Caterpillar & Chicken
When summer plans change, 11-year-old Cat and her 7-year-old brother, Chicken (who appears to be on the autism spectrum), are taken to stay on Gingerbread Island with maternal grandparents, Macon and Lily, who they’ve never heard of before.
Cat and Chicken are the namesakes of characters in their mother’s picturebook series, Caterpillar & Chicken. In the books, Caterpillar does everything in her power to keep Chicken happy, and the same is true in real life. Ever since her dad passed, her mom works all the time, leaving Cat to care for Chicken.
But with a summer of fishing and making a new friend, Cat has the opportunity to investigate the troubled history between Macon and her mom, admit feeling overwhelmed by being Chicken’s caretaker, and have difficult, honest conversations with her mom.
Why Readers Will Love Caterpillar Summer
Caterpillar Summer is contemporary fiction well suited for ages 8-12. The third person narrative delves into Cat’s complex feelings in a way that is relatable and makes the reader empathetic. Cat is overwhelmed by the weight of being Chicken’s primary caregiver and how it governs her life. She loves Chicken, but she also wants to be a normal kid with friends and free time. In fact, the first line in the book is “Cat always kept her brother in the back of her mind, except for the times he was in the front of it.” That is a lot of responsibility for one kid.
Another beautiful thing about this book is how McDunn interweaves issues of special needs, as well as race, without letting them overwhelm the story. At the beginning, readers jump to the conclusion that the falling out between Cat’s mother and Macon is because Cat’s father was black and Cat’s mom and her parents are white. It’s not the reason, but it shows how quick we are to make assumptions. Cat makes lots of assumptions about what others are thinking and feeling too, but she learns they are not always right – a lesson worth learning over and over.
In another example, Cat goes ahead to the ice cream shop, where she is ignored. Only when Macon arrives and says Cat is his granddaughter, does the service change. It seems obvious that Cat is ignored because of the color of her skin. Macon doesn’t directly confront the clerk. Instead, with Southern politeness and a fake smile, he suggests the clerk let Cat sample every single flavor before choosing.
Cat is a smart, caring, and strong protagonist. In the beginning, she keeps her family together by carrying all the weight. By the end of the summer, Cat finds her voice, and through self advocacy seeks out balance. In addition, over the course of the story, Cat starts to recognize there are many sides to every story, and redemption can only be found through understanding.
Overall, McDunn addresses the importance of building and rebuilding relationships with tenderness, empathy, and hope.
Creative Ways to Use this Book
The focus of Caterpillar Summer is the story of Cat. But it also touches on conservation issues, including the protection of sea turtles and coastal dunes, and could be read in connection with units on ecology and oceanography. In addition, McDunn offers wonderful discussion questions and creative activities to pair with Caterpillar Summer. You can check them out here.
Accolades for Caterpillar Summer
- An Indies Introduce selection
- Indie Next Kids Top Ten for Spring 2019
- ★ Kirkus, starred review
- ★ Publishers Weekly, starred review
- A Junior Library Guild selection
- A Spring Okra Pick
- Parents Magazine Best Kids’ Books 2019
- Kirkus Best Middle-Grade Books of 2019
- Bank Street Best Children’s Books of the Year, Outstanding Merit (2020)
- Texas Bluebonnet Award 2020-2021 Master List
- Florida Sunshine State Young Readers Award List, 2020-2021
- South Carolina Children’s Book Award List 2020-2021
- Georgia Children’s Book Award List 2021
- Kentucky Bluegrass Award List 2020-2021
- Nebraska Golden Sower Award nominee, 2021-2022
- Mississippi Magnolia Book Award Nominee 2022
- Illinois’s Bluestem Award Nominee, 2023
- Sakura Medal List, 2023
Have You Read These Great Books?
Like a strong female protagonist faced with difficult circumstances? Why not read Ramie Nightingale (Candlewick, 2016) by Kate DiCamillo. Ten-year-old Ramie’s father ran off with a dental hygienist, and Ramie decides the only way to get him back is to win the 1975 “Little Miss Central Florida Tire” contest. As Booklist described it, “DiCamillo once again shows that life’s underlying sadnesses can also be studded with hope and humor, and she does it in a way so true that children will understand it in their bones.”
Want to add a little magic to the mix? Read A Snicker of Magic (Scholastic, 2014) by Natalie Lloyd. Midnight Gulch used to be a magical place, but that was long ago before a curse drove the magic away. Twelve-year-old Felicity knows about curses – her nomadic mom is cursed with a wandering heart. But when Felicity arrives in Midnight Gulch, her mom’s hometown, she has a feeling her luck is about to change.
Or how about Willodeen (Feiwel & Friends, 2021) by Katherine Applegate. Eleven-year-old Willodeen loves all creatures, but her favorites are the “screechers,” the most unlovable. When magic unexpectedly arrives to Willodeen and her new friend Connor, she finds the fierce determination to stand up for the screechers. She might even solve the mystery of the missing hummingbears.
Be sure to check out my reviews of other wonderful middle grade books here.