I adored Jeanne Birdsall's National Book Award winning middle grade novel The Penderwicks (review here). I called it "wonderful". I was thrilled when I learned that a sequel was forthcoming, and I did a little happy dance the day that The Penderwicks on Gardam Street arrived on my doorstep from Random House. It's so nice be able to revisit my old friends, the Penderwick sisters.
This second book is set just a few months following story of the previous summer. The Penderwick sisters are settled back in at their home on Gardam Street, in Cameron, Massachusetts. Things are going smoothly, until their beloved Aunt Claire drops a bombshell. It seems that their mother, who died when four-year-old Batty was an infant, left a letter for their father, suggesting that this would be a good time frame for him to start looking for a new woman in his life. Mr. Penderwick is as horrified by this suggestion as his daughters, but agrees, reluctantly, to go on a few dates. Sounds like time for an emergency MOPS (Meeting of Penderwick Sisters)!
I must tell you that I saw the ending coming very early in the book. But it's a testament to the strength of Birdsall's writing that not only did I keep reading anyway, I cried at the end. This is a relatively episodic book - there are dramatic threads moving forward, for sure, but lots of smaller incidents take place along the way. I'm normally a fan of stronger, more directed plots, ones that pull you along at a fast pace. However, I'll make an exception to that preference when a) reading about characters that I like and b) reading beautiful turns of phrase. And Jeanne Birdsall offers both on every page.
The Penderwicks sisters are all real and distinctive. The limited viewpoint shifts seamlessly from one to the other, giving the reader a chance to get to know all four girls: beautiful, maternal Rosalind; brilliant and prickly Skye; dreamy, imaginative Jane; and energetic, animal-loving Batty. My favorite scenes are actually those told from four-year-old Batty's perspective. I doubt that a whole book like this would work, but sprinkled through the book, they offer a lovely leavening effect. For instance, there's a scene when Batty attempts to hide, and is caught. The text says:
"Batty was disappointed. Her hiding skills were not as great as she had hoped." (Page 197)
I laughed out loud. In another scene, Batty and her sisters go trick-or-treating, and Batty truly believes that the adult neighbors have no idea who any of them are in their brilliant costumes. It's a small thing, but simply priceless. Or this, from Rosalind's perspective:
"But today, because of Aunt Claire's visit, they hurried along, stopping only for Batty to move to safety a worm that had unwisely strayed onto the sidewalk, and soon they were turning the corner onto Gardam Street, where they lived." (Page 10)
At that point in reading the book I gave a big, contented sigh, like I was coming home myself. Perfect characterization and description not enough for you? Other wonderful things about this book include:
A father who lapses into Latin on a regular basis, but can also make goofy faces and laugh with his daughters.
Honest-to-goodness debates between the sisters about honor, and doing what's right (even if they sometimes slip up).
Matter-of-fact references to the importance of books (with specific examples), and bewilderment at the notion that there are people out there who don't love books.
An adult female role model who is smart, beautiful, and maternal, but who doesn't know how to cook.
A chance to find out how Jeffrey from the first book is doing (though he plays only a minor role in the new story).
Secret hiding places in a local wood.
A neighborhood that really is a neighborhood, like neighborhoods were 30 years ago (and, presumably, some still are), with kids of different age ranges, playing together in the street, and everyone watching out for each other.
I could go on and on, but I think I've made my point. The Penderwicks on Gardam Street reminds me of Elizabeth Enright's Melendy books. Birdsall shares Enright's ability to create flesh-and-blood, imperfect kids, and put them in settings that kids will find interesting and fun. As with the first Penderwicks book, this one has a bit of an old-fashioned, timeless feel. And it will tug at your heartstrings, from beginning to end. Don't miss it. I think this is that rare case where the sequel is even better than the already excellent first book.
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: April 2008
Source of Book: A review copy from the publisher
Other Blog Reviews: A Reading Odyssey, Kids Lit, Necessary Chocolate, Booktopia, Emily Reads, Bookshelves of Doom, Biblio File, InfoDad.com
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.