Sep 15, 2014

Reading Notes: One Crazy Summer, 19 Varieties of Gazelle, Inside Out and Back Again

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia, 19 Varieties of Gazelle by Naomi Shihab Nye, Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

A More Diverse Universe 2014 logo
Today I bring you a special A More Diverse Universe edition of Reading Notes: the following are all excellent books by women of colour that I’d like to draw your attention to. Coincidently, two of them are also Newbery Honor Books, and all three are National Book Award finalists or winners — a reminder that these are awards I should probably keep an eye on.

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia: This wonderful historical novel is set in 1968, a key year in the Civil Rights Movement, and it tells the story of three sisters — Delphine, Vonetta and Fern — who travel to Oakland to spend time with their estranged mother. Their mother, Cecile, left Brooklyn when the youngest of the three sisters was a baby, and became an artist and Black Panther activist in California. There are many reasons why One Crazy Summer is brilliant, but the main one is that it acknowledges both the validity of Cecile’s choices and the legitimacy of Delphine’s feelings of abandonment, thus allowing a complicated and multifaceted truth to emerge. This is pretty much my favourite thing for fiction to do, so chances I wasn’t going to love it were slim.

My second contribution to Diversiverse will hopefully be a discussion of this novel’s sequel, PS: Be Eleven, and I’ll get into what makes William-Garcia’s writing so great in more detail then. Suffice to say for now that both One Crazy Summer and PS: Be Eleven were reminders of why I have so little patience for “children’s literature is simplistic” type arguments. These novels are historically rich, but in a way that never weighs down the narrative; they’re politically engaged in subtle but effective ways; they’re consistently nuanced; they challenge simplistic narratives about the everyday reality of fighting for racial and gender equality; and they’re immensely fun to read.

A bit I especially liked:
It wasn’t at all the way television showed militants—that’s what they called the Black Panthers. Militants, who from the newspapers were angry first wavers with their mouths wide open and their riffles ready for shooting. They never showed anyone like Sister Mukumbu or Sister Pat, passing out toast and teaching in classrooms.
For more on this novel, read Jodie’s excellent review at Lady Business.

19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East by Naomi Shihab Nye
19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East by Naomi Shihab Nye: Unlike Inside Out and Back Again, which I discuss below, 19 Varieties of Gazelle is not a novel in verse — but all the same there’s a clear narrative thread to these poems. Put together they tell a story of everyday life in Palestine, and humanise people we’re trained to think of as a faceless collective. I love what Shihab Nye says in her introduction:
Poetry slows us down, cherishes small details. A large disaster erases those details. We need poetry for nourishing and for noticing, for the way language and imagery reach comfortably into experience, holding and connecting it more successfully than any news channel we could name.
The details are what makes 19 Varieties of Gazelle such a vivid and moving collection. Take, for example, these lines from “The Palestinians Have Given Up Parties”:
The bombs break everyone’s
sentences in half.
Who made them? Do you know anyone
who makes them?
The ancient taxi driver
shakes his head back and forth
from Jerusalem to Jericho.
They will not see, he says slowly,
the story behind the story,
they are always looking for the story after the story
which means they will never understand the story.

Which means it will go on and on.
...Or the short poem “The Tray”:
Even on a sorrowing day
the little white cups without handles
would appear
filled with steaming hot tea
in a circle on the tray,
and whatever we were able
to say or not say,
the tray would be passed,
we would sip in silence,
it was another way
lips could be speaking together,
opening on the hot rim,
swallowing in unison.
As I said back when I got this book, I had high expectations due to Shihab Nye’s poem “Gate A-4”. I’m happy to report I wasn’t in the least let down.

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai
Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai: Lastly, we have a historical novel in verse about ten-year-old Hà, who moves from Vietnam to Alabama in the 1970s, during the Vietnam War. The novel is divided into four sections: the first focuses on Hà’s life before the fall of Saigon; the second on her family’s long boat journey to America; the third on their lives in Alabama, where Hà faces racist bullying at school, struggles to adjust to her new environment, and slow begins to feel at home in her new life; and the fourth and final one looks towards the future.

Inside Out and Back Again is a quick read, but Lai manages to make Hà’s world feel fully realised. Through a series of key scenes and small but meaningful details, we get to know the emotional reality behind Hà’s experiences: her feelings about the home she leaves behind, her adjustment to the loss of her father, her struggles with the English language, what it feels like to go from the brightest student in her class to someone who’s routinely condescended to, etc. Lai combines humour and sadness to tell the story of a young girl’s transition to a new life.

I liked the following scene, where for the first time Hà tells an adult (her neighbour Miss Washington) about the bullying she’s had to endure at school. By then she’s had reasons to begin to suspect that well-meaning adults are not necessarily infinitely powerful, but there’s still relief in knowing she doesn’t have to face this alone.
How can I explain
dragonflies do summersaults
in my stomach
whenever I think of
the noisy room
full of mouths
chewing and laughing?

I’m still translating
when her eyes get red.

I’ll pack you a lunch
and you can eat at your desk.

No eat in class.

I’ll fix that.
Things will get better
just you wait.

I don’t believe her
but it feels good
that someone knows.
(Have you read any of these books? Let me know and I’ll be happy to link to you.)


  1. Inside Out and Back Again, and One Crazy Summer are both books I've been meaning to read for some time. Now I'll be looking up 19 Varieties of Gazelle!

  2. I've always liked the poems I've come across by Naomi Shihab Nye, and now you've made me realize I've never looked for an entire volume by her; guess this is the one to begin with!

  3. I haaaaaave to read One Crazy Summer. I've had it on my list forever, and it sounds wonderful. Thanks for reminding me about it!

  4. One Crazy Summer sounds fantastic! Have you read any Christopher Paul Curtis yet? I haven't read The Watsons go to Birmingham yet, but based on your review of this book, I think you would like that one :)

    I believe you are out of town for this week, right? I put up the links for these reviews on the #diversiverse page for you. 3 reviews! :-D

  5. I haven't heard of any of these, but I suppose that is not all that surprising!

  6. Those books all sound like great picks for a classroom. The excerpts are beautiful and touching. Congrats on posting 3 reviews!

  7. One Crazy Summer has such a cute cover! I'll definitely be seeking that one out. I've always meant to read The Watsons Go To Burmingham has well...

  8. I really need to read ONE CRAZY SUMMER. It sounds fabulous, and Vasilly actually assigned it to me a few years back when we did a reading list swap, but I've always failed to get to it. Soon, I hope!

    In the meantime, I plan to grab some of Naomi Shihab's poetry on my next library visit. My local branch doesn't have this particular title, but they do have a collection of her travel poems waiting on the shelf.

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