In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

What's this book about?

Dear Annie,

It's cheering that Eleanor is so physically involved in reading: feelings fizzing out through her muscles.  And I also appreciate your pointing out Nancy Drew's no-nonsense competence -- not just at buying dresses, but also at repairing motors and driving and solving crimes.

I've recently had an odd experience with a book about girls who are trying to be competent in their lives, but who in some ways are in way over their heads.   I read
Summer of the Gypsy Moths
by Sara Pennypacker as a sample book and wrestled for a while with the question of whether I would order it for our stores (I did).  The author wrote a wildly popular early chapter book series about a character named Clementine -- one of those high-energy engaging girls whose realistic exploits keep expanding into more and more sequels.

Summer of the Gypsy Moths is aimed at older kids -- although the publicity for it says it's for 8 to 12 year-olds.  Last week the Washington Post kids' page ran a lyrical description of the book -- here are a few excerpts:
   Do you have a summer tradition? A place you go on vacation every year? A special spot for ice cream after dinner? A friend whom you get to see only when the days are warm, extra long and marked by endless hours of little to do?
   Sara Pennypacker’s book about two girls spending the summer with a relative on Massachusetts’s Cape Cod is about those types of traditions. . . .
   That’s just what author Pennypacker was going for in writing her novel. She said that she had a special summer friendship with a girl named Sonja on which she could model the relationship of Angel and Stella. “In the summers we’d hang out every single day, then on Labor Day we’d each go back to our real homes. The next summer, there we’d be, every single day as if the school year had never happened.”
The description creates expectations of warm friendships and magical days at the beach.  But it doesn't correlate at all with the book.  

To talk about the book, and to explain my uneasiness with the description, it's necessary to give away a major plot element in the next paragraph.  So be warned.

I would change the review's second paragraph to read, "about two girls spending the summer with the decomposing body of a relative...."  Kinda changes the lyrical summer vacation, huh?  Both girls have been sent to live with Stella's great-aunt because their families have become scarily dysfunctional.  Fairly early in the book, the woman dies, apparently of natural causes.  Rather than open themselves to the unknowns of the social services system, they instead bury her in the back yard, and take on her responsibilities as caretaker for a group of cottages.  As the body decomposes and starts to smell, they come up with increasingly unbelievable stories to cover for the situation.  Pennypacker explores the relationship between the girls well, but it's all based on a grisly and slightly preposterous plot element.

I don't know why the Post writer wrote what she did -- one of my co-workers is convinced she couldn't have read the book.  I spoke with three adults that week who came to the store to buy the lovely book described in the paper.  What should a bookseller do in that situation?  I basically said what's written above, but it turns a more complex book into its One Awful Thing.  Kind of like saying that The Hunger Games is about teenagers killing each other.  Well, yes, but there's a lot more to it.   The wonderful Gary Schmidt wrote a publicity blurb for Summer of the Gypsy Moths which for me captures what the author was trying to do:
 For Stella and for Angel, a terrible secret lies hidden beneath the pumpkin patch. But a more terrible secret lies hidden in the deeper depths of their hearts—the secret that must not be uttered: They may be absolutely and completely alone. Their journey in this grace-filled novel is a journey toward making that deeper secret a lie. Beneath the comedy and the suspense and the horror and the wit of this remarkable read lies the deepest secret of all: that we can learn to love each other.
He's created realistic expectations for the reader -- you know this book is different from Pennypacker's lighter fare.  He's a bit more enthusiastic than I am, but his reasons for liking it are wonderfully engaging.  And he doesn't give anything away.



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