The name Sara Pennypacker is probably most familiar for her early chapter book series Clementine. In these books, our high-spirited heroine seems always to land herself in the most outrageous kinds of trouble (cutting her best friend's hair off, for instance, and then coloring it back in with permanent marker). Clementine defines the word irrepressible, and it's all her poor parents can do to keep up with her. She's a lot of outrageous fun, a Ramona Quimby for the post-millenial set.
But if you're looking for a Clementine-esque character in Pennypacker's new novel, Summer of the Gypsy Moths, you may be a bit disappointed. While the author gives us two very strong girls in the form of Stella and Angel, and while there are some funny moments, Clementine these ladies definitely are not.
In fact Stella, the narrator, is really more like a little adult than she is a girl of twelve. Most of that is due to Stella's familiarity with loss. She's had more than her fair share of it already, from the father she never knew to the grandmother who's now passed on. And Stella's mother - let's just say she's flighty at best, but far closer to neglectful. In fact, that's how Stella came to be living with her Great-aunt Louise, at the Linger Longer Summer Cottages on Cape Cod. Louise is the caretaker of the cottages, and of Stella too, now that her mother's run off yet again. And Louise has taken in another child besides, the mysterious Angel, who wants Stella to keep her distance at all times. Angel seems always poised to run, which Stella can't quite understand, since she thinks living at the Cape is the closest thing to perfect she's ever known.
And then a giant rock crashes through the clear glass that surrounds Stella's fragile world, and suddenly everything is a huge mess. Stella's used to relying on herself - she does, after all, take care of everything possible since her mother is so "restless" - but this is all very different. She needs someone else, and surprisingly enough she finds that someone in Angel. Oh, Angel's resistent to the idea at first also, but the two girls are forced to pull together in order to survive, literally. And soon they are faced with the hard truth: like it or not, there's more that unites them than sharing a roof at Linger Longer.
I won't say more (though I'm itching to) because I don't want to give away everything. Suffice it to say that these two girls are some of the fiercest seen in kidlit since Gilly Hopkins. Just when you think that they're presented with truly insurmountable odds, they manage to pull through, by working together. And in that is the real lesson, that life is difficult and the deck is often stacked against us, so we need to find strength wherever we can. Even if that's in someone we always thought we couldn't stand. When Stella comes to realize that her mother isn't just scatter-brained, but really has some emotional issues, it's a hard moment for her and for us. And as we get to know Angel, find out more about her Portuguese heritage and see the pain that drives her deep inside her shell, we come to recognize her beauty also.
Stella and Angel are high-risk kids, no question. And Pennypacker doesn't shy away from revealing that to readers, letting us see the difficult bits a little at a time. Don't be fooled by the gauzy, wistful cover art - there are some really hard moments in this book, especially at the beginning. But that to me is the real test of great writing, that an author can blindside you with events you never anticipated and you still hang on for the whole wild ride. There are a ton of quietly moving scenes in this novel, scenes that make you think about the whole notion of family and trust, and ultimately to consider what bonds really hold us most deeply.
Pair this with books like Katherine Paterson's The Same Stuff as Stars or Patricia Reilly Giff's Pictures of Hollis Woods for more about foster kids in difficult situations. And I won't be at all surprised come Newbery time if this isn't at least on the short list - it's that fine of a novel.
Summer of the Gypsy Moths by Sara Pennypacker, published by Balzer + Bray
Sample: "I looked over the cottages. Here were five homes to prove myself on. Below, in our backyard, were Louise's blueberry bushes. My mother's blueberry bushes. Mine, too, now. I felt a good iron-bone, lead-blood heaviness settle me into the floorboards. I couldn't tell Angel any of this, either. / I turned. 'Because, this place?' I said instead. 'I'm not leaving it.'"