Top 100 Children's Novels #29: The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall
#29 The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy by Jeanne Birdsall (2005)
There are two families I would love to live next door to: the Cassons and the Penderwicks. Adorable in it’s classic charm, you can’t help but fall in love with the absent-minded professor father and his four sweet, normal, delightful daughters. – Melissa Fox
The characters are so well-defined, they felt real to me – like friends. Fierce Skye is my favourite; I wish I had had her to read about when I was young and uncompromising. – Emily Myhr
I’m including this book because it’s the perfect marriage between true classics of children’s literature and contemporary children’s fiction. The Penderwick girls live in our 21st Century Society, but they have the same imaginative and exciting outdoor adventures as any Moffat, Melendy, Swallow, Amazon, or Boxcar Child. Batty emerges as one of the strangest and best little sisters I’ve ever read about, and the girls’ empathy for Jeffrey in his struggle against his domineering mother allows them to have an enemy, but one who is not likely to physically harm or destroy them. There are a lot of books about girls that end up mired in friendship drama, boy/girl entanglements, and fights against evil teachers and overprotective parents. The Penderwicks takes a different route, which is refreshing, and which preserves the fun and innocence of childhood for just a while longer. – Katie Ahearn
Proof that you don’t need to live in the days of corsets and long skirts to experience satisfying sisterhood. Batty, Jane, Skye, and Rosalind may your days be long; I know your mark on children’s lit will be. – DaNae Leu
When The Penderwicks swept away the competition at the 2005 National Book Awards for Young People’s Literature it was the first moment I’d heard of this clever mix of homage and downright awesome storytelling. Some of us still scratch our heads from time to time and wonder why it never got that ALA accredited award it so deeply deserved.
The synopsis from the publisher reads, “This summer the Penderwick sisters have a wonderful surprise: a holiday on the grounds of a beautiful estate called Arundel. Soon they are busy discovering the summertime magic of Arundel’s sprawling gardens, treasure-filled attic, tame rabbits, and the cook who makes the best gingerbread in Massachusetts. But the best discovery of all is Jeffrey Tifton, son of Arundel’s owner, who quickly proves to be the perfect companion for their adventures. The icy-hearted Mrs. Tifton is not as pleased with the Penderwicks as Jeffrey is, though, and warns the new friends to stay out of trouble. Which, of course, they will—won’t they? One thing’s for sure: it will be a summer the Penderwicks will never forget.”
On her website, Ms. Birdsall explains a bit about where some of the ideas for this book came from. “From my own past, and from the children around me—in particular, my niece and nephew who live nearby. My nephew’s passionate love for animals went right into Batty. His sister’s calm way of going about being the oldest helped me with Rosalind. My nephew was also kind enough to turn into a brilliant soccer player—and is now my expert when I write about Skye and Jane and their antics on the soccer field. I also borrow from other books, especially the ones I loved best when I was young. The idea of four sisters came from Little Women. Batty’s adventure with the bull came from Emily of New Moon.”
The Penderwicks was Ms. Birdsall’s amazing debut, but it didn’t come out of nowhere. In an interview with The Orange County Register she said, “All my life I had wanted to write children’s books. I spent at least five years in the process of writing ‘The Penderwicks.’ It took so long because I wasn’t just writing – I was learning how to craft a book, how to make chapters, how to create characters. It’s hard! By the time the book was published in 2005, I had been working on it about 10 years.”
When Little Willow asked about the subtitle and whether or not the “very interesting boy” might not refer to Cagney, Ms. Birdsall replied, “Aha! Another person with a literal brain. You’re absolutely right. Hound (whom I placated with a bone over his omission) plays a much larger role in the book than the two rabbits. And which boy is more interesting? Skye and Jane would answer one way, and Rosalind the other. And then there’s a father, and a bull, and . . . My wonderful editor, Michelle Frey, and I struggled mightily with this subtitle. We discovered that there really was no way to include everyone without making it too ungainly. So, in the end, we stopped worrying about details and chose what we hoped would evoke the mood of the book.”
People who love the book and those who are indifferent to it both say that the book feels like a throwback to the classics of yore. Elizabeth Enright and all that. I would agree that there are classic elements to it, but the book is very much its own beast. Not a cobbled together set of previously worn out ideas, but a whole new set of stories and characters, written in such a way as to cause folks to fall in love with it. Which, considering that it’s now at #29, they clearly do.
It won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2005 beating out a very teen selection that included Where I Want to Be by Adele Griffin, Inexcusable by Chris Lynch, Autobiography of My Dead Brother by Walter Dean Myers, and the younger and also lovely Each Little Bird That Sings by Deborah Wiles. And when she accepted the award, Ms. Birdsall had this to say: “I’ve gotten many, many wonderful reviews for this book but my very favorite comes from a third grader on Long Island named Scott. He said, ‘This book is about being a good listener even if you’re a grown up’.” Amen to that.
- You can read some of the tale here.
- NPR interviewed Ms. Birdsall about the book as well.
Child Magazine said of it, “Crisp, witty dialogue and supple storytelling propel this happy celebration of sisterhood, individuality, and the simple pleasures of summer.”
Said School Library Journal, “Problems are solved and lessons learned in this wonderful, humorous book that features characters whom readers will immediately love, as well as a superb writing style. Bring on more of the Penderwicks.”
The Times said, “Although the context is modern, the flavour is traditional, in the mould of Louisa May Alcott and E Nesbit. This is a gentle book, with a philosophy of kindness to others and a message that children should confide their troubles to adults, who should always listen.”
And in stiff-upper-lip style, Kirkus said, “Their adventures and near-disasters, innocent crushes, escaped animals, owning-up and growing up (and yes, changes of heart) are satisfying and not-too-sweet.”
There are paperback editions of the book to be had:
Ms. Birdsall was kind enough to put some of the foreign Penderwick covers on her website. You should go and look at them. Here are some of them:
And there’s a lovely two-part interview with Ms. Birdsall. The nice thing about these videos is that the comments are filled to the brim with kids, desperately asking for the release date for Penderwick book #3. That sort of dates it but have no fear. There will be five in total.
Filed under: Best Books, Top 100 Children's Novels (2012)
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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