Several months ago, before I had begun my blog, I was writing very brief reviews of the books I was reading to post on facebook and encourage my friends to try out a few of the lovely books I was newly discovering. One of those was Jeanne Birdsall’s The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy. I adored it, and promptly posted this on facebook:
Good children's literature knocks young adult literature out of the water. I've just finished The Penderwicks, by Jeanne Birdsall, and it was perfectly marvelous. I wish it had been around when I was growing up. In this delightful story, four sisters spend a summer with their father renting a cottage on the estate of a mansion, and while the owner, Mrs. Tifton, isn't a very nice person, her son Jeffrey is, and he and the girls get up to adventures both fanciful and serious. Each of the girls has a beautifully complex personality, and my favorite by far was Batty: four years old, completely enamored of the gardener's pet rabbits, and reluctant to ever take off her butterfly wings.
Of course, reading the sequels was a no-brainer! And Birdsall didn’t disappoint. Her second novel about the delightful Penderwick sisters, Rosalind, Skye, Jane, and Batty, is another great children’s book, which I read on the way back from my recent trip out to North Carolina. Most sequels can’t quite live up to their predecessors, and this is no exception – the overarching premise is a little contrived. The Penderwicks’ mother apparently left a letter telling Mr. Penderwick that he should start dating again, and Mr. Penderwick’s sister tries to enforce these instructions. He’s appalled and the girls freak out and begin contriving a plan to avoid a potential stepmother by setting their father up on awful dates. Only an adult reader would get the fabulous humor that results when Mr. Penderwick foils everyone’s plans by dating a mysterious woman named Marianne…one Marianne Dashwood who loves going on walks, catches cold, and travels to London, whose sorrows and joys can have no moderation… And this fabulous homage to Jane Austen is not a throwaway, but a fairly essential plot point.
Of course, no children’s book can be solely about parents. All four of the Penderwick girls have some adventures and some hard lessons to learn. Rosalind struggles to understand her mother’s instructions to her father, trying to come to terms with the idea that her mother could one day be replaced by a stepmother. On top of all this, she and her neighbor, Tommy Geiger, clearly like each other but have the typical adolescent inability to figure out what to do about it. Skye and Jane switch homework assignments, and it all blows up into a huge problem when the play Jane wrote is selected for Sixth Grade Performance Night, starring Skye as the lead. Skye also struggles to maintain her temper as new captain of the soccer team. And Batty makes friends with the new neighbor, astrophysicist Iantha and her baby Ben, but can’t shake her fear of the mysterious Bug Man haunting the neighborhood.
The Penderwicks on Gardam Street is a bit less well-researched than the first Penderwick book; for example, no concert would feature all six Brandenburg Concertos, since the performance would be over two hours of music alone, not counting space between movements, applause, and intermission! But that’s just my nerdiness coming out. I laughed a lot during this book, and occasionally read out sections to my husband as he drove. For example: “It’s not like we can trick them into [dating],” added Skye. “Not after last night. Daddy told us no interference, remember?” “If we have to trick him, we will. We can always confess again,” said Rosalind (277). With The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, Birdsall created another charming book, one I highly recommend both for childhood and adult consumption. And especially for Jane Austen fans!