Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall

I picked up The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall at my school’s annual Book Fair. I like to buy a few things to support the school since we are able to buy library books with the earnings from the fair. I generally buy books I can use in my teaching—this year I also bought Bear Gets Sick to use as a read-aloud book. But when I was perusing the books for the older kids I was immediately attracted to The Penderwicks and its sequel, The Penderwicks of Gardam Street because of the look of the books. They are jacketed and have an old-fashioned nostalgic appearance. I read the inside cover, of course, and the stories seemed like my cup of tea.

(As part of the ongoing 2009 Book Challenge, I am trying to read more variety of books, and to be more disciplined about reading my to-be-read pile books. The Penderwicks has been sitting in the tbr since October. I am alternating between re-reading the J. D. Robb “In Death” series and some new book from the tbr. I like reading children’s books and I have some favorites from my childhood that I re-read every now and then. Maybe my childhood favorites can be a post sometime. . That’s probably more background than you needed…)

The Penderwicks was a wonderful read. Its target audience is girls in the upper elementary (Grades 4-6). I suppose an advanced reader from second or third grade could read them too, if they read them with a parent to help with the harder words. The set up of the story reminds me a great deal of Elizabeth Enright’s The Four-Story Mistake.

The Penderwicks are a family of four girls and their widower father. They are headed out for their annual summer vacation. They are going to a new place—since the cottage on Cape Cod where they usually go has been sold. The four sisters Rosalind, Skye, Jane, and Batty are, respectively, twelve, eleven, ten, and four. They are charming! Each has a distinct personality. Rosalind, the responsible oldest child, is the care-taker of them all. Skye is the tomboy mathematician who also likes science experiments. Jane is the wildly imaginative author of Sabrina Starr stories. Batty is the adorable and quirky animal lover who wears bug-wings through-out the story. Their father is some kind of plant expert who has a tendency to speak in Latin. Oh, I can’t forget the last member of the family, Hound. The family dog is closely attached to Batty and has an extra-sense about when she is in trouble. He also has an inconvenient tendency to eat things he shouldn’t and then throw up.

The story begins as they arrive at their summer rental cottage to discover it is attached to a mansion with a magnificent garden. The owner, Mrs. Tipton, has a young son—Jeffrey—who is a budding musician. Jeffrey is an only child with a mother who doesn’t listen to his wants and needs very well. She plans to send Jeffrey to military school so he can begin his future career as a soldier. Since Jeffrey wants to study music and become a conductor, he is not too happy about the plan. As you can imagine after Jeffrey becomes friends with the Penderwicks, nothing is ever the same.

This is a wonderful story—the children reel from adventure to disaster—and along the way themes of friendship, honor, honesty, courage, and self-expression are explored. The girls are loyal and smart. As with most children’s fiction, Mr. Penderwick is off-stage and the girls frequently do things without his knowledge. They don’t try going to him until it’s a last resort to handle their problems. The good news is—they have well-developed consciences and a clear sense of what’s right and wrong. It’s hard as an adult to read books where the children don’t head straight for the nearest adult---I get a little annoyed by it (the Harry Potter books drive me nuts that way.) but the books aren’t being marketed for adults! When Mr. Penderwick does enter the scene he demonstrates a loving character and encourages the positive moral development of the girls.

What I really liked—the girls were likeable, unique, smart, funny, talented, loyal, and imaginative. The story has the feel of the books I used to read as a child. The girls are out and about all the time. They read, they run, they write books, they do math problems, they play soocer, and shoot arrows. They don’t park in front of a video game or the TV all day. These girls are great role models for the girls can do anything school of thought.

What I didn’t like—hmmm, I’m drawing a blank. I guess I liked everything about it. If any of my nieces were of the right age, I’d recommend the book to them. As it is, I’m thinking of a few girls I know who I’ll mention the books too.

Warning—for parents who like to know about potential mature theme content in books before their children read them. Mrs. Penderwick died of cancer a few days after Batty was born. Her death is remembered briefly and there are references to it. The older girls miss her and grieve for her. Jeffrey is a child of divorce who has no contact with his father. He doesn’t even know his father’s name. Those elements may spark some questions and discussion as not all children will understand those situations. One other theme—Rosalind develops a crush on the nineteen year old gardener. It is handled very well—her tender-heart is broken in the end (hey—she’s only twelve) but her first experience of puppy-love ends positively.