Books for Tough Issues
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The Penderwicks: Jeanne Birdsall

This morning I finished The Penderwicks : A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy, by Jeanne Birdsall, which I listened to on MP3. I thought that it was wonderful. The book is about the four Penderwick sisters. Together with their father and their dog, they rent a summer cottage in the Berkshires for three weeks. The cottage turns out to be located on the grounds of a large estate, Arundel Hall, which includes a fairy-tale mansion and extensive gardens. The estate also boasts the modern-day equivalent of the wicked witch, Arundel Hall's owner, Mrs. Tifton, as well as her minion/boyfriend Dexter.

During their tenure at Arundel Hall the Penderwicks befriend Mrs. Tifton's 11-year-old son, Jeffrey, as well as the 18-year-old gardener Cagney (a Red Sox fan!), the motherly housekeeper Churchy, and a pair of rabbits. The sisters are a breath of fresh air for Jeffrey, who lives a relatively isolated life on the family estate and is faced with the imminent and dreadful prospect of attending military school. Together and separately, the five children embark on a series of adventures.

This book has a very old-fashioned feel, featuring children let loose on a large estate, with gardens and statues and attics and secret passages through the shrubbery. It reminded me of The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit, and the many excellent books by Elizabeth Enright. It also reminded me, a bit, of Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon, both by L. M. Montgomery. There's no magic in The Penderwicks, and no improbably coincidences. It's a story of regular kids having a memorable summer, with a conveniently vague father hovering as a benevolent presence in the background.

What makes this book special is the depth of the characterization of the Penderwick sisters. The oldest is 12-year-old Rosalind, the maternal and responsible caretaker over her motherless sisters. Next comes 11-year-old Skye, prickly and difficult, with a love of math and of order. 10-year-old Jane is the writer and dreamer of the group, with a love of stories and big words that evokes a young Anne Shirley. Finally, four-year-old Batty rounds out the sisters, with her shyness, and her passionate love for the family dog, Hound. The girls' characters are so well-drawn, and so distinct from one another, that the dialog attributions (Rosalind said, etc.) are almost completely unnecessary. I found this to be true before the end of the very first chapter. The viewpoint of the book shifts seamlessly between the four sisters, leaving the reader with a feeling of knowing them all well by the end of the story.

The supporting characters are not quite so well fleshed out, but I think that this is deliberate, to keep the focus on the Penderwick sisters. And of course, we don't hear the story from the perspective of any of the other characters, so we can't know them as well. But I did empathize for both Mr. Penderwick and for Jeffrey at different points in the story.

The Penderwicks won the 2005 National Book Award for Young People's Literature. I think that it was much deserved. I'm pleased that the National Book Foundation chose a book that is well-written, while also being a story that people will enjoy reading. If you have a child in the 9 to 12 age range, I strongly recommend that you get them a copy of this book. And if you don't have a child in that age range, then you'll just have to get it for yourself. Because the book contains hardly any pop cultural references (beyond Cagney's ubiquitous Red Sox cap), I think that it will hold up many years from now without seeming dated. I know that it's one that I will want to re-read in the future. I highly recommend that you spend some time with The Penderwicks this summer. You'll be glad that you did.

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.