One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia is the first book in a trilogy about the Gaither sisters: Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern as they grow up during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. They leave their loving father and grandmother in Brooklyn and travel to Oakland, California to spend a month with the mother they've never known. They wind up with an education about the Black Panther Party, racism, unjust arrests, and the power of community coming together to fight injustice.
One Crazy Summer was written in 2010. The story is told from the perspective of Delphine Gaither, an 11-year-old African American girl growing up in Brooklyn in 1968 with her two younger sisters, her Papa, and her grandmother, Big Ma.
The story opens with Delphine, Vonetta (age 9), and Fern (age 7) taking an airplane to fly out to see their mother in Oakland, California. This isn't a regular visit, however. Their mother abandoned them right after Fern was born and has been living in California as a poet. Delphine's father believes it's time for the girls to get to know their mother and they are set to spend one month of the summer with her. Big Ma does not agree this is a good idea. She is worried that Oakland is full of racial unrest and doesn't trust Cecile, the girls' mother, because she has never forgiven her for leaving the family.
Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern are excited about the prospect of spending a month in California. They imagine trips to DisneyLand and movie stars. They are also apprehensive about meeting their mother for the first time in years. Delphine reflects on all the times they've missed having a mother.
When the girls arrive, their fears are confirmed. Cecile, or Nzila as she has renamed herself, is harsh and outwardly says she did not request this visit. She prefers her quiet life of writing poetry and is not cut out to care for three girls. She forces the girls to fend for themselves most of the time. They quickly learn how to navigate their way around the city. They go to the People's Center summer camp run by the Black Panthers every day and every evening, they buy Chinese food for dinner. Eventually, they grocery shop themselves, and Delphine cooks the meal.
At the People's Center, the sisters learn about Huey Newton, the founder of the Black Panthers, being a political prisoner and the death of young Bobby Hutton who was gunned down by police even though he was unarmed. They are taught how to peacefully advocate for their civil rights and they also help prepare for a rally to protest racial injustice. The Black Panthers also provide free meals, shoes, help register people to vote and get sickle-cell anemia testing. The experience the girls have is a far cry from the negative portrayal they've seen of Black Panthers in the news.
While Delphine is still unsure about joining in on the rally that she views as potentially dangerous, her feelings change one fateful evening. While the girls return from a wonderful excursion that Delphine planned to San Francisco, they arrive to see their mother's home trashed and Nzila being arrested for her poetry about inequality and racial injustice. They see firsthand the oppression they have been learning about at the People's Center and it sparks a desire to do more to help their community.
At the "People's Rally" that Saturday, Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern courageously recited their mother's poem "I Birthed a Black Nation" to a large crowd. Afterwards, little Fern recites her own original poem and Nzila and the reader can see that a young "poet is born."
In the end, Nzila confesses much about her past to Delphine and the girls begin to understand more about their mother. While their relationship is still difficult and complicated, they part feeling closer than they ever have. At the airport while getting ready to depart, Fern initiates a hug and the sisters all hug their mother for the first time, which is what Delphine realizes is the one thing they couldn't leave without.