Spoiler Alert – I am giving away every little detail about this book in this review. You have been warned.
As a librarian I’m always on the lookout for good middle grade books I can booktalk to kids. Often you don’t need an exciting cover or title to sell a book to kids. Heck, sometimes you don’t even need to show the book at all. Yet in the case of Sara Pennypacker’s debut middle grade novel Summer of the Gypsy Moths I fully intend to show the cover off. There you see two happy girls on a seashore on a beautiful summer’s day. What could be more idyllic? I’ll show the kids the cover then start right off with, “Doesn’t it look sweet? Yeah. So this is a book about two girls who bury a corpse in their backyard by themselves and don’t tell anyone about it.” BLAMMO! Instant interest. Never mind that the book really is a heartfelt and meaningful story or that the writing is some of the finest you will encounter this year. Dead bodies = interested readers, and if I have to sell it with a tawdry pitch then I am bloody selling it with a tawdry pitch and the devil take the details. Shh! Don’t tell them it’s of outstanding literary quality as well!
Convinced that her free floating mother will return to her someday soon, Stella lives with her Great-aunt Louise and Louise’s foster kid Angel. The situation is tenable if not entirely comfortable. If Stella is neat to the point of fault then Angel’s her 180-degree opposite. They’re like oil and water, those two. That’s why when Louise ups and dies on the girls they’re surprised to find themselves reluctant allies in a kind of crazy scheme. Neither one of them wants to get caught up in the foster care system so maybe that’s why they end up burying Louise in the backyard, running her summer cottages like nothing’s wrong. They can’t keep it up forever, but in the process of working together the two find themselves growing closer, coming to understand where they’re both coming from.
I always knew Pennypacker could write, of course. She cut her teeth on the early chapter book market (Clementine, etc.), which, besides easy books, can often be the most difficult books to write for children. The woman really mastered the form, managing with as few words as possible to drive home some concrete emotions and feelings. In Summer of the Gypsy Moths she ups the proverbial ante, so to speak. Now that she has far more space to play with, Pennypacker takes her time. She draws Stella and Angel into a realistically caring relationship with one another that overcomes their earlier animosity. By the end of the story you understand that they really do like one another, differences of opinion and personality aside.
Then there’s the writing itself. First and foremost, Pennypacker knows how to write some stellar lines. Things like, “Angel stared at me, looking like she was caught between snarling and fainting.” She’s also ample with the humor, as when Stella goes to school after the incident and reports, “Nobody seemed to notice the big sign I felt sure I wore, the one that flashed, ASK ME ABOUT MY WEEKEND!” Later she runs into the school librarian who always seems to be able to read her mind. “I know it sounds crazy, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if Ms. Richardson had handed me a book about kids burying people in their backyards.” Humor is so hard and Pennypacker is incredibly gifted in her pitch perfect, sparing use of it. Finally, I always like to sit back and watch an author make “the novel’s point”, so to speak. There’s usually some moment when somebody sort of says the point, whether directly or indirectly. If you were watching a musical, it would be the show’s big number. In this particular case it comes from the lips of George, the friend of Great-aunt Louise, who helps the girls out with the cabins. At one point he breaks apart a sand dollar for Stella and shows her how the little pieces inside of it look like doves. Says he, “Now, I see a broken shell and I remind myself that something might have needed setting free. See, broken things always have a story, don’t they?” By the way, extra points to the author for making the moment between George and Stella honestly engaging and touching where, in less skilled hands, his interest could easily be misinterpreted as creepy.
Another part of the reason the novel works as well as it does is that Pennypacker is capable of walking some very tricky tightropes. For example, if you’re writing a book where a sympathetic adult character dies near the beginning, you need to get the audience to care for that person . . . but not too much. Kids already have this innate sense that they are immortal and adults over the age of 30 are liable to die of old age at a drop of a hat. Had Pennypacker made the mistake of making Great-aunt Louise too loveable and snuggly, she would have risked diverting the narrative for those kids who were grief stricken at her demise. On the other hand, make the woman too distant and cold and who the heck cares if she kicks it? The solution is to rely on kids’ cold-hearted assumptions that old people die all the time while still making the woman warm enough so that we feel at least a twinge of regret that she’s gone.
But let’s face it. The real test is the dead body. Because kids moving dead bodies and burying them is almost impossible to pull off in a serious novel. A funny book? Easy as pie. But when you’ve got a book like this one with a cover and title that indicates something a little more Penderwickish (I claim this term in the name of librarianship!) than including a sequence of two kids moving a days old corpse, that requires a certain amount of finesse. I spent the beginning of the book (already aware of the premise) waiting to see how Pennypacker would handle the situation. I won’t spoil it for you, but she really does make it work. Sometimes it’s all about tone.
There were little nitpicky things that didn’t quite work for me in the book, of course. For example, Stella spends quite a lot of the book getting advice on the care of the house from “Heloise” but it takes us a good 154 pages or so before this essential plot element gets any kind of an explanation. The ending also seemed a bit pat. Seems to me if anyone in the press found out that two twelve-year-old girls had buried their guardian for an extended amount of time that could reach national news-type attention. Here the girls don’t even really get a slap on the wrist. More a light poke on the knuckle. I didn’t quite buy it. Finally, there are moments when the book totters over the line from folksy and poignant (See: the sand dollar sequence) into cutesy. Having an old guy explain what “a finest-kind day” is sort of veers the book in the wrong direction. Fortunately it’s momentary and everything falls back into place very quickly after that.
There isn’t much like this book out there, but reading it I had a definite sense that it would pair particularly well with Suzanne LaFleur’s Love, Aubrey from a couple years ago. Like this book, that one did a good job of beginning with a very dark and potentially scary situation, carefully moving into safer territory and the (for lack of a better term) healing power of friendship. And it’s awesome. Just awesome. Pennypacker has clearly been holding out on us all these years. If this is how she begins with longer chapter book fiction then I can only imagine how she will proceed. A truly remarkable debut from the fingertips of a pro.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Love, Aubrey by Suzanne LaFleur
- Eggs by Jerry Spinelli
- The Mailbox by Audrey Shafer
- Crunch by Leslie Connor
- You can download the discussion guide if you like.