McDunn has lived in the western, middle, and eastern parts of the U.S. and is a fan of oceans in general. She currently lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. Like her main character, Cat, she grew up with a younger brother with special needs.
Indies Introduce panelist Heather Smith of Linden Tree Books in Los Altos, California, called Caterpillar Summer “both relaxing and compelling” and “a masterpiece in gentle sincerity.” Said Smith, “Each page radiates warmth — summertime, familial love, reconciliation, and blooming new relationships. Cat’s story draws you in and invites you to stay.”
Smith recently got the opportunity to ask McDunn about her debut.
Heather Smith: What made you realize you had a story you wanted to sit down and actually write?
Gillian McDunn: Pieces of the story had floated through my head for a while. I knew I was interested in exploring the relationship between an older sister and a younger brother with special needs, inspired in part by my relationship with my brother Andy. I also wondered what it would be like for the child of a picture book creator who based characters on her children — I think this was probably my subconscious working out my feelings about mining my kids’ lives for material.
It wasn’t until I focused on the character of Cat that I made the leap to writing. She quickly became clear in my mind and her voice was very distinct. Once I felt so connected to her, I knew I wanted to write her story.
HS: As Cat’s story developed, did any characters or plot progressions take you, the writer, by surprise?
GM: I was surprised by how warmly I felt toward John Harvey, who is a fairly unpleasant person. I can’t help it, though — I love him and thoroughly enjoyed writing him. I hope he feels like a character who is messily realistic and doesn’t fit neatly in a box.
Plot-wise, there were a few suggestions from my agent and editor that took the story to some unexpected places. My agent suggested that I develop Mom’s interest in fishing when she was a girl. My editor’s ideas included adding in a trip to the miniature golf course and extending the scene that happens during the thunderstorm. It’s hard to imagine the book any other way, and I am so grateful for the suggestions from these brilliant and insightful women.
HS: Cat herself grows a lot over the course of the story; what aspect of her journey do you feel was most important?
GM: Cat is such a wise, thoughtful kid. Sometimes others see her as older than she really is. At the beginning of the book, she shoulders more responsibility than she should. But as the story goes along, she learns to accept help from others. To me, that’s the most significant part of her journey. As a kid, I was often in situations that were over my head. Wrongly, I thought asking for help was a sign of weakness. I hope kids will walk away from this book feeling like it is okay to ask for help.
HS: Which of Cat’s complex family relationships was the most challenging for you to write?
GM: The most challenging relationship for me was the one between Cat and Mom. I wanted it to feel very loving but also show that their relationship is going through a bumpy patch. I think it’s common for moms and daughters to find themselves in uncharted waters as the teenage years approach. This effect is amplified for Cat and Mom, because their family has been in survival mode since Cat and Chicken’s dad died. Sometimes the patterns we establish to survive a loss need to be re-evaluated and changed as time passes. When we meet Cat and Mom, they are at a point where that change needs to happen but it hasn’t yet.
HS: What kinds of readers do you think would most love Caterpillar Summer?
GM: I think Caterpillar Summer will appeal to readers who have a special relationship with a sibling or grandparent, are interested in family dynamics, belong to families with a child who needs extra attention, or are dealing with loss.
But, most of all, I think it will be loved by anyone with a soft spot for summer — and all the sandcastles, shark teeth, mini golf, and ice cream that go along with it.
Caterpillar Summer by Gillian McDunn (Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 9781681197432, Middle Grade, $16.99) On Sale Date: 4/2/2019.
Find out more about the author at gillianmcdunn.com.
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