Caterpillar Summer by Gillian McDunn (9781681197432)
Cat and Chicken live in San Francisco with their mother who works several jobs, but one is to be a children’s book author with books that feature Cat and Chicken as a caterpillar and chicken. When they head across the country for a summer job, their plans suddenly fall through. Now Cat and Chicken must stay with grandparents they have never met before while their mother works in Atlanta. Their grandparents live on Gingerbread Island, a place their mother hasn’t returned to since before Cat was born. Lily, their grandmother, is warm and maternal, quickly adapting to Chicken’s special needs. Macon, their grandfather, is more distant and gruff, working in his workshop and going on long walks alone. As Cat and Chicken get to know them, they find a wonderful pair of grandparents who love them immensely, so Cat tries to figure out how to bring her family back together again. She hopes that entering a fishing contest, a sport her mother used to love, with give them an opportunity to bond. But things don’t quite work out as planned, just like in her mother’s books.
McDunn has written the ideal summer read. It has a lightness to it that is pure summer sunshine, one that invites reading with sand between your toes or a flashlight in a tent. At the same time, the characters and story wrestle with larger issues of what family means, how a family can form a rift, and how the pressure of having a little brother who is neurodiverse can be challenging for an older sibling. I deeply appreciated Chicken as a character. He is not labeled in any way in the story but shown as having specific challenges that make looking after him different from other children.
Cat herself is a very strong young woman who holds her family together. Her grandmother recognizes that and helps Cat understand better what she is doing. As her grandparents step in to allow Cat to have a summer as a child, she fights them, trying to retain her role as Chicken’s caretaker. That process of letting go is beautifully shown, given time and patience. Throughout the book, nothing is simple, not even Cat’s enemy on the island, whose own story provides reasons for his actions.
Richly drawn and yet still summer light, this novel is a delight. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Bloomsbury.