Suppose I told you that there was a book out this year in which a pair of 11-year-old girls find their foster parent dead, and then elect to bury her in the backyard and continue on with their lives. Who would you think had written such a book? Jack Gantos? Polly Horvath? Roald Dahl, in a long-lost manuscript only recently rediscovered? What if I told you that it was actually by Sara Pennypacker, the author of Clementine, and that instead of being a black comedy, or a surreal, Daniel Pinkwater-style excursion, its closest tonal comparison was to a Hallmark Original Movie?
If you’re anything like me, your final reply was something like, “Wait…what?” And the single biggest problem with Summer of the Gypsy Moths, the Sara Pennypacker book in question, is that it never gets past that reaction, never finds a way to seem plausible or to allow for the suspension of disbelief.
Part of the issue is that the characters seem much more like a collection of overly precious quirks than like real people. Stella, the narrator and one of the aforementioned 11-year-olds, is obsessed with a newspaper household advice column called Heloise’s Hints; fills in the narratives of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books with sections about cleaning; can sense when something is wrong; and rhapsodizes in her narration like someone auditioning for a part in a Nicolas Sparks movie. Angel, the other 11-year-old, is in foster care because her mother was a singer who died in a car accident, and her father was a fisherman who drowned in an accident because his boat didn’t have enough life jackets; conducts seagulls on the beach into flight; and faithfully watches her dead foster parent’s soap opera so that she can give daily reports over the grave. There was not a single point during the book that I believed in either of them as more than authorial constructs. Kids with disrupted lives can certainly develop odd habits as coping skills, but in real life, those habits rarely look quite so much like literary devices.
But, the more I think about it, the more I think there might not have been any possible way for Summer of the Gypsy Moths to succeed, because however you look at it, it’s still a positive, life-affirming, ostensibly realistic book about a pair of preteens who bury their caretaker in the backyard. The tone and plot are so terribly mismatched that it might not have mattered if the characters were Anne Shirley and Lyra Belacqua, or if it were co-authored by Beverly Cleary and Laura Ingalls Wilder. The problem isn’t simply one of execution, but one that exists on the conceptual level itself.
Published in May 2012 by Balzer + Bray / HarperCollins