The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits and a Very Interesting Boy, by Jeanne Birdsall, 262pp RL 4

On the off chance that there are still a few readers out there who have not heard of this fantastic book, the first in a wonderful series, I am reposting my review from a few years ago with an updated list of similar titles kids will love.

When I started this blog in 2008 the first books I reviewed were favorites of mine and books that I recommend over and over while at work at the bookstore. The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall, first published in 2005 and The Doll People (2003) by Ann M Martin and Laura Godwin were among those early reviews and remain two books that I can interest almost any (girl) reader in on any given day. Written at roughly a fifth grade reading level, these books are fantastic for bedtime read-out-loud for listeners from ages four through ten. They are also ideal for younger advanced readers because the stories are gentle and without too much suspense but also rich with creativity, strong characters and beautifully written. And, I have even known a few boys to enjoy hearing these books read out loud to them. I noticed that this review had very few page views and I'm assuming it's because it's just so well known and loved. But, I'd hate to think that there is anyone out there who hasn't heard of this wonderful book so I am reposting, almost four years to the day it first ran, it as well as adding links to reviews of books I have read in the past for years that are similar in tone and content.

As you might guess by looking at the cover, The Penderwicks has a classic tone and a very timeless feel which makes it appealing to kids and parents. Birdsall, who says her favorite children's author is E Nesbit (Five Children and It, The Railway Children, The Treasure Seekers) is clearly influenced by the classics, which she mentions, sometimes cryptically, throughout her The Penderwicks. As a young reader, I always loved books that mentioned other books because they always lead to something else worth reading. The four Penderwick sisters (well, the three who can read in book one) are all big readers and refer to characters the Bastables, characters from Nesbit's books The Treasure SeekersThe Wouldbegoods and The New Treasure Seekers, who are motherless just like the Penderwick sisters. Birdsall also mentions Magic By the Lake by Edward Eager, an author from the 1950s who was also influenced by Nesbit and also 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 and Jane who is ten, have a strong sense of responsibility for each other and for their youngest sister Batty, who is four. As with all good children's stories, some adults must be absent, like the the Penderwicks deceased mother, which no doubt gives them their sense of responsibility for each other, as well as their botanist father who takes long walks to study the plants, which gives them the opportunity to have adventures that test their pride and honor as they embark on their annual summer vacation, this year in the Berkshire Mountains where they are renting a cottage on the grounds of a larger estate that is inhabited by Mrs Tifton and her sheltered son, Jeffrey. The estate is named Arundel, which is also a town in England where George MacDonald, the writer of fairy tales in the mid 1800s, most notably The Princess and the Goblin was once a pastor. 

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 cottage, she gets the cleanest, whitest, tidiest room. Jane  thinks of almost nothing but the character that she created, Sabrina Starr, an adventurer, and the plots for stories she will write about Sabrina, is also a soccer star. The other sisters, Rosalind and Batty, seem more like brackets that hold the other two in and give them situations to play off of in this first book. 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 and Churchie, the cook at the big house, never quite fits this bill. Rosalind does get her own story line in the form of a crush on Cagney, the teenager who is taking over for his uncle as estate gardener. And this is the only aspect of the novel that rubs me the wrong way, just a bit. While I know it happens to girls of all ages, boys and crushes were a bridge I didn't want to have to cross any sooner than necessary with my daughter and thus tried to steer her away from books that had romantic notions until she was a teenager. While I still love this book to bits, I do with Jeanne Birdsall could have come up with a different story line for Rosalind. That said, Birdsall does handle the heartbreak that Rosalind suffers beautifully. 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 a bit 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. His backstory is interesting and Jeffrey is a well written character  and an inspiration for a character in one of Jane's stories - an imprisoned boy who needs rescuing by Sabrina Starr. 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. The second, The Penderwicks on Gardam, and The Penderwicks at Point Mouette, both of which are also in paperback. Birdsall plans to write five books in all about the Penderwick family and says on her website that it takers her three years to write each book, which means there might be a new book in the summer of 2013. Scroll down for more books that will keep readers busy and happy while they wait for the next Penderwicks book...

by Ann M Martin and Laura Godwin with illustrations by Brian Selznick

The Secret Garden and A Little Princess, both by Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Humming Room by Ellen Potter and Wishing for Tomorrow by Hilary McKay

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