by Gareth Hinds
|One Crazy Summer
by Rita Williams-Garcia
In the summer of 1968, eleven-year-old Delphine boards a plane in New York, along with her younger sisters, Vonetta, and Fern, to spend a month in California with the mother who abandoned them shortly after Fern’s birth. Though that mother, Cecile (aka Nzila), grudgingly meets her daughters at the airport, she takes no further responsibility for them once she brings them home, and Delphine, who has been mother to the two younger girls since the moment of Cecile’s desertion seven years earlier, must now look out for her siblings in a strange place and without the support of a father or grandmother to back her up.
The story is set in trying times. Both Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr. have been assassinated and the country is drowning under a swelling tide of racism. Because Cecile refuses to let the girls into her life, Delphine, Vonetta and Fern, who had led sheltered lives in their Brooklyn home, are suddenly thrust into the politics of the time, spending their long summer days at a Black Panther community camp.
We, as readers, process all of this through the keen sensibilities of Delphine, who is tall for her age and wise beyond her years. With a voice that is sometimes an echo of her grandmother, sometimes a perplexed adolescent, we ache as we watch her come to terms with her emotionally crippled mother, who is not able to meet the girls, and their enormous need, even halfway. Though physically present (usually holed-up in the off-limits kitchen), Cecile is emotionally distant, something the children cannot understand, but learn to accept.
As the story progresses, Delphine grows increasingly resourceful, keeping her sisters out of their mother’s hair, making the most of a strange and challenging life-style, and holding on to her own dignity. She carefully plans a glorious trip to San Francisco and with great satisfaction, the reader watches that careful planning yield a delightful experience for all three girls. Even when they return from that gem of a day to find their mother being taken by the police, Delphine does not falter in her determination to look after her younger sisters. When Nzila returns from her brief stay in jail, we learn, along with Delphine, what has made her the person, and mother, she is. There is an understanding reached, a raw sort of acceptance between mother and children, that allows the girls to love Cecile fiercely, because, she is, after all, their mother, even though Cecile can never be the mother the girls long for. Delphine and her sisters’ struggles can be read as metaphor for the struggles of their black sisters and brothers on a national scale, also abandoned by their “mother,” their country.
Neither Delphine, nor the black community, is responsible for that abandonment and yet they must find a way to survive the situation they’ve been dealt. Rita Williams-Garcia shines an entirely new light on a radical group, showing us a softer, nurturing side of the Black Panthers who received (justifiably at times) harsh coverage from the press. In one of many effecting moments throughout the book, we learn how the girls engage in color counting, keeping track of the number of black faces on television, and the size of their roles. We are asked to open our minds to the complexities of motherhood and challenged not to judge too harshly.
Williams-Garcia evokes the sixties with precision, drawing readers forty years into the past with grace, depth, and humor. You can well imagine the trepidation I might have felt as I picked up the second of my two books, Gareth Hinds’ THE ODYSSEY. I have to admit being rather doubtful regarding this second selection.
Graphic novels, when they work, can be moving. When they don’t work…well, to know how much labor and love has gone into a project that doesn’t work is heartbreaking. I asked myself as I studied the cover how anyone could possibly create something in this format with the scope of THE ODYSSEY? How could the beauty of Homer’s language be substituted with a plethora of art panels? How could a graphic novel convey any of the emotional and experiential depth of the hero journey that has kept Homer in the hands of readers for two thousand years?
When I read Homer’s THE ODYSSEY forty years ago (ironically during the period in which ONE CRAZY SUMMER is set), I remember being swept up in an ancient time, in a distant place. But most of all I remember falling under the spell of the words. Then and there I lost my heart to the art of narrative poetry. Of all the people to be handed this particular book to judge, I must certainly have been one of the least desirable. Gareth Hinds had some extreme shoes to fill with this project if he was going to win my favor.
What delights me to no end is to tell you that he did win my favor. Hinds does an extraordinary thing in this book. Homer used a sea of words to carry us on the long, arduous journey from Troy back to Ithaca. In Hinds’ book, we are carried instead on a sea of art, a sea which has a fluidity much like the ocean itself. The text Hinds does use strikes a graceful balance between the beauty of Homer’s language and the language required to fall convincingly and compellingly on contemporary ears. Readers who are unfamiliar with the original story may at times feel a bit tempest-tossed in this rendering; but feeling at sea with Odysseus is not a bad thing. Particularly when the art serves as life-raft on each page, in each panel.
What a remarkable feat Hinds has pulled off…to distill Homer’s epic masterpiece into a whisper of text and a wealth of art. I can’t think of a young reader who would not quickly identify not only with the determined (and beefy) Odysseus, but also with the conflicted Telemachus, and the beleaguered Penelope. There is here, not despite, but because of a paucity of words, a visceral experience of one of the most fertile works mankind has known. Homer asked us to consider the themes of home, of loyalty, of hospitality, of anger, revenge, retribution, of power and powerlessness, of desperation, and atonement. These themes still confound us, two thousand years later; they still cause us, as a species, to act and react, sometimes wisely, sometimes less so. All these things were relevant in the time of Homer; all are still relevant in a way that binds us with the audiences that sat at Homer’s feet twenty centuries ago.
Though I approached this graphic take on a classic with trepidation, the fact is that readers swim through the panels in a way that makes the story as alive as Homer must have made it when he recited it to listeners in the smoky great halls of the ancient past. I didn’t think it possible to do justice to a seminal classic through the genre of graphic novel. I am forced to retract my misgivings. Hinds, with his respect for the original, has opened it up to contemporary young readers in a way that allows them to fully partake in the mythic journey. In a way, these two books share the themes of identity and exile, ONE CRAZY SUMMER going back forty years, THE ODYSSEY going back fifty times that. In the end, comparing and contrasting the two books, I think what most impressed me is how Hinds captured and conveyed the depth and scope of THE ODYSSEY. What Hinds, with the help of Homer, teaches us about ourselves is a lesson that, had we learned it earlier might have prevented a year like 1968. That insight has nudged me to select Gareth Hinds’ book as the winner in this contest between two very fine entries.
– Karen Hesse
And the Winner of this match is…
… THE ODYSSEY
I’m absolutely delighted by this upset. Not that I have anything against One Crazy Summer, but it did win a Newbery Honor, a National Book Award nomination, the Coretta Scott King Award, and the Scott O’Dell Award, whereas The Odyssey has seemingly slipped under everybody’s radar. Oh, I tried to drum up a discussion about the text on Heavy Medal, but it didn’t get very far because the true genius of the book is the words and the pictures. Comparing these two books is the epitome of the apples vs. oranges conundrums that have come to characterize Battle of the Kids’ Books. Like Karen, I’ve found that when I’m resistant to a book, but it manages to win me over nevertheless, it’s very difficult not to be substantially wowed. And, you know, Delphine is such a popular character, I wouldn’t be surprised to see her back in the thick of things . . .
– Commentator Jonathan Hunt