Review: Caterpillar Summer

Caterpillar Summer by Gillian McDunn

Genre: Middle Grade
Maturity Level: 2
View on Goodreads
Rating: ⋆⋆⋆⋆

Cat and her brother Chicken have always had a very special bond–Cat is one of the few people who can keep Chicken happy. When he has a “meltdown” she’s the one who scratches his back and reads his favorite story. She’s the one who knows what Chicken needs. Since their mom has had to work double-hard to keep their family afloat after their father passed away, Cat has been the glue holding her family together.

But even the strongest glue sometimes struggles to hold. When a summer trip doesn’t go according to plan, Cat and Chicken end up spending three weeks with grandparents they never knew. For the first time in years, Cat has the opportunity to be a kid again, and the journey she takes shows that even the most broken or strained relationships can be healed if people take the time to walk in one another’s shoes.

This book hit me right in the feels. As a daughter, as a mother, as a sister, I related to this book in so many ways and on so many levels. It was gut wrenching but heart warming.

While the theme of older-sibling taking care of younger-sibling-with-special-needs is becoming quite common in kids lit, I appreciated the way it was presented in this book better than I have in others I’ve read. I felt like this book explored the ways in which it can be difficult and unfair to care for a younger sibling beyond the superficial “I want to go play”. I also loved the way it explored that maybe Chicken doesn’t need Cat’s hovering and over-parenting as much as she thinks he does. (Yes, the kids go by Cat and Chicken. I know, but it works, trust me.) She learns to let Chicken handle some of his own problems. But, at the same time, it’s like the family can’t let their guard down for a second, or Chicken could run off and get hurt. It’s complicated, and stressful, and way too much for a twelve year old, which is pretty much the whole point.

This book is also about making time for family. I know, that also sounds cliche, but it really, really wasn’t. Overworking parents can become a generational problem (trust me, I know), and sometimes the damage caused by not being there is too hard to repair. I loved the complex way it explored these themes, and from the multitude of angles.

But in spite of all that, this is at its heart a feel-good summer book. Cat gets to know her grandparents for the first time, and they live in the most idyllic vacation spot you could imagine. She gets to be a kid for the first time, she falls in love with her grandparents, she makes new friends, she learns to fish! It was nice to read a book that felt so good.

Cat’s relationships are what make this book stand out. I loved watching her get to know her grandfather, and find out all the ways they are both different and the same. Watching her discover that beneath that grouchy exterior he really cares for her. Her grandfather reminded me a lot of my own, and reminded me why I miss him so much. But she also has a complex relationship with her mother, an intense relationship with Chicken, and makes a few fun friends along the way.

This was another book of Texas’s Bluebonnet list that I was disappointed to learn isn’t an own-voices book. However, Cat being mixed race was handled very thoughtfully and consistently with books I have read by own-voices authors. And while racial themes are touched on lightly, it isn’t the point of the book. If you’re looking for a book to give to your kids featuring children of color that isn’t a social justice book, featuring a child of color living a joyful life, this one is pretty good.

I loved this book. I cried repeatedly. If I had been reading it at a less stressful time in my life it probably would have been five stars. Highly recommend.

6 thoughts on “Review: Caterpillar Summer

  1. The first thing I thought when I read the summary is “older-sibling taking care of younger-sibling-with-special-needs is a really common theme in MG” right now, so I’m glad you had the same thought! It’s great that you thought this was a nuanced take on it, though, and that the book was so engaging!

    Liked by 1 person

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