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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Summer of the Gypsy Moths, with Sondy Elkund

Next in our guest posts, you heard from commenter Mark Flowers on one of his favorite contenders. Now here is Sondy Elkund, on Sara Pennypacker’s SUMMER OF THE GYPSY MOTHS…doing pretty strong in the Goodreads poll and our nominations.

First, like Mark, I want to thank Nina and Jonathan for letting me chime in.  My current favorite is probably PALACE OF STONE, which Mark defended so ably.  So turning to my next runner-up, I’d like to explain the multiple reasons why I think SUMMER OF THE GYPSY MOTHS is a strong Newbery contender.

The book has an outrageous plot – two sixth grade girls bury a dead body and live on their own (That’s not a spoiler, because she dies on page 18) – but Sara Pennypacker pulls it off on the strength of the characters she’s created.

She gives the theme in the first paragraph:  “I like to imagine the ties between us as strands of spider silk:  practically invisible, maybe, but strong as steel.  I figure the trick is to spin out enough of them to weave ourselves into a net.”

Stella is smart and capable and used to taking care of details, because her mother has never been someone she could rely on.  Right from the start, we’re shown her character, and the contrast with Angel.

On page 9, we read, “From the living room, I heard Angel snort.  She snorted every time I mentioned Heloise, which just went to show what kind of a person she was, since Heloise does nothing but good for people with her household hints column, helping them get their lives in order.”

Angel has been in six foster homes, and she’s had enough.  Her character of not trusting authority gives Stella exactly the push she needs for the two girls to first put off calling the police and then decide they can run things themselves.  At least until Stella’s mother comes to take care of them.  Because of course she’ll do that, right?

Stella and Angel get a lot of things wrong – just like real kids would do.  This scene on page 58 made me fully believe in these characters.  They planned to prepare Louise for burial with the jewelry she’d ordered from Home Shopping Network:

“When it came to doing it, though, we couldn’t.  Neither one of us could touch Louise’s neck or ears or wrists.  In the end, we just tossed everything over her robe and then jumped back to the doorway.  Her lap looked like a pirate’s treasure chest, with necklaces and bracelets spilling all over her, and I thought, who wouldn’t like that?”

But Stella’s need to have things in order make us believe that she could, in fact, clean up after the summer people who live in the cottages.  She could keep their deception going – though with enough mistakes that we believe it.

The plot is outrageous and over-the-top, but it works.  The theme blossoms naturally out of the extreme circumstances, and the girls get to know one another – and we get to know them – the same way.  Stella battles gypsy moths to save Louise’s blueberry bushes.  They watch the families that rent the cottages and they think about families and the ties between people.  Sara Pennypacker weaves Stella and Angel together with a net of circumstance until they are firm friends, despite being as different as oil and water.

This book is funny and poignant and sad and outrageous – and truly distinguished.

Sondra Eklund is Youth Services Manager at City of Fairfax Regional Library. She discovered the joy of working in libraries when she lived in Germany, where she also learned that “Sonder” is a German prefix meaning “special.” She’s been writing since 2001.  She attended the William Morris Media Evaluation Seminar last January, and joined Capitol Choices (, a DC-area group that chooses the 100 best children’s books of the year.  This fall she gets to be on her first award committee, serving on the 1st round panel for the Cybils Awards, in the category of Middle Grade Fantasy & Science Fiction (

Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at


  1. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Can’t we just retroactively give Pennypacker a Newbery Honor for one of the CLEMENTINE books instead of seriously discussing this one? No? Well, okay . . .

    Every year there are several books that I just don’t get. Oh, I get them in a vacuum. I just don’t understand how people can compare them to the rest of the field and still put them forward as strong contenders. SUMMER OF THE GYPSY MOTHS is such a book for me. I find the earnest tone of the writing jarringly at odds with the outrageous WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S plot.

    But take, for example, SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS, a book that I don’t even “like” very much and compare them head-to-head. I like the Cape Code setting, but it pales in comparison to what Schlitz does in SPLENDORS, and I can go down the list–plot, character, style–and say the same thing. Heck, even theme–which Sondy notes is a particular strength of SUMMER–is better in SPLENDORS. And to make matters worse, the theme of SUMMER–that we’re all connected by invisible threads of spider silk–is actually developed better in SPLENDORS. SPLENDORS does SUMMER’s theme better than it does it itself. Oh, the wicked irony! Don’t tell me why you “like” SUMMER OF THE GYPSY MOTHS, because I don’t “like” either of them. How, pray tell, is it better than SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS. How!

  2. One thing in SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS that makes the presentation not as good for a child audience — much of the story is told from the point of view of the adults, the witch and the evil puppetmaster. This also destroys a lot of the suspense. (We know he’s not dead, and we’re not surprised with the kids when he pops up.) The characters in SotGM feel much more like real kids, and it’s all told from their perspective.

  3. Here’s what I wrote over at goodreads:

    I started this a while ago and put it down when it seemed to be headed in a direction that didn’t work for me. Then a friend on an award committee asked me to read it so now I have. I can certainly see kids who like a certain sort of realistic novel (Rules, So.B. It) enjoying this one. I did as it has some very nice touches — the development of each girl’s backstory, some very lyrical writing, and a lovely setting. But my reading was always compromised by the fact that I still found the situation improbable; that none of the adults checked in on these girls or on Louise over so many weeks just seemed impossible. I know we have to suspend disbelief, but this is a realistic novel and I found this hard to believe. That George didn’t need to speak to Louise once? I mean, the poor woman had a broken bone and wouldn’t he have wanted to chat with her firsthand? He was so amiable and willing to leave the girls alone and accept that Louise wasn’t free to talk to him. And that she had a boyfriend? That her Bingo friends weren’t coming around? That they had no way to get food? At one point one of the vacationers buys some stuff for the girls; couldn’t they have asked them to buy stuff for them at other times, say food? Was the diner too far to walk? Kept having such questions as I read.

  4. Nina Lindsay says:

    I wrote the Horn Book review for this, so my opinion is out there…I do think the sentence-level writing, the tone and setting and characters, make this strong enough for me to “get it,”…I’m not surprised that people are pulling strong for it, and its following reminds me a little of TURTLE IN PARADISE. But, like Monica, it’s the implausibilities that get to me here, when paired with the realistic setting. I say in my review that the implausibilities *do* run in the way they would in a child’s imagination…so if this had been set in a more “fantastic” scenario (MR. AND MRS. BUNNY?), readers might be able to make the leap of faith. But I don’t think Pennypacker has totally connected the dots on this.

  5. Nancy Werlin says:

    “One thing in SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS that makes the presentation not as good for a child audience — much of the story is told from the point of view of the adults, the witch and the evil puppetmaster.”

    This novel is from am omniscient POV, with the narrator knowing what’s going on with the adults as well as with the children. As the novel is written as a quasi-Victorian novel, its omniscient narration is entirely in keeping with its heritage and is one of the things that (in my view) makes it distinguished. Compare the narrative voice to A LITTLE PRINCESS and THE SECRET GARDEN, for example.

    “This also destroys a lot of the suspense.”

    But suspense doesn’t come from surprise only. Suspense also comes — and very effectively — from the reader knowing what the characters do not, and the reader therefore anticipating danger ahead.

  6. Jonathan, it took me a while to fall under the spell of Splendors and Glooms. At first it seemed…a little verbose, a little slow. I admired it rather than liked it (a bit like your reaction?). I think I was either resisting the book’s rhythm or just not able to get it… Anyway, then I started listening to it on audiobook, and now I’m completely hooked on the story and in awe of Schlitz’s use of language. Sometimes I stop the CD to go back and listen to a particular sentence, and practically applaud. I love how the tangled lines of the plot recall tangled lines of marionette strings; I am relishing the parallels between characters — for instance, the witch and Clara, both caught between life and death, both bearing heavy burders of guilt, but moving in opposite directions — Clara toward life, Madama toward death. And the humor and honesty of Parsefall’s character is so refreshing — he’s the id to Lizzie Rose’s superego.

    I am sure there are readers for Pennypacker’s novel, and that there are heartfelt relationships and messages that appeal, but I agree that the plot is implausible and the outcome is predictable. And I don’t see the craft and depth so evident in a book like Splendors and Glooms.

    PS — I don’t come around to every book by re-reading it as an audiobook. Not really sure why sometimes it makes all the difference. The same thing happened to me with One Crazy Summer two years ago — I didn’t really connect with it until I listened to it, and then, wham! it became my favorite book of the year. Surely did 😉

  7. I haven’t read SPLENDORS yet, so I can’t comment on the relative quality of the two. It seems like an apples and oranges discusion. I’m not saying that SUMMER is quite Newbery quality, despite how much the committee seems to love the theme of Traumatized Children Discovering Their Special Skills and Forging Bonds with a Friendly Adult and Other Traumatized Children.
    What I have discovered is that the plot of the book is a draw for the kids in my library. It’s partly the outragousness of the idea — remember, WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S was before their time, so this is new territory for them, and is humorous at first. But what seems to appeal to them the most is the idea of children being entirely free of adult supervision, and surviving. Hence the popularity of The Boxcar Children,
    Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Whipping Boy, Homecoming, and so on.

  8. Well, first of all, this: “Can’t we just retroactively give Pennypacker a Newbery Honor for one of the CLEMENTINE books.” Yes! We should. The fact that none of the CLEMENTINE books was recognized is a crime against humanity.

    On the topic at hand, though, I fully intend to reread SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS before the Mock Newbery, so I don’t want to over-commit to this position, but my problems with S&G on my first read had to do with plot – not implausibility, but just pure mechanics – there were sections in the second half that I found creaky and confusing. And, as we know from CLEMENTINE, plot is just not ever a problem for Pennypacker. So, I think that’s an area where GYPSY MOTHS could triumph over S&G. Also, my sense of the two books is that S&G is intended for an older audience, so some of the more tricky language and subtly of theme could (conceivably) be written off as just higher reading level.

    Overall, I’m not a huge defender of GYPSY MOTHS – I liked it fine, and I actually thought Pennypacker handled the absurdity of the Weekend at Bernie’s stuff really well – but it certainly doesn’t compare to the kind of extraordinary work she has done in the past (I know – we can’t compare!). And it certainly doesn’t compare to a much more similar book like LIAR & SPY which has it beat on all fronts.

  9. Beverly, I think your examples are really significant. Boxcar Children, Blue Dolphins, Whipping Boy, Homecoming. One of these things is not like the others. I would say that Gypsy Moths is a lot more like the Boxcar Children than it like Homecoming, and not just because of the age of the intended audience. I think Pennypacker has written a really good book that should be a fun read for many kids but I wouldn’t say it is Newbery quality writing.

    I have no complaint about the improbabilities of the plot. I think that the improbabilities go with the kind of book this is and I’d be bummed if “plausible” becomes a requirement just because a book has a realistic setting.

  10. Jonathan Hunt says:

    1. Yes, there’s nothing inherently inferior about third person omniscient (as compared to, say third person limited (which is what PALACE OF STONE is written in–meaning that we only perceive the world as Miri perceives it). In fact, I have actually always preferred third person omniscient, especially when it’s done well.

    2. Comparing SUMMER OF THE GYPSY MOTHS and SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS (or any two books, really) is absolutely apples vs. oranges, and yet because we are charged with finding the *most* distinguished contribution, and because that is a relative measure of excellence, we must do so nevertheless. The problem is that we also want to be fair to what each author is trying to do.

    3. I said SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS beats SUMMER OF THE GYSPY MOTHS quite convincingly in terms of setting, but it is a historical kind of novel, after all, and when I compare SUMMER OF THE GYPSY MOTHS to other contemporary novels it seems fairly strong (but, then, again: THREE TIMES LUCKY). Still, we should expect SUMMER OF THE GYPSY MOTHS to be the best at something–and right now I’m having a hard time at finding what makes this one rise above the pack.

    4. I had problems with the pacing of SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS, and there may be other slight hiccups as well, but compared to the implausibility of SUMMER OF THE GYPSY MOTHS coupled with a conventional linear narrative, I’m not sure that it loses any ground.

    5. Perhaps I will warm up to SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS on a second read, but as it stands now, I still think it’s one of the strongest novels of the year. My problem with that one is not that I can’t see the craft; it’s that it’s the only thing I can see. I want to lose myself in the story, I want to care deeply about the characters and what happens to them, I want it to all linger in my head long after the last page is turned. And it just never happened for me.

  11. Jonathan Hunt says:

    6. I don’t really have any complaints about the improbabilities of the plot in and of itself, but the tone of the book just doesn’t match it. If I could reconcil the tone and the plot, then I wouldn’t have a concern–aside from the fact that I just don’t think it stacks up well next to the best books.

  12. Nancy, do SECRET GARDEN and A LITTLE PRINCESS do any of the narration from Colin’s father’s perspective? Or Miss Minchin? (I think I remember from Miss Minchin’s perspective, but in small ways, not ways that affect the climax.) I didn’t actually find the ending of S&G very suspenseful myself — because it wasn’t at all surprising. Didn’t quite seem fair either that they were able to get out of it with no one dying a death by burning. And it was longer than it needed to be. And over heavy on the foreshadowing. Now are those flaws, or just personal preference? I thought those things made the ending less effective.

    I don’t know — The sentence-level writing of S&G is beautiful, and it’s unquestionably a well-written book, but I’d need some convincing that the plot couldn’t be done better. I guess I’m trying to say there was a reason some of us found it on the boring side. You can talk about what you like or don’t like, but a whole lot of that is based on the craft of the book.

    As far as child audience, has anyone out there tried it out with actual kids? (And I’m asking that more from the perspective of the Cybils, which do consider child appeal, than the Newbery.)

  13. Sondy, it might be helpful if you were to abandon the idea of “point of view” when thinking about omniscient narration. In omniscient voice, the author feels free to dip into the heads and tell us the thoughts of any character in the drama, and to do it at any time. There is no need for a pattern — the author might go from one character to another even in the same paragraph. You might hear what a particular character thinks once, and never be in their head again. Other characters might be revisited often. When done well, there is no confusion — the author tells the story seamlessly.

    In A LITTLE PRINCESS, for example, we spend time in the head of the monkey. We spend time in the head of the Indian servant. We spend time in the head of Sarah’s father. And yes, with Miss Minchin — and her sister! And in the head of the kind woman at the bakery. And in Ermintrude’s head, and in the some of the other girls at the orphanage. And of course, we spend the most time in Sarah’s head. But you should not think of any of this as “point of view” shifts. This is the author telling you the story, and the author is God when using omniscient voice, and God knows what everybody is thinking and feeling, and tells you whatever she wants to tell you, whenever she wants to tell it.

    Another great Newbery example of omniscient narration is of course THE WESTING GAME. (Where, again, you will find the author telling us what some adults are thinking and feeling, too.)

  14. I totally can’t get behind this one, though I enjoyed reading what Sondy has to say about it. Like Jonathan, I find the tone and plot unforgivably mismatched. More importantly for me, I didn’t buy either of the girls as characters. Between the Heloise’s Hints obsession, the filling in the plots of Reader’s Digest books, and the ability to sense when things are “wrong,” Stella seemed more like a collection of literary quirks than a real child, and I didn’t find Angel much more convincing. That could just be me, but it was problematic in my reading.

  15. Jonathan Hunt says:

    SLJ starred SUMMER OF THE GYPSY MOTHS, but it didn’t make their Best Books list. :-(

    Check out what did.

  16. I don’t think I’m hung up on the omniscient narration of S&G. But when a book starts feeling long and tedious, I start asking why. Are there parts that, if cut, the book would be more effective without? (Like Harry Potter agonizing over whether or not he’s going to get into Hogwarts any given year.) In the case of S&G I came up with several sections (and they were sections) where we were in the thoughts of the adult characters. Not all of those sections. But there were some where I didn’t feel like they advanced the plot, and maybe even detracted.

    But comparing it directly to SotGM, I admit the writing of S&G does seem on another level. Though I don’t remember SotGM having as many of those problematic sections. Some questionable believability? Okay.

    And it does remain that I will much more enthusiastically recommend SotGM to library patrons – though I realize that’s not involved in the Newbery criteria.

  17. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I didn’t mean to pull the focus of this discussion from SUMMER OF THE GYPSY MOTHS to SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS (which we’ll surely be discussing in more depth). I only did so to illustrate that since my judgement isn’t clouded by *love* for either book, I find it easy to decide which book is most distinguished. Clearly, we’ll be comparing and contrasting lots of books down the stretch. When I look at our mock nominations beyond those top three, I think SUMMER is as good as many of them. I’m just having a hard time seeing it as *most* distinguished.

  18. Yeah, Jonathan, I think you’ve got some good points — and I’m fighting it, because they make me sad! Because I *did* like SotGM but not so much S&G so I *want* SotGM to be more distinguished, but alas, I’m afraid it’s not. Still, I’m overanalyzing my reaction to S&G because I do think there’s a reason for the reactions that’s rooted in the book text. And, well, S&G was nominated for a Cybils in the category of SF&F (that’s public information) — so I jumped on that analysis for selfish reasons. Trying to figure out if my reactions are based on something in the text that could have been done better. And I just put a hold on it to look at it again. But SotGM is not in my category, so I can just happily think fondly of it.

    I do have to say that hearing other people’s analyses of my personal favorites has made me much much less indignant when my favorites aren’t up there on the podium. I thought Pennypacker carried off the outrageousness of the plot with her characters, but clearly that’s not universal opinion.

  19. Sheila Welch says:

    Okay, I am not up to speed on reading everything but have to put in my support for Gypsy Moths. I found it delightful with a wonderful sprinkling of humor that is not an easy thing to pull off. I realize that humor is not part of the Newbery criteria, but I see it as part of that elusive quality called style.

    I haven’t read S&G but have read LIAR AND SPY, and the latter felt forced and contrived compared to Gypsy Moths. To me it’s like looking at art work. For example, when I look at a pencil or pen and ink drawing, I might be captivated by the quality of the lines, the action implied in a stroke, the sheer skill of the artist who makes it seem effortless. Another drawing might be rendered meticulously and be quite worthwhile but is lacking in that special “look” that attracts me and which I admire. To me, Gypsy Moths has that quality in the writing.

    Many people seem hung up on this book being realistic fiction but implausible. I found the events totally within the realm of possibility. Too many adults seem to have forgotten what childhood is like. Admittedly, I grew up a long time ago, when my parents had no clue what I was doing for large portions of each day. And I know my grand kids are closely supervised 99% of the time. However, in many families children are not monitored constantly, and these kids learn to be quick witted and independent. They also learn to lie extremely well especially if they feel threatened.

    The other side of this coin is how obtuse the adults appear in this book. First of all, adults often are oblivious. Anyone who has been a parent should be willing to admit that we are not all-seeing and all-knowing. In addition, the girls are only alone for four weeks, and their situation is almost discovered several times. Why would anyone have suspected that the two girls were lying? Adult readers may think they’d have realized what these kids were up to, or noticed that something was wrong. But I think Stella and Angel would have fooled the best of us.

    So, Sondy, don’t be sad. I agree with you. Pennypacker’s characters carry the wild plot very well indeed.

  20. I’m late to this party, I know, but I’ll put a few thoughts out there in case anyone is still reading.

    I admire this book very much, and find that the thing giving some folks pause is the thing that, for me, elevates it beyond engaging to distinguished.

    I concur that there is a palpable dissonance between the content and the narrative tone. But shouldn’t there be? This is a book about two young girls trying desperately to convince themselves that they’re doing just fine, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. They know it’s a house of cards and yet they’re putting everything they have into maintaining the illusion, for themselves as much as for the powers that be. To me the earnestness of the narrative echoes Stella’s dreams for a safe and regular life. Sure, it strikes a somewhat discomfiting chord with the situations unfolding. That, for me, is its genius. And those chords, however dissonant, to my ear are perfectly in tune.

    I wonder to what degree we’re reacting to the cover art. I do believe that the cover promises a book very different from the book we get. Maybe that’s intentional, making convenient promises of security and happiness that the story will challenge repeatedly. But would the tone of the book feel quite so jarring if we began with a cover closer in tone to something like Pictures of Hollis Woods or Alabama Moon? I think that I wouldn’t have had to work so hard to reconcile the tone and the content had the cover suggested something with more grit and fewer pastels. That said, I enjoy a little heavy lifting with my reading, and would be willing to call it “respect for a child audience” any day of the week.

    Thanks for the conversation. Thinking about the book in response to others’ concerns really helped me to clarify my own thoughts.


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