Summer of the Gypsy Moths

My latest read, Summer of the Gypsy Moths by Sara Pennypacker, is another nominee for the 2014-15 South Carolina Children’s Book Award.

To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t all that enthused about reading this book. I didn’t want to read one more book where kids take on too much responsibility because the adults in their lives have–in one way or another–abandoned them. (I kind of got my fill of that when I read Keeping Safe the Stars, another SCCBA nominee.) But, since I do promote all twenty SCCBA nominees, I plowed through, and, while Summer of the Gypsy Moths is not exactly my favorite book on the nominee list, I can say it was a good book, and I know many young readers will enjoy it.

While Stella’s flighty mother is drifting from one town to the next, Stella is sent to live with her Great Aunt Louise on Cape Cod. Even though Louise is kind of grumpy sometimes, Stella likes living with her. Louise keeps things nice, neat, and orderly, something Stella’s mom never did. Stella has high hopes that her mom will eventually settle in Cape Cod with her and Louise, and they’ll be a happy family.

One obstacle to that “happy family” scenario–along with Stella’s mom’s lack of reliability–may be Angel, a foster kid who’s also living with Louise. Angel and Stella are like oil and water, and they seem to work best when they stay far away from each other. Fate, however, seems to have other ideas.

When the girls discover that Louise has suddenly passed away, they must work together to decide what to do. Neither girl wants to go into group homes or anything like that, so they do the only thing they can think of. They keep Louise’s death a secret. They make up plausible excuses for Louise’s absence. They take care of the vacation cottages that Louise was responsible for. Stella takes comfort in cleaning, gardening, and keeping Louise’s prize blueberries alive. Both girls do what they must to survive as long as they can. It’s not easy, but Stella and Angel think they have no other choice. They must learn to rely on each other.

Both Stella and Angel have taken on more than any two kids should, but their predicament is bringing them closer together. They’re communicating, working together, and learning more about each other. They each have their own ways of coping with this horrible situation, and they’re doing the best they can.

But what happens when the secrecy finally becomes too much? When the truth is revealed, what will it mean for Stella, Angel, and their future? Will they find the sense of family and home they so desperately need? Will someone finally take care of them? Find out when you read Summer of the Gypsy Moths, a 14-15 South Carolina Book Award nominee by Sara Pennypacker!

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I think many of my students will draw parallels between Summer of the Gypsy Moths and Keeping Safe the Stars, and that’s a good thing. The two books have different settings and circumstances, but the struggles that the characters experience in each book are very similar. In both books, young children take on way too much in order to avoid being taken away from their homes. I look forward to conversations about the similarities and differences in how each character handles certain situations and what young readers may have done differently.

That being said…

*Spoilers ahead!*

One big issue I had with this book was the neatness of the ending–and how long the main characters got away with deceiving everyone around them. I mean, two girls hide a dead body, bury it in the backyard, and live on their own for nearly two months, and everything essentially works out fine for them! I know it’s fiction, and one can expect a fairly happy ending in a book written for upper elementary and middle grade readers, but this seemed very unrealistic to me. Like many other books I’ve read this summer, the responsible adult in me (don’t laugh) cringes at the entire premise of this book. I’m sure many of my students will be intrigued by the plot–and I know they are the target audience–but Summer of the Gypsy Moths just wasn’t for me.

If you’d like more information about this book and acclaimed author Sara Pennypacker, visit her website. And let me know if you have a different take on Summer of the Gypsy Moths. Maybe you’re seeing something that I missed!

Published in: on August 9, 2014 at 7:10 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Torn Away

Sometimes books (and movies, TV shows, songs, commercials, etc.) make me emotional. I can usually shed a few tears and move on with my life. There are a few books, however, that turn me into someone even I don’t recognize. I cry so hard that I can’t catch my breath, I get so angry that I want to hit things, and I’m so exhausted by the whole experience that I have to take a very long nap to recuperate. I read one of those books this weekend. It was Torn Away by Jennifer Brown. This book put me through the wringer, and, despite today’s three-hour nap, I’m still emotionally exhausted from the experience.

Torn Away tells the story of Jersey Cameron. Jersey is finishing up her junior year in high school in Elizabeth, Missouri, and, like many teen girls, she’s focused on her own life. She rolls her eyes when her mom tells her to do chores, and she doesn’t want to be bothered by her little sister, Marin. All she wants is to be left alone.

When the tornado sirens sound one evening, Jersey is home alone waiting for her mom and sister to return from dance class. At first, she’s sure that things aren’t that bad outside. They’ve heard the sirens before, and nothing has happened. Unfortunately, that is not the case on this fateful night. A massive tornado is heading right for Jersey’s town, and it won’t just rip buildings to shreds. No, it will destroy Jersey’s entire world. Jersey wanted to be left alone before. Now, she has no choice.

The disaster that leveled Jersey’s home also took her mother and sister, and her stepfather can’t deal with Jersey’s pain on top of his own. He sends Jersey to live with her father and paternal grandparents, people she’s never met, and her already tragic situation is made even worse. Jersey lives in a constant state of fear, she has no one to lean on, and the people who should be there for her want nothing to do with her. In fact, they make it known that she’s not welcome, and they’re only taking her in because they think they have to.

Jersey can’t take living with her father and his loathsome family, so she does the only thing she can think of. She runs away. Jersey hopes that she’ll be able to stay with friends or even her stepfather back in Elizabeth, but, yet again, she’s sent to live with more relatives she’s never met. This time, she’s staying with her maternal grandparents, the same people who disowned her mother so many years ago.

Jersey’s existence with her mom’s parents is much more comfortable than it was with her father’s family, but Jersey is still holding onto so much anger, fear, and sadness that she can’t let anyone in, especially the people her mother taught her to despise. But did Jersey really get the whole story from her mother? What led to the separation between daughter and parents, and did either party ever try to bridge that gap? Should Jersey be the one to make things better? Is that even an option when her grief is eating her alive?

As Jersey spends more time with her grandparents and learns more about her mother’s life (and secrets), she realizes that maybe there are people in the world who still love her. People who, like her mother, will do everything in their power to make her feel happy and safe. People who share in her grief and want to help her heal. People who can return a sense of family to her life. All Jersey has to do is let them in. Will she? Or will she let the tornado that took her mother and sister tear away her future as well?

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This post hasn’t even come close to describing the intense, heart-wrenching journey that is Torn Away. I cried so much that I had to read most of the book with my glasses off. I kept Kleenex beside me the whole time. This wasn’t one of those books that elicits tears just at the end. No, like The Fault in Our Stars, Torn Away had me sobbing from beginning to end…and some of those tears were shed in anger.

I’m pretty sure I did serious damage to my Darth Vader pillow when I got angry at some of the people in Jersey’s life (which is kind of funny when you think about it). I got mad at her stepdad because he either couldn’t or wouldn’t see the damage he was inflicting on Jersey, but most of my anger was reserved for Jersey’s biological father and his family. Her father’s family was seriously horrible. All of them–with the minor exception of her aunt–were rude, insensitive, callous, and malicious people who didn’t try to sympathize with Jersey and even took delight in her pain. (I don’t think it’s a stretch to call them white trash. If anyone is offended by that, I’m sorry. Read the book. I’m sure you’ll agree with me.) I had to put the book down on a couple of occasions because I was so mad. I may have actually applauded Jersey when she finally escaped this situation.

I do think anyone who’s ever experienced loss will identify with the character of Jersey. I know I did. I felt her pain, her anger, her hopelessness. I imagined what I would do in a similar situation, and let me tell you…I wouldn’t have fared nearly as well as Jersey did. Jersey is a strong, sympathetic character who did her best to survive when it would have been all too easy to give up. Did she always to the right thing? Of course not, but she survived and held on to the memories of her family while working to make a life for herself in a world without them.

If you’d like to read Torn Away, pick up a box of Kleenex first and then head to your local library or bookstore. (I read a copy via NetGalley, but the book is already available to the masses.)

To learn more about Jennifer Brown and her other books–like Hate List–visit her website or Twitter.

Published in: on July 20, 2014 at 8:50 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Hallowed

Spoiler alert!  If you haven’t already read Unearthly by Cynthia Hand, this post will be all kinds of confusing.  Seriously.  Read Unearthly before proceeding!

Nearly a year and a half ago, I read a truly outstanding novel that revolved around angels.  That book was–if you haven’t already figured it out–Unearthly by Cynthia Hand.  Now that summer is upon us and I have ample time to indulge my deep and abiding love for YA novels, I finally read the sequel, Hallowed.  This book continues Clara Gardner’s search for her true purpose, but she’s in for some surprises that rock the very foundation of her world.  While Hallowed, in my opinion, isn’t quite as action-packed as Unearthly was, it is definitely emotionally loaded.  I got angry and sad right along with Clara, and, to be perfectly honest, I’m a little wrung out at the moment.  (I finished the book about twenty minutes ago.)  If you’re looking for an emotional roller coaster of a book, Hallowed might be just what you’re looking for.

After the fire that changed Clara’s life–and what she believed was her purpose–forever, she finds herself wondering what’s next. Will she be punished for choosing to save Tucker, the boy she’s chosen to love, instead of Christian, another angel-blood who may or may not be meant for her? How has her choice changed the course her life is destined to take? And who will be impacted by whatever happens?

In addition to wondering about her changing purpose as an angel-blood, Clara is being presented with disturbing visions of the future. These visions convince her that someone she loves will soon die. But who could it be? She searches her visions for clues, and, just when she’s convinced that she knows what to expect, Clara is presented with some knowledge that not only clarifies her vision but shakes her world to the core.

As Clara prepares herself for the loss that is to come, she must also deal with a growing threat from Samjeeza, a dreaded Black Wing (or fallen angel), who has a strange interest in her and her family. What does he want? And is there anything Clara can do to stop him?

Clara’s world is quickly spinning out of control. Her brother, Jeffrey, is growing colder and more distant. Her relationship with Tucker is strained, and her feelings for Christian are more complicated than ever. She must also decide the direction her life will take after graduation. All of these things are swirling in Clara’s mind, but they must soon take a back seat to something that will alter everything Clara ever knew about herself, her family, and her angelic nature.

Life is about to change yet again for Clara Gardner. She’ll go through loss, grief, sadness, heartbreak, resignation, and even joy, but will she be strong enough to handle everything being thrown at her? And will she be able to figure out her true purpose while remaining true to herself?

The Unearthly series–Unearthly and Hallowed, so far–is perfect for readers who are fascinated with angels.  Like other “angelic” series, such as Lauren Kate’s Fallen saga, Courtney Allison Moulton’s Angelfire series, and Becca Fitzpatrick’s Hush, Hush series, Unearthly and Hallowed reel the reader in with scenarios of how angels could exist on the earthly and heavenly planes.  If you’re like me and were brought up in church with stories of angels watching over you, these stories are especially compelling.

Hallowed is a great read for anyone in middle school on up.  The love scenes are rather mild, so I wouldn’t have any problems putting this book in the hands of a middle school student.  And there’s enough emotional angst to satisfy even the moodiest of readers.  (I’m talking to you, teenagers.  Yeah, I used to be one of you, so I know you can be a little more emo than you’d like to admit.)

If you’d like more information about the Unearthly series or author Cynthia Hand, visit http://cynthiahandbooks.com/ or follow the author on Twitter @CynthiaHand.  The third book in this series, Boundless, is due to be released on January 22, 2013.

If I still haven’t convinced you to give Hallowed a try, check out this book trailer.  That might do the trick!

Published in: on June 15, 2012 at 10:40 pm  Leave a Comment  
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High Dive

It took me a while to get into Tammar Stein’s novel High Dive, but once I did, I found it to be a pleasant read.  Arden has just completed her freshman year at Vanderbilt and is traveling to Sardinia for the summer.  This is not just a typical summer vacation, though.  She is charged with the task of selling her family’s vacation home.  Her father died a few years ago, and her mother is serving as a nurse in Iraq, so this task falls to Arden.  She’s less than thrilled about packing up and selling a place that meant so much to her family, but she embarks on this journey anyway.

Along the way, Arden meets three girls from Texas who invite her to change her path a bit.  Instead of traveling the route she had planned, she decides to visit Paris with them and have something of a summer vacation to cope with the stress of the past few years.  But traveling with three other nineteen-year-olds is not without its stresses, as Arden soon learns.

While Arden is traveling, she also reflects on times spent with her parents, past travels, her mother’s deployment, her father’s death, and her first love.  This is a sometimes painful, but often therapeutic, process that helps Arden to grow as a person and learn that being independent doesn’t mean you can’t form lasting friendships with the people you encounter.  Read High Diveby Tammar Stein to see how Arden learns to live her life by just diving in.

I enjoyed High Dive more than I thought I would at the beginning.  While I still feel it’s a bit unrealistic that a teenager would travel to Europe by herself to sell her family’s vacation home (I know most of my students won’t be able to relate to this), I found Arden’s journey and growth in the novel to be things that anyone could relate to.

Published in: on May 6, 2009 at 4:35 pm  Leave a Comment  
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All We Know of Love

What is love?  That is the question Natalie is trying to answer in Nora Raleigh Baskin’s All We Know of Love.  Well, if I knew the answer to that question, I would sell my knowledge to the highest bidder and live like a queen for the rest of my life.  I don’t really know what love is.  Can something like that really be put into mere words?

Natalie’s mother left in the middle of a sentence.  They haven’t seen each other or spoken in over four years.  This spring break, Natalie is going to try to change that, try to find out why her mother left and seemingly stopped loving her.  Along her journey, Natalie deals with her feelings about her best friend, her father, and her distant boyfriend.  Natalie is defined by her mother’s abandonment, so how can she describe her feelings for all of these people when the person who was supposed to love her the most left and didn’t look back?

Natalie encounters several people on her way to meet her mother.  Each of these people, in some small way, teach Natalie a little about what love is.  When she finally confronts her mom, Natalie finds that love is complicated, even the love between a mother and daughter.  There are no easy answers.

While I did enjoy All We Know of Love, I wish there had been a bit more resolution at the end of the book.  This was a short, quick read, and the language was simple and fairly realistic.  I can see many of my female students enjoying this book, but it will be a hard sell for the guys.  The book does make the reader attempt to answer the question of what love really is.

Published in: on April 14, 2009 at 11:35 am  Leave a Comment  
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