48 pages 1 hour read

Gillian McDunn

Caterpillar Summer

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2019

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Summary and Study Guide


Caterpillar Summer is a middle grade novel in which 11-year-old Cat Gladwin repairs rifts that have divided her family while obtaining agency and autonomy over her own identity. Much of the conflict centers on the responsibility foisted onto Cat for the care of her younger brother, who has special needs. When the two unexpectedly spend three weeks of summer vacation with the grandparents they have never met, big changes take place in both of their lives. The novel speaks of the importance of family bonds and the impact of family feuding, but also highlights the challenges faced by an adolescent who is learning to navigate a world that can be difficult for those who are different.

Gillian McDunn is the author of three previous books for middle grades. A fifth book, When Sea Becomes Sky, is forthcoming as of 2023. Relationships, family dynamics, and adolescent struggles are themes McDunn explores throughout her novels.

McDunn’s accolades include Kirkus and Parents magazines’ “Best Books of the Year,” the Junior Library Guild gold standard selection, and nominations for state reading lists in nine states. Honestly Elliott was awarded the American Library Association’s Schneider Family Award.

This guide refers to the 2019 paperback by Bloomsbury Children’s Books.

Plot Summary

Having just completed fifth grade, Cat Gladwell prepares to depart for a three-week summer trip from her home in San Francisco to Atlanta, Georgia. There, Cat and her younger brother will visit her best friend, Rishi, and his family, who have relocated there, while Cat’s mom teaches a three-week college course. Cat’s brother Chicken (whose real name is Henry) has just completed first grade and has special needs. Cat is responsible for caring for him much of the time, going out of her way to ensure that Chicken does not become stressed or upset. This includes keeping Chicken occupied while Mom—an author and illustrator of a children’s book series modeled after Cat and Chicken themselves—works. Their father is recently deceased after a battle with cancer, and Cat looks forward to the opportunity to spend time with Mom during the Atlanta vacation.

Unfortunately, plans change at the last minute as Rishi’s grandmother in India suffers a stroke and the family heads there to be with her. Mom decides to head to Atlanta alone to teach the course, telling Cat and Chicken that they will spend the three weeks on Gingerbread Island in North Carolina with their grandparents—Mom’s parents whom Chicken and Cat have never met.

Their grandmother Lily welcomes Cat and Chicken warmly, but their grandfather, Macon, is cold and standoffish. As the days go by, Cat learns that a disagreement between Mom and Macon has kept Mom away from her parents. Cat vows to learn more about the nature of the rift and to repair it. Cat discovers details about Mom that she never knew, namely that she excelled at fishing as a child, winning several trophies. When Cat learns of the upcoming kids’ fishing tournament, she signs up, hoping to convince Mom to teach Cat to fish on her visits. When Cat learns Macon, too, once enjoyed fishing, Cat discovers an opportunity to draw Mom and Macon back together. Through morning beach walks and fishing trips, Macon softens, and he and Cat become close.

Meanwhile, Cat focuses on Chicken, as is her habit. She rescues him from a fight with another boy at the library and comforts him when he is pulled under by a wave at the ocean’s edge. Initially reluctant to relinquish her responsibility—though she resents the way Chicken takes her care for granted—Cat slowly allows Lily to take a role in Chicken’s care, as it becomes clear that Chicken has grown to trust Lily. Cat, too, makes a new friend on the island: a girl her age named Harriet. They ride bikes and fish together as Harriet cheers Cat on in her preparation for the contest.

Cat’s desire to win the contest is fueled by her encounters with a local boy named John Harvey, a bully who taunts Chicken and retorts cruelly to Cat. John Harvey is a superior fisherman, having won the first-place trophy four years in a row. During her time on the island, Cat has several unpleasant encounters with John Harvey, who goes so far as to muddy her Mom’s bike, which Cat has been riding, and steal its custom license plate. Yet, there are incidents when John Harvey behaves inconsistently, such as when he alerts Cat that Chicken is upset by the firetruck sirens at the Fourth of July parade.

Repairing Mom and Macon’s relationship proves challenging, as Mom cancels her planned visit to the island on the first weekend, then breaks her promise to fish with Cat on the second weekend. Cat grows increasingly upset with the way in which Mom’s work comes before her. This, coupled with the expectation that Cat will put Chicken’s needs before her own, makes Cat feel as though she always comes last in Mom’s eyes. She longs to spend time with Mom and to learn more about Mom’s anger toward Macon. As Cat grows closer to Macon, he speaks of the ways in which he disapproved of many of the choices Mom made when she came to adulthood and of the way he focused on his career as a surgeon when Mom was young.

The day of the fishing tournament is rainy, but Cat is determined to win. Macon stays at her side nearly all day, while Lily, Chicken, and Harriet visit her from time to time. Mom is supposed to come but is delayed. Partway through the tournament, John Harvey is disqualified for creating an artificial reef with bricks to attract and trap fish, breaking a contest rule. At the end of the tournament, Cat is awarded the second-place trophy. She and Macon proudly head home to inform Lily and Chicken and to celebrate.

Quickly upon her return, however, Cat discovers that Chicken is missing. A search ensues as the residents of the island are alerted. Macon and other adults search the beach and water, while Cat and Harriet head to the library and the park. They return empty handed as Mom is just arriving at Lily and Macon’s home. Finally, Cat begins to think like Chicken and locates him playing in the old elevator in the house, safe and unharmed. The rescuers celebrate, but when everyone has left, Mom becomes angry, insisting they will leave at that moment, as she deems the island unsafe for Chicken. Cat and Chicken refuse to comply, and Cat goes to bed, ordering Mom to talk through her disagreement with Macon.

Mom spends much of the night talking with Macon and they begin to repair the hurt and anger between them. The next morning, Mom shares the discussion with Cat, then acknowledges the ways she has hurt and disappointed Cat by breaking her commitments and by putting work first. Mom decides to make some changes, including enrolling Chicken in an after-school care program so that Cat will hold less responsibility for his care.

Before the three leave the island, Cat heads out to find John Harvey, who joined in the search for Chicken. Cat wishes to thank him. John Harvey acknowledges the wrongness in his cheating, and Cat sees that he is not entirely bad. Then, Cat, Mom, and Chicken say goodbye to Macon and Lily. Macon gives Cat a gift, which he instructs her to open during the drive back—it is a photo of the two of them at the fishing contest.