My sixth book for the 48 Hour Book Challenge was Laurel Snyder's Penny Dreadful. Which I loved. Laurel Snyder's gift is that she's able to channel the best of classic children's literature, all of the books that I wanted to live in as a child, and yet update things enough to make her books feel modern and fresh. Penny Dreadful is a book for book lovers. It's a book for anyone who thinks that a summer afternoon spent reading with your best friend on the front porch is a perfect day. It's a book for anyone who has ever explored caves with their friends, or built a fort in the woods, or wanted to.
Penelope Grey lives a privileged life in The City. She has every creature comfort, but she is, alas, bored to pieces. She wishes on a wishing well for a major change. But her father quitting his job and her family sinking rapidly into financial difficulties wasn't exactly what she had in mind. Inheriting a rambling home in the country appears to change the family's fortunes. Whippoorwillows house in Thrush Junction, TN doesn't turn out to be exactly what anyone expects, either. But it might, just might, be the making of Penny and her family.
Penny Dreadful is a book in which events that occur could be magical, or not, like several of Zilpha Keatley Snyder's books. There is a faintly unreal, idealized quality to the story, from Penny's father's giddy joy at quitting his job to Penny's mother's quite unexpected choice of a job in Thrush Junction. Laurel Snyder channels Elizabeth Enright, L.M. Montgomery, and Jeanne Birdsall in her work, sometimes with direct references to books, and sometimes with more subtle allusions. Yet there are realistic bits, too, like the possibility of foreclosure, friends hurting each other's feelings, and parental admonitions to clean one's room.
Penny Dreadful is chock-full of quirky, interesting characters. Penny, coming from a sheltered background, is a nice foil for this. Everything is new and interesting to her, from an elderly woman who used to be a cabaret dancer to a pair of hyper-protective parents to a boy who has two mothers. Penny's parents appear conventional and dull at first, but both prove to have unexpected sides to them. Watching Penny develop a relationship with her parents is one of the joys of the book.
I LOVE Penny. She's spent most of her life without real friends, being taught at home by a tutor, and she turns to books for everything. For excitement, ideas, and advice. Like this:
"Duncan didn't look especially fragile to Penny, no more so than anyone else she'd ever met. But looks could be deceiving. Maybe Duncan was like an upsetting book with an ordinary, happy cover. Maybe he was Bridge to Terebithia." (Page 140)
Penny is actually a bit like Hope from The Memory Bank, now that I think about it. Hope had a memory deficit, from spending more time dreaming than experiencing life. Penny has a memory deficit of her own, from spending her time reading books, instead of doing things herself. But Penny has much better parents. But when Penny gets the chance, she's 100% ready to experience life. Like this:
"But staring up into the green of the willows and down the winding dirt road, Penelope also felt a thrill. Gazing at the mountains beyond the house, she wanted to ramble, to do--in a hungry, wandering real way. Looking at all the tiny cottages, Penelope wanted to explore. She had never felt so excited, or so nervous. Penelope had never felt so much. (Page 76-77)
And Penny does have experiences and adventures in Thrush Junction. But, perhaps more importantly, she learns about friendship. She finds a wonderful friend in Luella, wild-haired, brown-skinned, and a little bit out of control. Here's probably my favorite passage from the whole book:
"In fact, Penny was so content, and Luella was so content, that for a number of days the two girls kept mostly to themselves and stayed busy, if you could call it busy, doing nothing and everything, the way friends do. They sat in their fort beneath the waving willow fronds, and they swung on the porch swing. They lounged around in a falling-apart hammock behind the house and listened as Old Joe practiced playing the fiddle one morning. They played Uno under a tree and drew pictures of what they thought they might look like when they grew up and were famous actresses and/or fairies and/or vampires and/or rock stars." (Page 165-166)
So perfect! The ending of Penny Dreadful is just right, too.
Two years ago, I read Any Which Wall during the 48 Hour Book Challenge, and loved it. That book was an homage to the work of Edward Eager and E. Nesbit. But Penny Dreadful has echoes of the authors that I really love from my childhood -- Zilpha Keatley Snyder and Elizabeth Enright. Laurel Snyder seamlessly integrates a modern sensibility, too. Penny Dreadful is a book that I finished with sigh of satisfaction.
Penny Dreadful is going on my keep shelf, to be read aloud to Baby Bookworm when she's older. Highly recommended for middle grade readers, or anyone who loves books and the adventures that they bring.
Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids)
Publication Date: September 28, 2010
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
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