Sara Pennypacker has proven her mastery of the early chapter book with her fabulous Clementine series. In Summer of the Gypsy Moths, she tackles an older audience and some pretty serious topics with the same humor and sensitivity to the ways of a kid’s world that she displays in the Clementine books.
Stella, named for jazz standard Stella by Starlight by a long absent trombone-playing father, has had to grow up fast. Her mother has never quite been up to the rigors of motherhood, and after she disappears yet again, Stella has been sent to live with her last remaining relative, her great-aunt Louise, who has taken in another foster child to keep Stella company. Stella and Angel are like water and oil, two 11-year-olds that want nothing to do with one another; Angel is moody and resentful, Stella obsessed with the order her collection of Hints from Heloise brings to her messy life. Both girls are convinced that Louise, a stern Yankee through and through, has only taken them in for the $17 a day the state is sending her to house and feed them.
When Louise suddenly dies just before the start of vacation season (she manages a set of vacation cottages for its owner, George), Stella and Angel, afraid of getting back into the system and sent to another, much worse foster home, band together to keep Louise’s passing a secret. Lying to George, they take over care of the cottages while earning money through tips and babysitting to save up for their next steps. In the process, the two girls find common ground and learn more about Louise than they ever knew when she was alive. By learning to lean on each other, they learn more about their own strengths.Here, the happy endings are hard earned and not always the ones expected, and Pennypacker strikes a balance between humor and tenderness along the way. Another good tale of a young girl left to fend for herself is Audrey Couloumbis’ Say Yes, which features a more serious treatment, but deals with many of the same themes.