We kick off the Motivate! Author Interview Series with author Rita Williams Garcia and librarian DaNae Leu and her library group at Snow Horse Elementary. DaNae’s group read One Crazy Summer. Read on to find out how the book club meeting went, how Rita answered her eager readers’ questions, and what the possibility of a sequel is.
And check the end of the post for a contest announcement!
One Crazy Summer is an emotion-packed story of three young sisters, Delphine 11, Vonetta 9, and Fern 7. They have flown from their Brooklyn home the summer of 1968 to travel to San Francisco to spend a summer with their mother, Cecile. A mother they haven’t seen since she walked out on them when Fern was a nursing infant. From their first contact with Cecile, it is clear that she has no use for her offspring. The girls, hoping for seven years of makeup mothering, were instead kept at arms length and shipped off each day for summer camp at the local Black Panther establishment.
I’d read the book some months ago and was already a big fan. Listening to the audio was a whole other level of delightful. Narrated by Sisi Aisha Johnson, the book that has been repeatedly lauded for having a strong, genuine voice was attached to an audible voice, in Johnson, which cemented the time-period, location, and cadences to perfection.
One the afternoon when I gathered with six lovely young readers appropriate refreshments were offered. Naturally we had egg rolls, alas, not provided by Mean Lady Ming. They were served with fruit punch, as Big Ma would not have approved of soda pop. Cookies were also involved but there was no literary tie in. Let’s just say that we met in Utah, and I’m pretty sure it is obligatory that any meeting of greater than 3 people must include cookies. Appropriately all were severed on a blanket on the floor. No one was allowed in the kitchen.(…read the rest of her post on her blog!)
And now, on to the answers from Rita Williams Garcia! First of all, we’re very happy that Rita loves the audio recording. She told us, “Did I tell you I fell in love with Sisi Aisha Johnson when I heard her recording of Jackie Woodson’s Feathers? I thought, if I could ever have an audio deal and Sisi. I’ve gotta tell you, it’s all overwhelming! In a good way.” We love Sisi’s recording, too!
Karli: What made you want to write this book?
I wrote One Crazy Summer to share a piece of the late 1960s with young readers. With the exception of Kekla Magoon’s A Rock and a River, very little is written about the Black Panthers for young people. The only image we have of the Black Panthers is one associated with violence and anger. I felt the children who were served by the Panthers in breakfast programs, community centers and schools, might have a different recollection. I see those children as owning a story in history. I encourage kids to be interested observers and activists in the world today. To write about and value their own experiences that will one day be history.
Riley: What gave you the idea for Cecile’s character?
The first thing I heard Cecile say to her daughters was, “Run!” Then I imagined she was hiding from the man whose printer she picked up out of the trash and that she was running from the neighborhood Black Panthers who wanted her to print leaflets for them. I didn’t use this scene that inspired Cecile’s character, but from it I learned Cecile had a printing press and that she didn’t like people bothering her or asking her for her time, services, or to be a mother. I remembered the 1960s poet, Nikki Giovanni had her own printing press so I knew I’d make Cecile a poet. As the nation struggled in the 1960s for equality, women also struggled. I knew first-hand of the struggles of being black during this time period. But to have dreams that the average woman didn’t have…to have dreams that the average black woman didn’t have…to feel bound by responsibilities and to feel powerless to shape your identity and destiny…I thought all of those frustrations might make a person crazy. My mother had artistic dreams but no outlets to express them, so a lot of my mother’s energy went into creating Cecile. But unlike Cecile, my mother did absolutely everything in the household. Her rule to my sister, brother and I was, “Make up your bed and study your lessons.” When my sister was thirteen and decided to wash dishes one night my mother said, “There’s only one woman in this house and you’re not her.”
Paige: Were the characters based on anyone you knew?
My mother was the basis for Cecile, but so many other women went into different aspects of her. Years ago, Nikki Giovanni gave a lecture at my college, and she told us how her small child often went with her to performances, and that she could hear him off stage chanting her poems. 1960s poet, Kattie Cumbo had told me a funny story about how she got her printing press. These women helped me to create the poet, Cecile.
With Delphine, I had friends who were the oldest and had tremendous responsibilities. My older sister, Rosalind was in charge of Russell and me. My two best friends did hard work and raised their younger sisters and brothers. Every moment of fun was always interrupted by responsibility.
Brinley: Who told Big Ma that Cecile lived in a hole in the wall?
Big Ma knew Cecile didn’t have much money and guessed that she lived in an abandoned building or in some place that was falling apart. We used to call those impoverished places “slums.” But I think, instead of saying that Cecile lived in a falling apart building in the slums, Big Ma used the “hole in the wall” expression. I think adults use many expressions that sound confusing to small children.
Brinley: How did you come up with the names for the characters?
Almost every name in ONE CRAZY SUMMER has a story behind it. As a kid in California, I went to school with a lot of Black and Asian biracial kids who had first names like “Hiroshima,” “Yuriko,” and last names like “Brown” and “Taylor.” The “Hirohito” in Hirohito Woods comes from the Japanese Emperor Hirohito. I imagined my character’s father would name his son after the emperor who was a clever war strategist, but not always a “just” ruler. I wanted to pay tribute to my friend, Rashamella Cumbo, who is a gifted teacher among many other talents—and found a name for Sister Mukumbu that would be close the hers. Here’s some trivia: My character’s full name is Rasheeda Mukumbu, but I only used her surname.
As for my main characters, I was typing a letter to my editor to tell her about this story I wanted to write. I made a rhythm while I typed, probably like Cecile tapping out her rhythms with her pencil. In the rhythm I heard the syllables of the names first and I quickly typed Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern. The single syllable of “Fern” seems to bring it all back to reality. Fern. I found Fern’s original name, in Mexico, of all places! My friends treated me to a trip to Mexico and I’d get up in the wee hours of the morning, go outside, sit among the trees, plant-life, ravens, and giant parrots, and I’d write. There, I dreamed of the story behind Fern’s original name and how it came out of the African naming tradition of giving the newborn a name that describes the circumstances of her birth. Fern’s original name means, “Born on a Friday.” Even Cecile’s African name, “Nzila” has a mystery behind it.
Shelbi: Will you write a sequel? I thought it would be interesting to have Cecile come to Brooklyn.
It’s hard to say goodbye to characters you’ve come to know and love, especially when their lives are incomplete. When Pa has an announcement, Uncle Darnell comes home from Vietnam, and Delphine has to go to the sixth grade dance. There’s even the mystery behind Cecile’s African name, “Nzila”—among other things! I’m still working on my current novel, but give it another year or two, and hopefully you’ll read—or listen to the sequel titled, P.S.: BE ELEVEN.
Thank you so much to DaNae, her students, and Rita Williams Garcia! To win a copy of the print book (donated by HarperCollins) and audiobook (donated by Recorded Books) One Crazy Summer, just enter a comment below. We’ll pick 5 winners via random.org on Thursday, 9/9/2010. Good luck! Stay tuned to the blog to find out how your students could be a part of the Motivate! Author Interview Series.
Since we only had 8 entrants (we think you must all still be waking up from the summer!), we’re going to give a prize to everyone who entered! I’ll be contacting you each soon to get your information. Stay tuned for the next portion of the Motivate! Author Interview Series.