genre / topic: contemporary fiction; neurodivergence
age range: 8-12
setting: North Carolina coast
Gillian McDunn’s website
An engrossing, heartwarming, beautifully written debut about building and rebuilding family ties.
– Kirkus Reviews, starred review
McDunn’s poignant, gratifying debut about friendship and family encourages both empathy and hope.
– Publishers Weekly, starred review
This absorbing, heartfelt novel seamlessly blends the challenges of life with a neurodivergent child into a story of one tween’s burgeoning self-awareness as she figures out how to reclaim her childhood.
– New York Times Book Review
Please tell us about your book.
CATERPILLAR SUMMER is the story of a girl, her brother with special needs, and the summer they will never forget on Gingerbread Island.
Since her father’s death, Cat has taken care of her brother, Chicken, for their hardworking mother—but on an unexpected island trip to visit grandparents they never knew, Cat has the chance to be a child again.
What inspired you to write this story?
I was inspired by the special relationship I had with my younger brother Andy, who had multiple disabilities. I loved him deeply and felt very protective of him. I wanted to explore the dynamic where love, joy, and responsibility are all woven together.
I was also inspired by the North Carolina coast to create the book’s setting of Gingerbread Island. The beach is my favorite place, and my family loves exploring the beautiful islands of our state.
Could you share with readers how you conducted your research or share a few interesting tidbits you learned while researching?
I had a blast researching this book because it involved multiple trips to Topsail Island, which is the basis for Gingerbread Island. Topsail is a quiet island with miles of beautiful beaches. We love to swim, search for sea glass and shark teeth, and build sea castles.
Sea turtles’ nesting habits play a role in the book, so I got to do lots of research about turtles. I even got to go to a sea turtle hospital where animals are treated and released back into the wild. I also did a lot of research about fishing, which is an important part of the book.
One thing I didn’t need to research at all were the facts about sharks, which are Chicken’s favorite animal. My son also has a love for sharks, so most of those facts were things I had learned through him.
What are some special challenges associated with introducing a setting your audience might be unfamiliar with?
I grew up in southern California and was a frequent visitor to the beaches there. I always loved those visits, but often found the Pacific to be too cold for swimming. Most California kids have memories of having to get out of the water to warm up, even in summer.
North Carolina’s beaches have much warmer water! The beach also feels very different in other ways–even the color of the water looks different to me. I tried to include lots of sensory details so readers would feel like they were really there. I wanted the island to feel like a place that was both comforting and full of mysteries at the same time.
What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?
CATERPILLAR SUMMER explores family dynamics–sibling relationships, grandparent relationships, even the estranged relationship between Cat’s mom and grandfather. Cat is a very responsible 11-year-old who finds the chance on the island to be a kid. She makes a friend, an enemy, and enters a fishing contest. She works through some grief from the loss of her dad, who passed away years ago. And she finds lots of time to do fun things like playing miniature golf, riding bikes, and eating ice cream. I hope it will help readers hold onto a little bit of summer all year long.