It almost seems redundant to review Penny from Heaven by Jennifer Holm, because there have been so many other positive reviews of this book (not to mention posts about positive interactions with Jennifer Holm from her book tour). But I liked it enough to want to say a few words about it.
Penny from Heaven is set in 1953 in a neighborhood somewhere near New York City. It's the story of Penny Falucci, who turns 12 that summer. Penny's story is based on tales from Jennifer Holm's Italian-American relatives, and carries a ring of authenticity. Penny's father died when she was a baby, under mysterious circumstances, and she lives with her mother and "plain old American" grandparents. She also spends time with her father's large, boisterous Italian family. She is especially close to her engaging scamp of a cousin, Frankie, and her reclusive uncle Dominic (who lives primarily in his car, and wears bedroom slippers most of the time).
Penny lives in an oddly fractured world. Her life with her mother and grandparents is both different and separate from her time with her father's family. Her father's family is more colorful and lively, and the food that they eat is much, much tastier. And her uncles buy her presents all the time. There's a poignant scene in which her Uncle Dominic gives her Dodgers tickets for the game on her birthday (her first game ever), and she begs off of her mother's carefully planned celebration. What's wonderful about the scene is that Jennifer Holm conveys both Penny's 12-year-old longing and excitement, and her mother's wistful resignation.
I'm not generally a fan of stories that are episode driven, rather than being plot-driven. However, I will make exceptions for characters that I really like (e.g Anne of Green Gables), and/or truly excellent writing (e.g. the Melendy books by Elizabeth Enright). Both of these exceptions (engaging writing and characterization) apply to Penny from Heaven. Also, there is an ongoing mystery concerning the death of Penny's father, and some suspense concerning Penny's mother's possible remarriage, and the fate of young Frankie.
But what really makes this book special to me is that the characterization is detailed and realistic. I especially enjoyed Frankie, with his schemes and risk-taking, and his hidden vulnerability. Penny's grandfather is also entertaining, burping without restraint, and pretending to be hard of hearing. Her Italian grandmother, Nonny, cooks all the time, fights with her daughter-in-law, only speaks Italian, and always wears black. I can imagine readers thinking that she's a bit of a stereotype, but I personally thought that she was dead on. I also liked the former dancer, Aunt Gina, and the generous, yet powerful, Uncle Nunzio.
The other nice thing about this book is that it's a snapshot of life in the 1950s. Penny isn't allowed to swim in the public pool or go to the movies, for fear that she'll catch polio, and end up in iron lung. World War II is still casting a shadow over people's lives. Penny's relatives speak English instead of Italian, because speaking Italian was a mark of suspicion during the war. Her maternal grandfather continues to shed tears over death of his nephew, a pilot shot down during the war. The little things stand out, too: the way that Penny and Frankie know everyone in the area, both by name and by history, and the fact that the butcher shop and the milkman deliver.
Penny from Heaven has an old-fashioned feel, focusing on somewhat quirky characters, and mostly ordinary life events. There's much for an adult like myself to love about this book: the writing, the pathos, the suspense, the humor. I'll be interested to see if kids like it, too. I hope that do. I'll certainly recommend it to them.
Book: Penny from Heaven
Author: Jennifer Holm
Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers
Original Publication Date: July 25, 2006
Age Range: 9-12
Source of Book: Downloaded from Audible.com
Other Blog Reviews: Book Moot, Miss Erin, Children's Literature Book Club, Big A little a, bookshelves of doom, Young Adult (& Kids) Book Central, and A Fuse #8 Production. See also posts about meeting Jennifer Holm from Book Moot and A Chair, A Fireplace and a Tea Cozy
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.