Summer of the Gypsy Moths by Sara Pennypacker.
By the end of chapter two, Stella’s great-aunt Louise has died. Stella comes home from school to find Louise dead in front of the television set. Stella and Angel, the other girl Louise has taken in, decide they’d better hide the fact or risk becoming wards of the state. Their plan to dig a hole in the backyard for Louise’s body, and to say that the woman broke her ankle works even better and for longer than they want it to. Much of the book’s humor stems from their nearly 12-year-old thinking and how they pull off assuming Louise’s duties managing the summer rental cottages next door. Self-reliance and resourcefulness are their greatest assets and also their Achilles’ heel.
Both girls have had to grow up more quickly than most their age—Stella because of her mother’s frequent disappearances, and Angel because her parents both passed away. So their matter-of-fact handling of Louise’s death comes across credibly, and the comic moments increase as they get more deeply invested in their cover-up. They also come to appreciate each other’s strengths: Angel’s a better liar (which helps them carry off their masquerade), and Stella is a better cleaner (which helps convince owner George Nickerson that Louise is still following through on her duties).
All the while, Sara Pennypacker envelops us in the warmth of the Cape Cod sun, the smell of the sea, and the rhythms of the renters coming and going. The humor and authentic dialogue contribute to a great read-aloud experience, but Pennypacker also gently raises questions of when is it okay to tackle things on your own, and when is it time to ask for help? Is it ever okay to lie? What is a true friend? Pennypacker never makes the children seem at risk—what the children fear could happen is far worse than what does happen. At the same time, the author creates living, breathing girls whom we care about and whose fates matter to us. Each lives with sadness, but the girls don’t dwell on that. They forge ahead, often with humor and a determination to solve whatever challenge lies ahead.