That means that I recognize that my activism is always a work in progress, that I must constantly strive to question and check my own privilege, that I must consciously work on expanding my vocabulary and understanding,  I must broaden my horizons and knowledge base to better inform my positions, and acknowledge that there is always something more for me to know.

I’m a good liberal about being a good liberal and I’m damn proud of that.

So why had I never heard of Bobby Hutton?

When he was 16 years old, Bobby Hutton was the very first Black Panther recruit.  When he was 17 years old, Bobby Hutton lead a protest march on the California state capitol.  And Bobby Hutton never got to be 18 years old, because two weeks before his birthday, the Oakland police murdered him. (more on Bobby Hutton)

I’m a good liberal, damn it, why did I find out about Bobby Hutton from a children’s book!?

Rita Williams-Garcia’s masterful One Crazy Summer is ostensibly the story of three sisters (Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern) who spend a summer reconnecting with the mother (Celeste, who now calls herself Sister Nzilla) who has left their family to “find herself” in 1968.  In  many ways, it is a very traditional children’s book: the story of a summer that changes everything for the characters, the story of an older sister who learns that she doesn’t always have to be in control, the story of our three young characters learning and growing and changing.  It’s those “traditional” hallmarks that will help ensure this book is a classic that generations of readers can relate to.  But what makes One Crazy Summer MORE than that is everything that makes it non-traditional.  I don’t think I’ve ever read a children’s book that looks so uncompromisingly at what you sacrifice as a woman to be a mother, particularly the unique sacrifices that would exist in the year 1968.  I have certainly never read a children’s book that has a mother like Sister Nzilla – a mother who is neither a villain or a redeemed heroine, but who is person, on her own terms, struggling to find out what it means to be a mother and a free person.  And, of course, I’ve never read a children’s book where our characters learn about revolution from the Black Panthers.  All those elements are what make One Crazy Summer something special and unique, something rare and beautiful that draws you in simply because you want to understand and inhibit and know its world.

But I am not here, exactly, to review One Crazy Summer (although it is, of course, worthy of review and analysis!) the goal of the Diversify Your Reading challenge is to talk about how the book affected me as a reader.

And Bobby Hutton is how this book affected me as a reader.

Lil Bobby Hutton is in every corner of One Crazy Summer.  Learning his story makes Delphine, our no-nonsense narrator, question  everything she thinks she knows about how the world works.  It also makes her afraid.   If Bobby Hutton could be shot and killed while he was unarmed and stripped down to his underwear is it safe to be around the Black Panthers?  The brilliance of  having this be one of Delphine’s fears is how Williams-Garcia then lets Delphine understand that the real question Bobby Hutton’s death should have her asking is this: is it safe to be black in America?  And if it’s not what I am, Delphine, going to do about that?

This is a real question the Black Panthers strove to address and answer: what does it mean to be black in America, when a 17 year old boy can be shot dead on the street by the police for no reason?  What does it mean and what can we do to change what it means?  What can we do to change America?

Bobby Hutton’s death, Bobby Hutton’s life and activism, raises these questions – questions all Americans should be called upon to answer, both in 1968 and in 2011.

And I, good liberal that I am, had never heard of Bobby Hutton.

Reading One Crazy Summer did much more than just cause me to go look up Bobby Hutton and find out more about him.  (though I am grateful this book afforded me the opportunity to do that!) That’s too simple an answer to “how this book affected me as a reader.”  Bobby Hutton, One Crazy Summer, the question about what any of can do to change the country we live in and the world we’re a part of – reading this book was a reality check for a good liberal like me.  I know there’s always more for me to know, but I honestly wasn’t prepared to find it in a children’s book about the 1960s.  “I know a lot about that era,” I assured myself.  “And I know a lot about the Civil Rights Movement too.  If anything, I’ll just enjoy this because Rita Williams-Garcia is a great writer and this is a unique era to be featured in kid lit.”   And as I comforted myself with all my knowledge and my good liberal-ness, there was Bobby Hutton.

It was more than a reality check: it was a reminder that the best books about “diversity” do more than fulfill check boxes in an effort to educate you.  The best books about diversity, like One Crazy Summer, get straight to your heart and your brain and open the world up to you – they make you, like Delphine,  ask questions about Bobby Hutton that are more than “So, who was this guy?” and are, instead, “What did he mean?  What can I learn from his life?  How can his life make my  life better and more meaningful?”

These questions are relevant and worth asking to readers of all ages, but they have a particular resonance, I think, with children and teens.  That’s the reason we, as librarians and teachers, must have these books on our shelves and get them into our patrons and students hands.  Books like One Crazy Summer don’t force answers on you, they do something far more valuable: they get you to ask the questions.

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Diversify Your Reading challenge/Middle Grade Roundup

First things first! The Las Conchas fire is 50% contained and the evacuation has been lifted, meaning I’m back at home and the library is back to business as usual.   They lifted the evacuation two Saturdays ago and we re-opened with normal hours and programs on Tuesday the 5th.  It was a truly crazy and lovely time seeing patrons again and doing programs and even catching up on paperwork.  There are still spot-fires in the mountains so we have a good bit of smoke still, which sucks in the early morning.  But overall it’s so good to be back I barely notice!  Last week at our baby dance program I did Laurie Berkner’s Airplane Song which ends with “come sit down in your own hometown” and you know, I got a little choked up as I sang it to this group of 55 toddlers.   It felt profound.

So, I want to THANK ALL OF YOU SO MUCH – all of you who sent messages, who tweeted me, who let me know you were thinking of me, who read my blog about the situation – words cannot do justice to what it meant to me, how great it was to know there was a whole net of people out there concerned about what was happening here.  Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Now onto the fun stuff!

I’m super excited to be participating in the Summer 2011 Diversify Your Reading Challenge.  This challenge is part of the amazing Diversity in YA, a movement created by the awesome YA authors Malinda Lo and Cindy Pon to help encourage diversity (of all kinds!) in fiction for YA and children.

The challenge is easy.  YOU (yes, you) should be participating.   You don’t even need to be a blogger, the challenge is open to librarians who create displays highlighting diversity in their collections.   You could win an amazing collection of FIFTY THREE BOOKS!! Want to participate?  It’s super easy.  If you’re participating as a librarian, you just need to incorporate diversity into your summer reading program.  It can be through a booklist, a display, an event, anything highlighting for your patrons the awesome diversity of your collection.  If you’re a blogger, you just have to read diverse titles throughout the summer and then write a blog of at least 500 words about your experience.  The challenge is open through September 1, so start reading and creating today!  You can read more about it, including more details and suggestions for diverse titles, on the Diversity in YA blog (one of my favorite blogs!)  I’m so excited to be doing this challenge, I’ve already started my reading!  I love stretching and finding new titles and, even more,  I love encouraging more diversity in YA publishing with challenges like this.  The more people using these titles and talking about them and sharing them with patrons and highlighting them in their library the more evidence for publishers that diverse titles can be meaningful AND they can sell!

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE!  You can earn a chance to win FABULOUS PRIZES (eight ARCs!!!) just for blogging about this challenge and spreading the word.  All you have to do to enter is blog about the challenge and link back to the challenge page by July 31.

C’mon, it’s going to be great!  Who else is going to participate with me??

I was excited when I found out Malinda and Cindy had organized a summer diversity challenge (y’all are the best!)  but I was EVEN MORE EXCITED when I realized every single title in my middle grade round-up featured diverse characters!  It was simply meant to be.    So, with that in mind – here are three recent middle grade titles I read and truly loved.  All of these titles, different as they are from each other, are unique, powerful, well-written, hard-to-put down, and destined for success with your middle grade readers.

Where to even begin with The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by Wendy Wan-Long Shang?!  This might be the perfect middle grade novel: it has a sharp, clear, original voice, the quintessential middle grade struggle to figure out who you are going to be as an adolescent, and the school and family situations that define a middle grade novel.  Let me particularly stress the family part.  Yes, The Great Wall of Lucy Wu is a “typical” middle grade novel about a girl who has problems with a mean popular girl at school, crushes on a boy she’s not sure likes her back, and worries about coming across as too nerdy.  But it’s so much more than that – because it’s also very much the story of Lucy accepting and embracing her cultural heritage as a Chinese-American girl.

Lucy thinks she has the perfect 6th grade year all planned out…until she realizes she has to share her room with Yi Po, her great aunt from China and she has to attend Chinese school on Saturdays.  Lucy, of course, resists, because she’s American, darn-it, and all that Chinese stuff isn’t for her.

There’s something genuinely moving about Lucy’s path to figuring out that being American doesn’t mean she can’t also speak Chinese and love Chinese noodles or that being good at basketball doesn’t mean she’s not Chinese.  Shang gets these messages across without being didactic (the worst!) but through a gradual and natural progression of events and realizations on Lucy’s part.  There are very few books that show multiculturalism as naturally as this one does and I think the key to success here is that this is a story of one girl realizing that “multiculturalism” isn’t some monolith or useless buzzword but is, instead, a way to fully express and describe everything that makes her strong and special and, well, great.

The book is full of likable characters, chief among them Yi Po, who is fierce and wise and there for Lucy in a way that changes everything for her.  I also loved Talent Chang, the good girl from Chinese school Lucy doesn’t want to be friends with.  The book has lots of Chinese phrases and words throughout the text, but Lucy is struggling with the language herself, so it’s not overwhelming.  This is a really great book, funny and well-paced, and full of things middle grade readers are looking for.  I serve a huge Asian population, so this book is a book I’ve long dreamed of, but even if you don’t, you should have The Great Wall of Lucy Wu on your library shelves because it’s a genuinely fantastic middle grade novel.  (my only complaint is I’d love to see an actual Asian face on the cover.  Maybe for the paperback??)

Bird in a Box by Andrea Davis Pinkney takes place in 1937, when America was in the middle of the depression and in love with a boxer by the name of Joe Louis.  Louis, the first African-American heavyweight champion, was an American sensation of the era. Bird in a Box is the story of three children, Otis, Willie, and Hibernia, who have one thing in common: they love Joe Louis.  By following his fights, the three become allies and eventually best friends as they learn to deal with the significant challenges in their respective lives.

What makes Bird in a Box work is how little I knew about boxing.  How’s that?  Bird in a Box works because I know very little about boxing but, like Otis, Willie, and Hibernia, I was hanging on every move and every word of the fight scenes.  Pinkney, using actual radio commentary from Louis’s fights, does a fantastic job showing just how much Louis and his fights meant to not just America, not just the African-American community, but to these three characters in particular.  As you read Bird in a Box, you’re not JUST cheering for Joe Louis or holding your breath wondering what the next punch is going to bring, you’re caring and investing that much in Otis, Willie, and Hibernia too.

This is top-notch historical fiction which uses the details of daily life in that era to really create a believable setting.  The way Pinkney uses the radio broadcast of Louis’s fights, even the way she establishes the radio as an essential part of daily life in the 1930s,  not only shows you what it means to the characters, but helps you feel what it must have been like to hear the world coming through your radio speakers.

This book skews to a little younger middle grade audience, but I think it’s going to be a huge hit with your fans of historical fiction or sports stories – Joe Louis and his dazzling fights are an essential part of the story.  Pinkney never makes the metaphor of “being knocked around by life” overly explicit, but it’s woven, skillfully into the story.  Otis, Willie, and Hibernia have had some hard knocks but they keep going – there’s something that’s inherently appealing about that in books for the middle grade audience and readers, I think, are going to be drawn to that.

Where to even begin with Karen Schwabach?!  The Storm Before Atlanta is her third historical fiction title and it, like the other two A Pickpocket’s Tale and The Hope Chest, is just simply marvelous.  There’s no other word to describe how skillfully, how richly, Schwabach crafts each novel.  The Hope Chest, which is the story of an eleven year old who joins her older sister on the frontline of the suffragette movement is, hands-down, one of my favorite historical novels of all time.  The Storm Before Atlanta doesn’t disappoint.

It tells the brutal, realistic, unblinking truth about war – as learned by 10 year old Jeremy, who runs away to die on the Union field of glory.  Of course, on his way to what he assumes will be his glorious demise, Jeremy not only has time to see what war is really like he also makes two friends: Dulcie, a runaway slave and Charlie, a Confederate soldier who doesn’t seem so darn hostile or out for blood.

Of course, you will have guessed that dying on a field of glory isn’t all that Jeremy thinks it might be, that war is hell, etc. etc.  What makes The Storm Before Atlanta so special is that Schwabach knows that even the youngest readers can grasp these obvious truths – she’s more interested in the truths behind those.   War is hell but so is slavery, the experiences of Dulcie make that perfectly clear.  What are wars fought about?  Is there such a thing as a worthy cause?  If there is, doesn’t that mean one side has to be only right and one side has to be only wrong?  If Confederates are the “bad guys” then can a Confederate solider still be a good person?  Now THOSE are  BIG questions, questions about who you are and what you believe  – they’re exactly the kind of questions that middle grade fiction should be asking.

The Storm Before Atlanta not only poses those questions to readers but does it in an exciting, well-crafted, vivid style.  As our characters approach Atlanta, there is plenty of action, bloodshed, and and adventure to go along with all the deep thoughts.  (this book does have intense and accurate descriptions of warfare and wartime medicine of the era, just so you’re prepared.)  This is a rich, rewarding, and totally absorbing read.  It’s highly recommend for all middle grade collections and is sure to be popular with readers who like action, historical fiction, and, yes, even for fans of war stories – because they’ll come away asking hard questions.

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