One Crazy Summer Reflection

*This reflection contains SPOILERS.*

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia has won multiple awards, including being a Newberry and Coretta Scott King book. Three sister are sent to spend a month with the mother who left them. They don’t know what to expect and are introduced to the world in a new way during their brief stay in California.

Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern are like most sisters. They depend on each other, but also know exactly how to push each other. As the oldest, at eleven years old, Delphine takes on a motherly role; Vonetta is nine and a show off; Fern is seven, and a little harder to gauge than the others, but clearly has a fire within her. Delphine narrates their story, giving insight into her role and her feelings. Cecile, their mother is still learning to be herself and care for her own needs after a difficult childhood. Because of this she doesn’t show much care or attention to her daughters.

The sisters end up spending most of their trip at the People’s Center run by the Black Panthers. Delphine’s thinking begins to shift here. Big Ma had taught them to be proper, to please white people, to appear meek and safe at all times, but Sister Mumbaki opens Delphine’s eyes to another option: respect, rights, and safety. Over the course of the novel the reader sees her gradually change. One example of this is her reaction to people looking at her and her sisters. When they first arrive in the airport, a white woman tries to give the sisters money because of how cute they are. Delphine seems indifferent, despite Cecile’s opposition. Three weeks later, while the girls explore Chinatown, white tourists (possibly Europeans) point at them and take pictures of the sisters from across the street. Delphine doesn’t like this attention and quickly get her and her sisters away from them.

Despite the heavy topics of One Crazy Summer, like identity and racial justice, it is an accessible novel for young readers. Delphine’s narration is relatable; she makes thoughtful observations about her world, her sisters, and Cecile. Additionally, the short focused chapters are ideal for young readers.

Delphine is very mature for an eleven year old, which makes sense given the responsibility she feels for her sisters. Regardless, she is relatable in her struggle to understand and find her identity, and she maintains many elements of her age. Delphine thinks she knows what is best, but has to be reminded of adults’ roles and importance, and that she still needs to listen to them and respect them. My favorite part in One Crazy Summer is when Cecile and Delphine finally talk. Cecile opens up, sharing with Delphine the challenges of her young life and why she left them. Delphine begins to understand her mother’s need for solitude, and her own identity, but it doesn’t stop her longing for her mother.

One Crazy Summer was a beautiful summer adventure. A great introduction to the black Panthers and the continued fight for civil rights and breaking down of systematic racism. Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern are easy to fall in love with, as they learn about civil rights, justice, their mother, and themselves.

-M.R. Gavin


Deconstructive Criticism Example

In the second sentence of “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” the narrator says, “I would say a haunted house, and reach the height of romantic felicity – but that would be asking too much of fate!” The story proceeds to suggest her gradual love of the house and an obsession with the upstairs room, in which she loses her mind and embodies the creature she had been watching behind the wall-paper throughout her stay is caused by mental instability. However, perhaps her mental state is not the cause, rather it is the house itself – the haunted house.

The idea of the cottage being haunted is mentioned casually, but with no real depth in “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” because instead the focus is on the narrator’s mental health. If read with the understanding that the house is haunted, “The Yellow Wall-Paper” evolves into a horror story.  The home has been abandoned for years because of “legal troubles,” and the narrator’s husband was able to rent it cheaply. “There were greenhouses, too, but they are all broken now,” the narrator says as she describes the property and foreshadows how the house will in turn break her. This foreshadowing occurs again as she describes the upstairs room and how it appears the former inhabitants attempted to remove the wall-paper and graffitied the room.

Furthermore, the suggestion that the wall-paper has affected more than just the narrator supports the idea that the house is haunted and the figure trapped behind the wall-paper is real. The effect of the house and the wall-paper goes beyond the narrator and its previous inhabitants to influence the narrator’s husband and sister-in-law. “I have watched John…and I have caught him several times looking at the paper! And Jennie too. I caught Jenny with her hand on it once.” The house extends its influence by leaving yellow smudges from the wall-paper on everything it touches, including the residents’ clothing. The smell of the house invades their noses and hair to the point of being a near constant companion.

Now the house being haunted, does not explain why the narrator is the most affected. However, because of her long periods of isolation and being the primary person in the house with no opportunities to leave, the house naturally takes her first. John leaves regularly to care for his patients; Jennie takes care of the entire home, cooks, and runs errands so she too comes and goes, whereas the narrator never goes beyond the gardens. The house traps her, with the bars on the windows, and her prescribed isolation from her husband, she is the first target for the house to fully sway.

Despite the home being haunted, the disappearance of the woman behind the wall-paper, suggests the house being haunted is incorrect. At the conclusion, the narrator and the woman behind the wall-paper become one. Perhaps this is the complete haunting, as the figure possesses the narrator, but her complete disappearance is surprising. In conclusion, as an alternative to reading “The Yellow Wall-Paper” as a story of an unstable woman, there is textual evidence suggesting the house is indeed haunted and reading the story as a horror is more fitting.

-M.R. Gavin

When I grow up

What did you want to do when you were eleven?

I guess you get a little insight into my life today, readers. It is coincidental that this is the prompt I chose for this week months ago, and the book I happened to review this week is about an eleven year old girl, although the novel has nothing to do with “what I want to be when I grow up.”

I think the phrasing of these questions is always interesting. “What did you want to do when you were eleven?” I am assuming this means, “What did I want to be when I grew up when I was eleven?” but in truth, it could simply mean, what did I do, or like doing. One of the questions I have seen as an alternative to “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is “What do you want to see changed when you grow up?” For teachers this is part of a transformative approach to teaching. It acknowledges that there are serious problems in the world and that it is our job to change them. It really is the initial question needed to “be the change you want to see in the world.” (Sorry for all the quotations, without this being an actual dialogue.) But this wasn’t an idea I was really aware of at eleven. At the time, I lived in a very well padded bubble and was extremely naive. I am still somewhat naive, but I do strive to learn what I don’t know.

To answer the question, I can honestly say, I have never really known what I want to do. I’ve had innumerable ideas about what would be interesting to do, but aside from one thing, that has ebbed and flowed in my life, I have never been certain of what I wanted to “do.” At eleven, I was past my desire to be a veterinarian or farmer. Although I still adored animals, I realized blood was not my thing. I considered being a dog trainer briefly, but decided I was content training my own dog. Eleven was before my brief interest in movie special effects, which I ultimately decided against because I was terrible at science, but loved the creativity involved in it. What I wanted to do at eleven was a very in between time. People starting to ask me what high school I wanted to go to, and lagged on the future profession question for a few years.

Regardless, when I was eleven, there was one thing I was rather good at, and greatly enjoyed. One thing that could be a profession that I tossed around in my head again and again over the years – from the time I was five or six, to now. I wanted to write. To be more specific, I wanted to read all the time, and write when I felt like it. I wasn’t the best at coming up with my own ideas, but if I was given a starting point, I could write a solid story. At the time, I wrote stories about Peter Pan, about my sisters; I explored character development, and setting development/ world creation, but mostly I wrote to entertain myself and my sisters. I dreamed of being an author whose stories everyone read, like Harry Potter or To Kill a Mockingbird. My friends and I would write and share stories too. I had a knack for goofy titles, and writing dialogue using dialect. Beyond the glory and enjoyment of writing, I really had no clue what I wanted to do.

Fast forward about fifteen years, and I finally realized that what I wanted to do at eleven is actually what I want to do professionally and for a living – write. While I am currently exploring ways to make that a reality, I enjoy writing on my blog everyday, and working on several long term writing projects, in the hopes of someday being a published author. Who would have known that my eleven year old self actually knew what I wanted to do for a living? Sometimes it is important for me to remind myself of the ingenuity of children. Not myself necessarily, but the simplicity of knowing what they want and figuring out how to get it. Thanks, eleven year old me, for helping twenty-six year old me realizing what I truly want to do and going for it.

Next week’s prompt: Write a poem describing all that is beautiful to you in exactly 40 words.

-M.R. Gavin

One Crazy Summer Review

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

4 Stars

Three young sisters on a plane travel across the country to see their mother for the first time in seven years. One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia was published in 2010 and is the first book in a series about the Gaither sisters. It is a Newberry and Coretta Scott King winning novel.  The reader falls in love with Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern as they tackle challenges on their summer vacation.

Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern are sisters, ages 11, 9, and 7. They live with their father and grandmother in New York, but are spending the summer in California with their mother, who left them after Fern’s birth. Their mother, Cecile, is anything but what they had hoped for, interacting with them little, and focusing on her own work. Most of their summer is spent at The People’s Center run by the Black Panthers. Here, they meet new friends, they learn, and their thinking begins to shift. The political climate is an important underlying theme of One Crazy Summer, but the aspect that pulls the reader into the story is the sisters’ desire for a relationship with their mother. Williams-Garcia’s style of writing is very appropriate for her middle grade audience. She uses short chapters, with a focused occurrence in each chapter. These occurrences build on each other as the story develops. Her word choice pushes her readers to use context clues to discover meaning, or to look up words they don’t understand, being challenging, but accessible for young readers. Finally, with Delphine as the narrator, the reader can relate to her insights and observations about the world.

The novel begins with the girls travelling on a plane, giving the reader glimpses into the backstory, and then surprising the reader with the hands off manner Cecile takes with her daughters. In my opinion, the story stalls a bit after that, which makes sense because the sisters and their mother create a more-or-less fixed routine. Despite the plot slowing down, it provides insight into Delphine’s understanding of her mother and the conflicting feelings she has about Cecile, the trip to California, and her own identity. The historical context of the  Black Panthers is very interesting, and creates tension within the plot, but the deeper story is really about Delphine’s identity as a young black girl.

Furthermore, Delphine and her sister, Vonetta and Fern, are such loveable characters. They are like any sisters, bickering, teasing, but also caring and loving. Delphine is the responsible, maternal one as the oldest; Vonetta constantly seeks attention and recognition as the middle sister; and Fern maintains innocence, while also having an air of mystery. Together the three make one dynamic team. It is difficult for a reader not to enjoy their characters and stories.

One Crazy Summer is the first novel by Rita Williams-Garcia I have read, but I loved it. Her characters are relatable and interesting, and the world they are thrown into is full of hope and a desire for justice. As a middle grade novel, it is very accessible to readers, and presents black characters, who are historically underrepresented, and type cast.  Novels like this need to continue to be spot lighted, used in classrooms, and put into the hands of young readers of all races. It demonstrates that all children share similar characteristics, but opens eyes to the injustices faced by many.

In my opinion, One Crazy Summer is a beautifully written, middle grade novel. While I felt it was a little slow, the plot never faded, and the characters’ strong traits and conflicts kept me interested. Combining a powerful story of identity with the setting of the Black Panthers’ fight for justice, Williams-Garcia develops a story with an important message for young readers.  I highly recommend this book to all middle grade students, and middle grade teachers – particularly 5th and 6th graders. While I think boys can enjoy this story, it seems directed toward female readers. Anyone with sisters will find the relationship between Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern enjoyable and relatable to read. I look forward to reading more of Rita Williams-Garcia’s works soon.

-M.R. Gavin

Bookish Date: Paper Towns

This month’s Bookish inspired date will be based on the young adult novel Paper Towns, by John Green. Paper Towns is one of his lesser known novels, but it is still a fun read full of young adult emotions, adventures, and obsessions.

In the novel, Margo unknowingly leads Quentin on a great quest. He learns, explores, travels, and is thrown out of his comfort zone at every turn. The thrill of his adventure only increases his interest in Margo. So this bookish inspired date aims to get you and your partner out of your comfort zone, to do something new together, and something that will make your hearts race.

First, think about all the things you and your partner have done in the past, and scratch those off your list – movies, walks, the zoo, museums, shopping, dinner at your favorite restaurant. All of those dates are great, but the point of tonight’s date is to do something completely new (even if it is at home).

Second, think about all the things your partner has casually mentioned being interested in doing. Travelling to a new country or city, exploring a part of town you haven’t been to before, learning a new skill. Think about the things your partner is scared off. While you want to create a thrilling date, you don’t want to scare them to death either. Use your best judgement and balance.

Third – I know this one kind of stinks but – consider your budget. Sky diving, while I’m sure it is thrilling, is also not cheap; a spur of the moment getaway, romantic and exciting, but with a hefty price tag. I encourage you to do what makes the most sense, and to remember that thrilling new things can been done inexpensively as well. I am not saying you should be cheap, but as a twenty-something, I know most of us have a pretty strict budget, and it needs to be considered.

Now for the date, using your brainstorming from before, come up with something that would be new for both you and your partner. In Paper Towns, Margo takes Quentin to sabotage other classmates, to the top of a skyscraper in the middle of the night, and they break into Sea World. (Please don’t do anything illegal!) Later, Quentin’s adventures take him to all sorts of places he’d never been before.

Here are my suggestions:

  1. Try a new food, something exotic you wouldn’t otherwise try. You can go to an authentic restaurant, or make it at home. If you choose to stay home, I suggest theming the whole evening around it and really enjoying it.
  2. Try something otherwise normal in an unusual way. Do you always get pizza on a Friday night? Get your pizza and eat it on the roof of your house or garage while looking at the stars (please use safety and your best judgement). Or drive out to the middle of nowhere, get a little lost, don’t use your GPS, and eat it there.
  3. Do something challenging that requires you to trust one another. Maybe that is going rock climbing or kayaking together. Maybe it is just going to the mall and telling each other to pick out something for the other person on a certain budget. If you own a home, maybe it is doing house work together. (Let me tell you from personal experience, there is nothing like carrying heavy objects up and down stairs with you partner to get your heart racing. Trust and physical effort to the extreme.)
  4. Plan a scavenger hunt, but don’t let yourselves go to a place you’ve been to before to finish a task.

The possibilities are literally endless. If you have extra time and money, plan a spontaneous road trip, and flip a coin at each intersection. Who knows where you’ll end up? Your partner has always wanted to learn to paint, make your living room a temporary art studio, don’t show each other your work until the end, maybe even be a model for your partner.

Whatever you decide to do that is new and exciting with your partner, remember that new things can be stressful. So try to stay positive, light, and flirtatious, but if there is a problem, be ready to stop and listen to your partner’s concerns. Like Margo and Quentin, learn that taking risks is exhilarating. Margo wants that feeling constantly, but Quentin tends to prefer his security. Despite that he enjoys his adventure and is amazed by the things he learns on it.

Enjoy your Paper Towns inspired date, no matter how extravagant or low-key it is. As long as it gets both of your hearts racing, you’ve made a good choice.

-M.R. Gavin

Americanah Reflection

*This reflection contains SPOILERS.*

There is so much to be said about Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Following Ifemelu as she grows up in Nigeria, studies abroad, works in the United States, and then returns to Nigeria, Adichie explores her observations and her search for love. While Americanah is a great and enlightening read, it also has a strong love story that ties the novel together.

Ifemelu and Obinze were lovers in secondary school and their university days in Nigeria, but time, distance, fear, and pain end their relationship with silence and unknowns. Yet for both characters, no matter the years, the other is never far from mind. In the United States, Ifemelu compares men to Obinze and wonders what he would think of America and her career.  In Nigeria and England, Obinze does the same. When they reunite, there is a certain amount of lust – despite personal obligations – but more than lust, there is a sense of completeness between the two. A wholeness, a happiness that is otherwise missing from their lives.

While the love story and relationship of Ifemelu and Obinze is beautiful, it is an underlying current within Americanah, holding the novel together without overpowering the cultural commentary and poignant observations of the characters, particularly Ifemelu. When she first arrives in the United States, she experiences a wave of problems and struggles. She has no support group and no money. Unable to find a job, she struggles with endless, fruitless interviews. A babysitting job finally helps her and can be seen as a catalyst to her life in America.  It gives her money, introduces her to friends, and is one of the places she begins making observations about American culture. Many of the things she notices are the interactions and differences between white and black Americans, and American blacks and non-American blacks.

Beginning a blog, Ifemelu finds a safe place to record and share these experiences. She writes from the perspective of a non-American black about race in the United States. Sometimes her observations are funny, but even when comical they are laced with serious problems of American society as a whole. One of the interesting things Ifemelu talks about is how she wasn’t “black” before arriving in America; she was Nigerian, she was Igbo, but in America, she is black, that’s it. She faces the same prejudices, biases, and problems as American blacks.

As a white American, I am in a constant state of learning the full extent of my privilege and the extent of oppression. I am trying to unlearn what systematic racism has taught me, and while it is not easy, it is necessary for there to be equality, safety and to stop the systems in place from continuing. Reading Americanah with the perspective of someone from outside my country is eye opening and helpful in further that process.  Ifemelu wrote that it is okay to say you don’t know how to ask something or that it is uncomfortable, as long as you do and you really listen to what is said in reply. If we keep ignoring the issues and not talking about them, they will never go away. In closure, read Americana. There is something for every reader within its pages.

-M.R. Gavin


Structuralism Example

“The Yellow Wall-Paper” by Charlotte Perkins Stenson is a short story full of opposition and tension. From the narrators appearance to her actions, from the beautiful and terrible setting, and the sometimes free sometimes trapped nature of the woman in the wall-paper, Stenson develops her narrator.

To begin, the narrator is a stable woman, whose doctor has prescribed rest, quiet, and food, in order to recover from some sort of mental fatigue. Her doctor is also her husband. At first she tries to follow his prescription, but writes in secret because of the relief it provides her. Gradually, the narrator learns to do many things in secret and the opposite things in public. One example of this relates to her appetite. During the day, while her husband works, the narrator has no appetite and eats very little, preoccupied by other things like watching the wall-paper, or napping. In the evening however, her appetite appears to return and she eats a hearty meal with her husband. Another example of the narrator’s private behavior versus her public behavior is her sleep pattern. In all appearances she seems to sleep constantly. She feigns sleep at night beside her husband, but diligently watches the shifting patterns of the wall-paper and the woman creeping behind it. While she feigns sleep at night, she spends much of the day in and out of naps. Her in between time again spent obsessing over the wall-paper of her room. The narrator has a very binary character. One side of her in the day, another in the night. One side of her around others, another side of herself in solitude. The oppositions within her own person lead to her complete unravel at the conclusion of “The Yellow Wall-Paper.”

In addition to the turmoil within the narrator herself, tension exists in the setting of Stenson’s story and amplifies the power of the yellow wall-paper. The narrator spends much of the narrative talking about her surroundings because of the impact it has on her and the impact it was intended to have on her. They move to the country for the summer, to a sweet house on a quite road for her to recover.  She calls it, “The most beautiful place!” and enjoys walks through the gardens, and sitting in view of the roses. Even the bedroom with the yellow wall-paper, has many positive attributes: “It is a big, airy room, the whole floor nearly, with windows that look all ways and air and sunshine galore.” Despite all these pleasant aspects of her temporary home, the wall-paper overshadows it all. Its offensive pattern is dull, but provoking and becomes the source of the narrator’s obsession. Furthermore, the wall-paper extends its hand throughout the home, leaving yellow smudges on the residents’ clothing, and an odor in their hair. Even in the beautiful light of the day, or the mysterious light of the moon, the wall-paper maintains its prominence. Because of its stark contrast to the rest of the beautiful setting, the wall-paper invades the mind of the narrator, building another set of opposites – beauty versus ugliness.

As the hideous wall-paper contrasts the beautiful countryside, the woman within the wall-paper struggles between a life of freedom and a life of captivity, which ultimately reflects the life of the narrator. Seeing the woman in the wall-paper for the first time, the narrator is unsure of what it is, just that there is a “formless sort of figure, that seems to sulk about behind that silly conspicuous front design.” The figure gradually develops into a woman trapped behind the bars of the wall-paper, who at night shakes the bars constantly to be released, but “by daylight she is subdued, quiet.” Eventually though in daylight she is free and multiplying, creeping in the shadows of the road and in the fields surrounding the cottage, but at night she creeps around the room and shakes the bars of the wall-paper to escape. This contrast is comparable to the challenges the narrator faces. By day she is one thing, by night another, but she is never free.

Ultimately, the narrator gives up her life of opposites and the woman in the wall-paper gives up her day and night differences. They become one, free from the pressures of the masks they wear, free now from much of the disgusting wall-paper, free to creep and sulk to their hearts content. While the opposites of day and night personas and the beauty of the setting with the hideous nature of the wall-paper build up the tensions within the narrator, she succumbs and breaks because of them, finally allowing herself her own version of peace.

-M.R. Gavin