Children's Book Review - The Penderwicks

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Penderwicks
Author: Jeanne Birdsall
Reading level: Ages 9-12
Paperback: 272 pages

Review Contributor: Tanya of

I have wanted to read this book since it came out, and now that it is in paperback and the sequel has been published I am happy to say that I read it and loved it as much as I thought I would. This is definitely one of the best children's books published in 2005 and I don't know why it didn't win at least a Newbery Honor. Jeanne Birdsall has accomplished an amazing feat with The Penderwicks, and I believe she pulls it off because of the debt she owes to the classic children's books of her childhood, a debt that she repays by mentioning them, sometimes cryptically, throughout her wonderful book. She makes a nod to the queen of children's literature who was writing at the turn of the century, E. Nesbit, by referring to her characters from The Treasure Seekers, The Wouldbegoods and The New Treasure Seekers, The Bastables, motherless just like the Penderwick sisters. She also mentions Magic By the Lake by Edward Eager, who wrote the spectacular Half Magic.

This debt to the classics is evident in the characteristics that Ms Birdsall gives to her characters. Above all, the girls speak of pride and honor and they act out these qualities in the book in realistic ways. This is sort of an antiquated notion today. While our kids may have their pride challenged now and again on the playground, ball field, or infront of a video game, they are rarely called upon to act with honor. Perhaps because they are such a unit, the Penderwick sisters, Rosalind, who is twelve, Skye who is eleven, Jane who is ten have a strong sense of responsibility for each other and for the youngest, Batty, who is four. As with all good children's stories, some adults must be absent, like the deceased mother of the Penderwicks, which no doubt gives them their sense of responsibility for each other, as well as their father who takes long walks to study the plants, which gives them the opportunity to have adventures.

One of the true treats of this book are the characters of Skye and Jane. Skye is an explorer who, being the second of four, can remember the day she had to share her room with another sister and misses the solitude and tidiness of her old life.  She is also outspoken and uncensored with her sense of fairness. She is thrilled when, upon entering their vacation home, a cottage on the estate of Arundel (a town in England where the pastor and writer of fairy tales in the mid 1800s, most notably The Light Princess, George MacDonald, was once a pastor), she gets the cleanest, whitest, tidiest room. Jane, who thinks of almost nothing but the character that she created, Sabrina Starr, an adventurer, and the plots for stories she will write, is also a soccer star.

The other sisters, Rosalind and Batty, seemed more like brackets that held the other two in and gave them situations to play off of. Rosalind, by necessity, is the sensible, kind, thoughtful mother substitute. She does a little but too much herding and baking and watching out for her sisters for my taste, but all stories need a warm figure to comfort the children who get into scrapes. Churchie, the cook at the big house, never quite fits this bill. Also, Rosalind has a crush on Cagney, the teenager who is taking over for his uncle as estate gardener. This bothers me because, while I know it happens, I did not want my daughter getting crushes on boys, real boys, when she was twelve and I wouldn't let her read books that had that as a subject. While I greatly admire Ms Birdsall's novel, and while I do understand the added tension to the plot that a crush provides, and, while I think she handles the situation that the heartbreak that Rosalind suffers beautifully, I do wish she could have found something other character traits for Rosalind besides being motherly and baking brownies and having a crush - that another adult notices and comments on - on Cagney.

As for Batty, she is a great character and has some winning traits, like refusing to talk to people she doesn't like and being painfully shy and uncomfortable in the presence of people she is unfamiliar with. I just wish she had been a little bit older - five or six - since I felt like her character was functioning more on that level. However, she was a realistic enough creation that I kept picturing a little friend of mine who just turned six and shares many of Batty's endearing qualities, when I read of her. And, of course, there is Hound, the enormous dog, who is Batty's protector and playmate.

The rest of the plot involves Jeffrey, the only child of the owner of the estate of Arundel, Mrs. Tifton. Their back story is interesting and Jeffrey is a well written character - the inspiration for an imprisoned boy who needs rescuing by Sabrina Starr in Jane's latest installment of her saga. Mrs Tifton and her boyfriend Dexter are a bit two dimensional, but they need to be. There are so many other great characters in this novel that we only really need them as foils, and foils they are. Both Skye and Jane get their chance to tangle with them and come out a little sad and broken but triumphant.

I wish that there were a hundred more books like this on the shelves of the bookstore right now. I believe she plans to write five in this series. The second, The Penderwicks on Gardam, is available now in hardcover only. Hopefully, in the near future, I will have time to review some of the classics I have loved by E Nesbit, Edward Eager and others.

Buy the Book - here.
Visit the Author's site - here.

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