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Summer of the Gypsy Moths
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
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 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.

For ages 9-12.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon June 21, 2012
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Stella lives with her Great-aunt Louise in Cape Cod because her mother lost custody. Also living with Louise is Angel, a foster child who wants nothing to do with Stella. Then Louise dies and the girls have to decide: do they call the cops and go back into the system or try to survive on their own?

There's a real strain of darkness running through SUMMER OF THE GYPSY MOTHS. Some of the darkness is blatant, but some implications will be glossed over by less mature readers. Stella and Angel have not had easy lives. While neither girl was physically or sexually abused, there are still reasons they would choose not to go to foster care. Stella was neglected by her mother and at eleven is very experienced at fending for herself. And as Stella notes in the text, the two girls get rather dirty and starved as the weeks go by and none of the adults notice.

In my opinion, the darkness works. SUMMER OF THE GYPSY MOTHS reminds me of some of my favorite books as a child, including The Pinballs (Apple Paperbacks) and The Boxcar Children (The Boxcar Children, No. 1) (Boxcar Children Mysteries). (And by THE BOXCAR CHILDREN I mean the first book, not the series of mysteries that follows. I like the mysteries, but they have little to nothing in common with SUMMER OF THE GYPSY MOTHS.)

Stella and Angel bond as their deception deepens and they do Louise's work as the manager of Linger Longer, a set of four vacation homes. Stella is obsessed with Hints from Heloise, which is both sad and funny in turns. I've been laughing and learning from Heloise's columns for years, but I think this part might put kids off more than the dead and absentee parents. Angel likes to listen to her mother's fado record. Her mother sang the Portuguese music before her death and Angel uses it to remember her loss and her destiny. She'll have a home as soon as her immigrating aunt finds and job and a house in the United States. Music, chores, and more bring the two girls together.

I expect SUMMER OF THE GYPSY MOTHS will be a popular read. Stella and Angel are easy to empathize with and their adventures may not always be exciting, but they're interesting to read about. SUMMER OF THE GYPSY MOTHS is one of those quiet stories that gets under your skin. It also makes me happy that I've been giving more middle grade books a chance lately.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I suppose I should start this review with a big old ***SPOILER ALERT*** because it's really impossible to say much of anything meaningful about the book without mentioning the big "secret". But it's really not a suspenseful surprise built up throughout the book and which would spoil the pleasure of the book if known in advance. Really, it's just a down-and-dirty plot device so that Ms. Pennypacker can tell the story she really wants to tell: the story of two troubled girls struggling to make it on their own. So anyway, last warning. If you've read this far and haven't turned back, here's what you'll find out by the third chapter anyway: Great Aunt Louise dies.

As part of any believable plot, that twist fails mightily. Pretty much everything related to Louise's death is so completely unrealistic and unbelievable that it's almost hard to take the book seriously. There is simply no way that a woman with two foster daughters, a job and a lifelong community could pass away and no one would know. The girls' attempt to cover up Louise's death are so phony and ridiculous that we might almost think we've gotten lost in some bad 1980s sitcom and we're watching a couple of kids trying to hide Mom's favorite vase that got broken.

For instance, the girls - Stella and Angel - decide that they should bury Louse in her beloved garden. But they have to bury her deep lest the animals dig her up. So there they are in broad daylight digging a hole just long and wide enough for a body. They've gotten about a foot down when George, the man who runs the cottage that Louise is supposed to be managing, shows up. The girls tell him they're planting pumpkins. Right. Like George would really be dumb enough to believe that the girls think that pumpkinseeds need to be buried a foot deep in a trench. And he hasn't seen or heard from Louise in a few days. Yet he doesn't connect anything. Even when George points out that pumpkins should get planted in mounds, the girls go on digging their trench. Now, George is supposed to be a kind-hearted, trusting and rather naïve man, but this really goes beyond the pale.

But if you set aside Louise's death as a simple plot device, the rest of the story is actually rather touching and engaging. And, in this light, Louise's death and the ridiculousness of the cover-up at times lends some much needed and admittedly rather clever humor to a story that could otherwise have easily gotten bogged down with serious issues.

Both Stella and Angel are basically motherless waifs who have landed on Louise's doorstep because all their other relatives are either dead or not currently suitable. Other than their mutual predicament, however, they have nothing in common. Or so they think. Stella is an eager-to-please workaholic who believes that if she could just be a little more perfect her mother couldn't help but want to be with her. Angel is a world-weary cynic who loses herself in her music and doesn't have much use for Stella's rules or domestic order.

But they find common cause in managing the Linger Longer Cottages in Louise's absence; Stella because she feels like she belongs here at her Aunt's house and maybe she can convince her mother to come if she can just make a home; Angel because she needs the tip money to get to her Portuguese immigrant aunt in New York. With the help of Hints from Heloise and a good deal of perseverance, the girls discover that maybe they do have some things in common. Maybe they could even be friends. And maybe Stella will even figure out how to take care of Louise's blueberry bushes like she promised.

Despite the serious subject matter, this is basically just a light-hearted, feel-good story. Other than the big one on page 18, there are no major surprises. While there are the inevitable rough patches along the way, the tidy resolution is predictable and appropriate. Stella and Angel are both understandable and engaging characters. Stella is immediately sympathetic, while Angel has to grow on you a bit. Gentle George is also a decent, if rather blind, kind of man, and even Louise gains a bit of life, if you will, despite her start as a throw-away character.

I enjoyed the book and I think it will appeal to its target audience. Be prepared to suspend a great deal of disbelief, but overall it's a worthwhile and engaging summer read. 3.5 stars.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I am a big fan of this author, having steered many a young third grader to her very well done Clementine series. In Summer of the Gypsy Moths she targets a slightly older audience with her story of two eleven year old girls and their summer on Cape Cod. There is much to enjoy in this novel, and young readers will delight in Pennypacker's well drawn characters, and will no doubt feel that they are vacationing on the cape right along with Stella and Angel as they face the most difficult summer of their lives.

***Spoiler Alert***

The single thing that prevents me from giving this book five stars is unfortunately the single most important event in the book, and it occurs pretty early on. Angel and Stella are living with Louise, an elderly woman who has taken both of them in as foster children. Angel's parents are dead and Stella is actually Louise's great niece. Stella is living with her while her mom struggles with some issues of her own. Louise dies of an apparent heart attack, and instead of calling the authorities, the girls decide to bury her in the backyard. Angel is portrayed as a hardened veteran of the foster system, and while I could conceivably imagine her doing something like this, it just never worked for me that Stella went along with it. It made it very difficult to buy into the rest of the story. The author tries to provide some motivations behind the girl's actions, but it never made sense to me, and the scenes of the girls being so cavalier around a dead body, spraying it with febreeze to control the smell, moving it to the garden in the recliner, and the descriptions of flies, etc.. were off putting amidst this story of friendship and family.

****End Spoiler Alert****

Stella and Angel are both great characters, and the author does a fantastic job of portraying their developing friendship. They are each carrying so much baggage and so much hurt, that seeing them come together as friends was a great testament to resilience, strength, and the power of friendship. Stella's narrative voice is authentic and true, from her steadfast desire for routine and stability, to the movies that play in her head as she dreams of a perfect future for herself and her mother. Watching Angel gradually thaw and lose the chip on her soldier as she was faced with Stella's unrelenting care made for a fun read.

This is a very well written story with memorable characters and a setting that was vivid and well drawn. My problems with a key plot point dampened my enjoyment of the story, and I can't help but wish that the "tragic event" mentioned in the product description had been handled a bit differently. Motivations remained unclear and I wonder if young readers will be as skeptical and confused as I was about Stella's willingness to take such a drastic step. Only a marginal recommend.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon July 20, 2012
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I hate to give negative reviews but when reading this book in preperation to give it to my 9 year old grandaughter, I decided I wouldn't give it to her to read. The plot line contained a very unusual set of circumstances that I was sure my grandaughter would find a little scary actually and disturbing as it was to me.

It was a good book to read from an adults point of view or even a teen but I would definitely advise any adult read it first and then decide for yourself if it is appropriate for your child.

It tells the story of a young girl left off by her mother with a great aunt for the summer and then the adventure begins. It deals with a subject of great concern, displaced children, no home they can call their own. A very touching story, yet again I caution young girls under 13 reading it. Just my opinion based on the kids I know.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon June 1, 2012
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
*Caution, contains spoilers* Summer of the Gypsy Moths is a well written book that has been tagged for young readers 8-12 years. I can't recommend it for readers of that age group. The storyline deals with two young girls disposing of the body of Stella's Great Aunt Louise - who has died of natural causes. I'm not sure what to say about that except the subject matter is just gruesome, too gruesome for young children. I was hoping for a lovely coming of age novel. If coming of age means dragging a stinking dead body around to bury it in the garden, and attempting to hide the smell with Febreze - and wondering if Heloise has any hints to get rid of the odor-I can't get onboard. Call me old fashioned but I think young kids could read about something a little less irreverent and disgusting.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon July 26, 2012
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Summer of the Gypsy Moths was not what I was expecting from the author of the charming Clementine series. The title and cover implied, at least to me, a similarly innocent type of story but that didn't turn out to be the case.

Two girls who have been abandoned by their mothers are living with "Aunt Louise" as her foster kids, although one of them is actually her great niece. One day Louise unexpectedly dies of what is probably a heart attack, and the girls, reluctant to go back into the foster care system decide to bury the body in the vegetable patch instead of informing the police and spend all summer pretending that louise is upstairs in bed recovering from a broken ankle. They do a good job of taking over her role as caretaker for a group of summer rental cottages with the help of Heloise and her helpful hints and they lie very convincingly to any adults who ask questions. They ultimately decide to tell the truth and everything turns out quite well for all concerned. Except perhaps poor Louise who has been used as garden fertilizer all summer.

I had a hard time getting beyond the premise of the girls burying the body in the back yard. The scenes where the decomposing corpse is described, complete with flies and odors, where the girls liberally spray the corpse with febreeze and go about their usual daily business until they decide to go ahead with their plan to bury the body went a little too far along the path of the macabre for me.
This is another book where it appears that my opinion of it is in the minority but I notice that most reviewers of this book here are adults and I wonder what the kids this book is aimed at think of it. My daughter is almost 10, so firmly in the target audience of 8-12 yr olds and this book was a tough sell for her.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on June 17, 2012
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Eleven year old Stella, whose absentee parents are not fulfilling their custodial duties, has recently moved in with her great-aunt Louise, who keeps track of four old, small vacation homes at Cape Cod. Louise has also taken in a foster child (an orphan named Angel) to keep Stella company. Unfortunately, Stella and Angel seem as different as night and day (or, "oil and water," as Louise would say).

Stella is shocked one day to walk in from school and find her great-aunt, dead, on a chair. She and Angel (mostly Angel!) hatch a plan to cover up the death so that Angel can leave on her own terms and Stella won't end up needing to leave Louise's home at all. This plot involves burying Louise in the yard and lying to her friend George. Plenty of other troubles follow, like trying to somehow have enough food to eat when there are no grocery stores nearby, finding a way to earn money, and trying to get along with Angel.

To be honest, this is a plot I've seen before. It's creepy to think of children really being involved in something like this, down to explanations of spraying Febreze on a decaying body and creating elaborate lies--such as a boyfriend--to explain Louise's sudden absence. Yet in this case the first-person narrator (Stella) is so likable that you simply can't help but caring for her and trying to understand why she would agree to something so horrific. The author also does a relatively good job of explaining why these two specific foster children would be desperate enough to resort to something so ghastly. That being said, a lot of suspense of disbelief has to take place to accept George's lack of following through with trying to discover what happened to Louise over the course of a month. This was a difficult book to rate. I consider the writing to be worthy of five stars; the topic, one. I gave it four, then came back and edited it to a three, because most parents would no doubt find the topic unsuitable for their children. The light, carefree cover image is deceiving; I can't imagine an eight year old reading this book, nor would I let one.

Nevertheless, _Summer of the Gypsy Moths_ is written with a skillful style. It's easy to feel for Stella as she worries about turning out like her mom--especially as she begins to hear scary noises at night after burying Louise. One can also feel her heartbreak as she hopes her mother will somehow change. It's a shame that some of the events could not have been tackled in some other way.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Stella is an eleven-almost-twelve-year-old girl. Her father left when she was two, so she and her mother had been living with her grandmother, but her mother has always been "restless" and "off-track," often leaving for long periods of time. When Grams dies and Stella's mother goes off again, Stella is sent to live with her grandmother's sister, Great-Aunt Louise, in Cape Cod, MA. Louise, who manages a group of cottages next door to her house for a man named George, has also become a foster mother to an orphaned girl named Angel, but Stella and Angel just don't get along very well. Stella's rule about Angel was, "Wherever she was, I wasn't."
Then all of a sudden, Louise dies. Stella and Angel are so afraid of what might happen to them that they hide the fact, secretly burying the body in the backyard, telling George along with the renters of the cottages and everyone else that Louise has broken her foot, and then creating an imaginary boyfriend with whom Louise is supposedly gone all the time. At first, Angel threatens to run away and find her aunt who has come from Portugal to the United States but then decides to stay. They start to work together to take care of the cottages, and Stella learns how to tend Louise's prize blueberry bushes which have been attacked by gypsy moths. But how long will they be able to carry on with this act? And what will the results be when people finally do find out about Louise?
Interestingly enough, author Sara Pennypacker, whose "Clementine" chapter books are best sellers, takes this rather bizarre, even macabre, scenario and fashions an "all's-well-that-end's-well" type of conclusion. However, some parents may wonder if they really want their middle-school age daughters reading a story about hiding and burying a dead body. Angel uses the word "crap" quite frequently as well as the name of Jesus as an exclamation; it's in a Portuguese phrase, but it's still there. A couple of times people are said to "curse," though no curse words are actually used. There are instances of lying, a mention of people drinking beers, a reference to a family with two moms, and a scene where Angel wears a racy bra. Today, I guess that children's books have to be about dysfunctional families to be considered "socially relevant." I realize that dysfunctional families exist, but it makes me appreciate more and more the older books that I read where families are presented in a godly fashion.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This novel for fourth- through seventh-graders tells the story of a summer in eleven-year-old Stella's life. The state has sent Stella to live with her Great-Aunt Louise because Stella's mother can't provide a stable enough home life. This story is written from Stella's point of view, and Stella herself says that she has lived in a number of different places and that her school attendance has been spotty.

But another girl, Angel, is also living with Great-Aunt Louise. Angel's behavior is exactly the opposite of her name; she is about the same age as Stella but has a very big attitude. Stella and Angel don't get along at all. But an incident occurs that forces the girls to put aside their differences and work together just to make it through the summer. They learn a great deal about themselves and each other.

I enjoyed reading about Stella, Angel, the people at the Cape where Great Aunt Louise lives, and all the scrapes that the girls find themselves in. It has a fairly typical theme (which I won't disclose because that would be a spoiler), but I believe that the young people for whom this book is intended will find this a good summer read.
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