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 Sonderbooks.com since 2001. She attended the William Morris Media Evaluation Seminar last January, and joined Capitol Choices (http://www.capitolchoices.com/), 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 (http://www.cybils.com/).