When I heard there was a new book dedicated to the youth of Oakland — with a picture of a Fairyland Magic Key on the cover, I knew I had to read it. And tell you about it. Oakland Tales: Lost Secrets of the Town, written by East Bay author Summer Brenner and published by Community Works West, tells the stories of Ernesto from East Oakland and Jada from West Oakland.

The narrative travels back through five eras of Oakland’s past, and forward in time as the two protagonists glimpse their futures. Along the way, the drama encompasses timely, challenging issues of gangs and street violence, immigration, incarcerated parents and restorative justice.

Three thousand copies of Oakland Tales are now in Oakland Unified School District middle-school classrooms, accompanied by a suggested curriculum. The book will be recognized at a reception at City Hall on June 3, where a City Council proclamation will be read. Professional storyteller Awele Makeba will read from the book at the Temescal Branch Library on June 7 at 2:30 p.m.

This isn’t Summer Brenner’s first foray into local history for young people. For her 2009 book, Richmond Tales: Lost Secrets of the Iron Triangle, she worked with the West Contra Costa Unified School District and the nonprofit organization Community Works to develop a story that teaches local history from a kid’s perspective, dominated not by famous people, but by generations of regular folks.

That book — given away free — was the first book in many students’ home libraries. Summer heard that siblings and parents often vied for their turn to read it. “It went a long way toward initiating inter-generational conversations,” Summer told me. The book remains popular in adult schools as well.

The five eras of Oakland history covered in Oakland Tales span 2,500 years: from the Ohlone civilization to the Peralta Hacienda years, the great earthquake of 1906, World War II and the Black Panther era. Chinatown appears in two sections. Woven into the history are Jada’s ancestors: a former slave, a Pullman porter, a “Rosie the Riveter.”

I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about Oakland history, but it turned out I still had a lot to learn: about the Double V campaign launched by African-Americans during World War II, for example, which pushed for victory over racial segregation at home as well as over fascism abroad; about how Temescal’s Idora Park was used as a shelter for people displaced by the 1906 earthquake; and about how, during the Peralta Hacienda days, cowhides were so valuable that they were called “California dollars.”

Summer said she’s grateful for the support she received from the Oakland Public Library’s History Room, the Cultural Heritage Survey, and the scores of people, organizations and institutions who provided research and source materials.

Summer, who raised her two children in the Bay Area, has been writing all her adult life. “First you entertain, then inform, and then inspire,” she said. “That’s what I hope Oakland Tales does.” Her stories aren’t only about the past: “I want kids to see that they can be part of making history, that they can make a difference in the future.” For real transformation to happen, Summer told me, “we need community.”

Creating and widely distributing Oakland Tales is not inexpensive. The Oakland-based Rogers Family Foundation, the Rex Foundation and the San Francisco Foundation have pitched in to underwrite the costs of Summer’s research, writing, printing and public events.

I have to tell you about the Fairyland part of the book, because I run the place, and I love its history of memory-making. When Jada’s father returns home after serving a long prison sentence, he shares with her the contents of a brown paper bag returned to him upon his release. One by one he pulls out the items in the bag: his wallet, his library card, his expired driver’s license, a few dollars, a movie ticket, ChapStick, mirrored sunglasses. He tells Jada the only one that mattered to him was a blue plastic Fairyland key. “It’s not just a key; it’s our key,” he tells his daughter. The two of them used to go there every weekend, and they return — together — at the end of the book.

Summer felt strongly that Fairyland needed to be part of the story. “It’s a national treasure!” she said. “It’s a place of gentle excitement” — a phrase I’d never heard, but really love — “and it’s a very literate place, too.”

If there’s an Oakland teen in your life, consider giving him or her a copy of Oakland Tales. (The index alone is a short course in Oakland history.) You can find the book at Diesel, Pendragon and Moe’s; more independent bookstores will be carrying it soon. Summer hopes she can raise money to fund a second printing.

At the beginning of this column I said the book is dedicated to the youth of Oakland. But that’s only half of the dedication. It concludes: “…who may not know there is a there there.”

For more information, or to buy copies of Oakland Tales, visit the “Publications” section of communtyworkswest.org. To read an excerpt, visit summerbrenner.com.

One Response

  1. Sandy spitzer

    Nothing original…The author wrote the same book last year but switched out the characters for “Tales of Richmond” for the city of Richmond. Written about how it use to be, how horrible it is now and how great it will be all these “bike trails” in the future. They even made a play for it.

    In my opinion, this is part of a package to “gentrify” cities throughout the nation. It’s patronizing to read dialogue about people of color from a middle-age white lady’s perspective. If you like that “pick em up by the boot straps” crap then read it. Cities like Richmond and Oakland suffered years of corrupt business and politics raping the people not necessarily because individuals “lack self control”.


    PS The previous comments are very suspicious and fake…


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