IntroductionSummer is a time for freedom, for the ocean and vacation and berries. And books that embody that are the epitome of summer reading. This book has all of that with the bonus of girls finding friendship, even with the dark undertones of neglect and death, making it a perfect read for children ages 9 to 12.
The StoryStella has grown up living in her grandmother’s house. But since grandmother’s death, Stella and her mother have drifted aimlessly from place to place, until the authorities finally stepped in – citing abandonment and neglect – and separated them. As a result, Stella was sent to her grandmother’s sister, Louise. For the past few months, Stella, Louise, and another foster child, Angel, have been trying to get along in their Cape Cod house, getting ready for summer by planting a garden, taking care of the blueberry bushes, and readying the four cottages Louise manages on their property for vacationers.
Then, one day after school, Stella discovers that Louise has had a heart attack and died.
Because of their previous experience with the authorities, Stella and Angel have no idea what to do. They decide that if they call 911, then they will be stuck in the foster-care system again, probably sending them to less-desirable homes. That is a disagreeable option for both of them, for a myriad of reasons. So, the two of them make a decision: because the summer vacation season begins in a few days, they will just bury Louise’s under the blueberry bushes, manage the cottages as if Louise were injured and unavailable, and save their cleaning tip money until they have enough to go somewhere other than the foster system.
The owner of the cottages, George, shows them how to check the vacationers in, and how to clean the cottages between usages, and Stella and Angel decide that their plan, though ambiguous, should work. Granted, deep down Stella doesn’t really believe that they’ll get away with it. George is always around mowing and fixing things, and they keep putting him off with increasingly stranger lies. It is rough in the beginning, but after a couple of weeks, Stella and Angel figure things out: cleaning, organizing, answering questions, and even offering babysitting to the families who need it.
All the while, they are fending off George’s questions about Louise, phone calls from Louise’s friends, and the increasing pile of bills; even the social worker to stops by. It becomes a little implausible (for an adult, anyway) that no one really figures out that something is wrong. However, there is a fairly realistic consequence: because their house is far away from town and because Stella and Angel don’t have any cash (and can’t drive), they go hungry for most of the four weeks they keep up their charade.
Eventually, Stella and Angel decide that not only can they not keep lying, but what they are doing is fundamentally wrong. They call the authorities, and Louise is finally given a decent burial. Angel is reunited with an aunt, who needs a job in order to be able to take custody of Angel. Thankfully, George is there, and Angel and her aunt take over the management of the cottage. Which leaves Stella: she goes into the foster care system, until George jumps through the hoops, and offers to take care of Stella. It’s a bittersweet ending, but also a hopeful one.
My RecommendationI’m torn about this book: one the one hand, I find a situation where two 12-year-old girls could go four weeks without someone noticing that the accountable adult is missing incredibly implausible and a bit forced. On top of that, Stella’s and Angel’s constant lying bothered me. And, truth be told, I had to wonder if there really is a need for yet another book with a bad mother.
But, in the end, I liked this novel for its both simplicity and its heart. Author Sara Pennypacker's writing is uncomplicated without pandering to her audience, something I admire about her Clementine series. Additionally, the situation never gets overly dramatic (even though a great-aunt’s death and a neglectful mother would seem to warrant it), but rather focuses on the positive things that Stella and Angel can do. Sure, their personalities are completely different, but they learn to work together. At its heart, it’s a simple book with a timeless story: Stella learning the meanings of home and friendship. (Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2012. ISBN: 9780061964206)
Author Sara PennypackerSara Pennypacker was born, raised, and currently lives in Massachusetts. She has always had an obsession with art, baseball, and stories; before she was a writer, she was a watercolor artist with a gallery. However, in the 1990s, she started writing children’s books. Her works include the Clementine series, some of the Flat Stanley series, The Amazing World of Stuart (and sequels), and two picture books. (Source: Author’s Web site)
More Recommended Books From Your Guide Elizabeth KennedySome of the other fiction that makes good recreational reading for middle grade readers includes: When You Reach Me, Because of Winn-Dixie, The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Countdown.
Good nonfiction books for this age group include: Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot, High-Tech Olympics, The Wildlife Detectives and 2012 Guinness World Records.