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Caterpillar Summer: 11/18/19

Caterpillar Summer

Caterpillar Summer by Gillian McDunn is middle grade coming of age story set in the summer between Cat's fifth and sixth grade year. She and her brother "Chicken" have been looking forward to their trip to Atlanta where their mother will be teaching and they will be hanging out with friends who used to live in San Francisco but recently moved.

A missed couple of texts leaves them in Atlanta with nowhere to go. Their friends have had to fly to India for a family emergency. To keep them together with trustworthy supervision, Amanda decides to ask her parents to watch her daughter and son.

Besides teaching creative writing, Amanda is a children's book author and illustrator. She's known for a popular series of books, Caterpillar and Chicken, which are set in a fictionalized version of her home town, and feature cartoon character versions of her children.

Amanda hasn't talked to her parents since she got married and hasn't told her children anything about them but she's desperate. By itself the set up of two children being left with grandparents they've never met and never talked to, would be enough fodder for a compelling plot, but that's just the start.

Chicken is neural divergent. He might be autistic. He might be ADHD. He might be both. Whatever he's been diagnosed with isn't stated and the specifics are left to the reader's imagination. I suppose that is to make him more relatable to a wider audience but it comes with a caveat, and namely we're only given insight into his disability through how others see him and how we see him acting.

The entire narrative is from Cat's point of view. She's the older sister. She's been acting as Chicken's primary caregiver after school and now on this trip because Amanda is a single parent and works long hours to make ends meet. Cat is convinced that Chicken needs to be protected at all costs but she doesn't try to get into his head. She doesn't try to understand her brother. She just sees him as a challenge that needs to be controlled through routine and avoidance of new things.

To further drive home the point that Cat's been essentially parenting Chicken for most of his life, especially since their father died, there are excerpts from Amanda's picture books. They always end with Cat having to give up something she loves to make things better for Caterpillar. Sure it's a running gag between books but the lack of character growth for either one in the books is further evidence of how stuck the family is in their assumptions of how life with Chicken has to be.

What isn't mentioned anywhere in this book is how Chicken doesn't seem to be the only one in his family (immediate and extended) that appears to be neural divergent. Cat loves routine as much as he does, and it's not only because she wants to predict his behavior. Amanda is as prone to hyper-focus as her son is. Macon (the grandfather) has his special interests (ship building and sea turtles) just as Chicken does (sharks). Macon is socially awkward just like his grandson. But at no point in the book does Cat or anyone else make the connection that Chicken's diagnosis might have a genetic component to it.

Cat and Chicken's summer adventure falls into the road narrative spectrum. They are brother and sister — sibling — travelers (CC). Their destination is a rural island (33) town , the sort of place where everyone knows everyone and there is a definite year rounder vs tourist vibe. Their trip to Gingerbread Island begins with a long flight from San Francisco to Atlanta, an offroad journey (66). All together Caterpillar Summer is the tale of siblings going to a rural place via an offroad route.

Gillian McDunn's next middle grade novel is The Queen Bee and Me. It has a planned publication date of March 3, 2020.

Four stars

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