My husband and I read books aloud to our children, ages 11 and 13. He usually picks classics, like The Secret Garden. I usually read current middle grade fiction. When picking a new read-aloud I go by reviews and word of mouth. Usually this serves me well.
Usually, but not always…
A case in point is The Summer of the Gypsy Moths by Sara Pennypacker. I’d read Pennypacker’s Clementine aloud when it first came out. Gypsy Moths got several starred reviews. Plus, it takes place on Cape Cod, where my family and I were going to be vacationing. It should have been a great, magical read.
Instead, I’ve been so reluctant to read this title that I’ve been stringing it out over weeks and months, long since that Cape Cod trip. As read-alouds go, this one is a slow, hard journey because:
· Even though I knew there was going to be some disturbing content (an adult dies and is buried by the children in the garden), reviews had not prepared me for the creepy munching noises made by gypsy moths in that same cemetery/garden. Creepy insect munching noises aren't conducive to sleep, so I edited them out of my nighttime readings. The death and burial, in contrast, are treated in a matter-of-fact way by the author and were not at all problematic.
· The two children in the book are meant to be distinctly different: main character Stella is from old Caucasian New England stock, while secondary character Angel is Portuguese-American. I struggled to find clues in the text (apart from a few Portuguese phrases) to set the two voices apart--and finally gave up.
· After the very dramatic death and burial of Stella’s Great-Aunt Louise, and the decision by the girls to carry on as caretakers of the rental cottages next to Louise’s house, the story’s action slows considerably. There are small highs and lows of action, but not a steady build-up to the story’s conclusion.
· The theme of the absent mother simply didn’t ring true for me on an emotional level. Because Stella’s mom is always absent, we see her neglect only in flashbacks. Contrast this approach with Leslie Connor’s Waiting for Normal, a much better read aloud and much more emotionally resonant book about problem parents, where we see the neglect as it happens.
· I was bugged by the main character’s hero worship for Heloise, from the newspaper advice column “Hints from Heloise.” Even though I learned that the main character spent considerable chunks of time with her older grandmother, I didn’t buy that a modern kid (otherwise unlikely to encounter print newspapers) would care about an old-time advice column. Pennypacker previously used the old-time advertising jingle “the heartbreak of psoriasis” in Clementine, also clearly anachronistic. Yes, this is nit-picking, but when you’re reading contemporary fiction aloud to your own contemporary kids, you shouldn’t have to stop and explain: “This is an old thing from when Mama was little; I’m not sure why it’s in the book.”
While Pennypacker's writing in Gypsy Moths is often lovely and lyrical (hence the starred reviews), I’m very, very glad to be close to the end. Now I just need to find a new read aloud.