So you're forty-one. You've never written a book before, but you think you'd like to try your hand at it. You suspect, perhaps rightly, that you'd be pretty good at it. Before giving it a go though you live your life and fool around with photography (and by "fool around" I mean "get your photographs into the Smithsonian's permanent collection"). Then you write a children's chapter book that draws on every source from Elizabeth Ende to Edward Eager (alliterative writers are a source of wonderful books) and your little novel is written. It then garners itself a National Book Award that same year. Such is the tale of Jeanne Birdsall and her remarkable book. Having read pointed criticisms as to whether or not "The Penderwicks" should really have won the aforementioned National Book Award I went into reading the title thinking something along these lines:
"Harumph. Obviously `Autobiography of My Dead Brother' (which I haven't read either) should have won the award. It's so meaningful. This book is probably just a rehash of old classics with some utesy-cutesyness to turn off serious readers. I'll just read a little..."
Five minutes later.
"Huh. This is pretty good. Well-written. Let's just dip in a little more..."
Eighteen chapters later.
Which brings us to this review. Up against serious book after deeply meaningful book, I commend the committee of the National Book Awards for acknowledging what the Newberys, the Oscars, and pretty much all other awards offered to artistic works fail to recognize. Comedy is only easy to read. It is near impossible to create. It takes far more skill to write a meaningful piece of work that makes you laugh than a meaningful piece of work that makes you cry. Kill a puppy and the tears fall like rain. Make that same puppy do something that makes you laugh and it's a miracle of authorial genius. On top of all that, "The Penderwicks" has something that not many books this year will be able to claim: It's great for all ages.
It never would have happened at all if the four Penderwick daughters and their father hadn't gotten a new cottage rental for their summer vacation. Arriving at heavenly Arundel, the headstrong Penderwick Skye proceeds to immediately discover and knock unconscious their new landlady's son, Jeffrey. After some apologies all is forgiven and Jeffrey meets each girl. There's twelve-year-old Rosalind who is a kind of mother figure to her sisters. Eleven-year-old Skye is deeply intelligent and has a temper that in any other book would make her a redhead. Ten year old Jane is the dreamy romantic Penderwick, prone to writing overindulgent adventure tales. Finally, there's four-year-old Batty, clad permanently in detachable butterfly wings and accompanied by the family dog, Hound. With Jeffrey by their side the girls must deal with Rosalind's crush, Sky's capacity for messing up, Jane's publication fantasies, and Batty's shyness. Top it all off with Jeffrey's mother, Mrs. Tipton, believing that her son should be sent to a military academy ASAP and you've got a fine frolicksome summer adventure to be read for years and years to come.
I love pinpointing the moment a book wins me over. It's never when you would expect such a moment to take place. For me it was a rather quiet scene at twilight. It's a balmy summer night, such as you might experience in the Berkshire Mountains, and the girls are catching fireflies. Suddenly, it was perfectly clear that Birdsall had somehow or other managed to capture the lazy magic of a summer night in her writing. People have killed to do so much. With "The Penderwicks", you hold in your hand a crystallized encapsulation of all that is lovely about warm July evenings at home. Remarkable.
Don't let my flattery fool you. The book, for all its charms, was not incapable of the occasional misstep. Not too long ago my mother-in-law was pointing out the sheer proliferation of books and films in which a girl lives with a widowed father who dotes upon her. Now how many widowed fathers do you know personally? I'm sure there are plenty out there, but to read books like "The Penderwicks" is to believe that women, particularly mothers, are rarities (at least in their living state). In the olden days a mother could be done away with in childbirth. "The Penderwicks" does the same thing but this time the mother dies of cancer a more-than-slightly-unbelievable two weeks after giving birth to Batty. Seems to me that Birdsall is pushing the envelope a little here with the scant lag time between labor and the choir invisible.
Still, there's no denying the charms of the tale. "The Penderwicks" avoids overly emotional dribble. This is the kind of story where the father will say good-naturedly to an overly enthusiastic canine, "Be still, demon dog". The story puts down fashion modeling and obligatory military service all within the course of a single paragraph. And most importantly to my mind, it does well by Batty. How many insufferable four-year-olds populate children's literature? Too many. Often they'll be overly cutesy-pie and big eyed. Think of Destiny in "Surviving the Applewhites". These tots usually mispronounce words and, when corrected, mispronounce them in entirely different ways. They do horrible unconscionable things but are forgiven because they up the "awww" factor of the book. Admittedly, Batty isn't immune to this sort of stuff, but she's a lot less bad than most of the over-indulged young `uns out there. By the way, extra points to the Penderwicks for not being a delightfully "eccentric" family. Eccentric tales ala "Ordinary Jack" are easy to write but often quite hard to make good. "The Penderwicks" relies solely on the charms of the writing, and is perfectly peachy as a result.
So let's sum up here. Good writing? Check. Three-dimensional characters (with the possible exception of the mother's boyfriend)? Check. A plot that actually doesn't rip off any authors I've read and certainly no one within the last thirty-five years? Check. Seems to me we've got a pretty nice winner on our hands here, ladies and gentlemen. So let us tip our hat to "The Penderwicks" and wish it all the luck in the world. A stunning debut and a book that, without relying on fantasy or magic, will be loved and adored the world over.
on December 15, 2005
When the Penderwick family's summer holiday plans are changed, the widowed Mr. Penderwick decides to take his four young daughters --- ages 4 through 12 --- to a cottage in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. Instead, though, they find themselves on a beautiful grand estate called Arundel. For the close sisters, Arundel gives them a realm of possibility and each their own treasure-trove of memories and discoveries.
There's practical Rosalind, who, while gladly looking after her three younger sisters, develops a crush on an older teen gardener named Cagney, much to her surprise.
Next there's spirited, loudmouthed Skye, who refuses to back down against far bigger challenges than completing algebra problems.
Then there's the imaginative Jane, whose artistic skills are put to the test as she writes her most important Sabrina Starr adventure yet.
And last but not least, there's shy little Batty, who always wears her butterfly wings as she and her loyal Hound explore the magical gardens and surrounding lands together.
Meanwhile, the Penderwick sisters also find a great companion in Jeffrey Tifton, the owner's son. Jeffrey --- along with the kind housekeeper Churchie, Harry the Tomato Man, and Cagney --- helps the holiday to be a wonderful one that includes tame rabbits and the best gingerbread they ever had. Unfortunately, the terrible, snobbish Mrs. Tifton and her smirky boyfriend Dexter Dupree look down on the children and their adventures. When the Penderwick sisters discover the miserable future that lies in store for their new friend, they realize they must help him --- or else this could be his last happy summer forever!
This is a lighthearted children's book that is also somewhat realistic. Readers won't like how Mrs. Tifton treats the girls, but they will enjoy the sisters' special bond, such as when they have their secret MOOPS. As with summer holidays, the book ends too quickly but will continue to be just as memorable as the years go by.
THE PENDERWICKS is Jeanne Birdsall's first novel and the winner of the 2005 National Book Award.
--- Reviewed by Sarah Sawtelle [...]
on October 19, 2005
I initially purchased this book for the kids at the library where I work because it takes place in The Bershire Mountains where we live and because it sounded like an old fashin read for young people. After finishing it yesterday in the wee hours of the morning I discovered several new reasons to recommend this book for all ages! It is a wonderful story about resilience and adventure. It has some very, very tame and gentle romance for readers who are a little bit older. It is exciting and at the same time understated. My favorite character had to be Jane, the next to the youngest Penderwick. I wasn't fond of Skye, but she had to be there. The book would not have been the same without her. Mr. Penderwick was the kind of father everyone would have loved to have had and the ending was charming, if not a bit sappy...but who cares?! It is a happy book for kids in this day and age of war and terrorism and juvenile/young adult books where someone is always dying, or addicted, or getting raped.
This book would be a great read-aloud for a class room or a family. Definetly refreshing, I cannot wait for the next installment!
on February 16, 2006
Reminiscent of Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women" and the summer fun stories of Elizabeth Enright, Jeanne Birdsall's first book, "The Penderwicks", is a wonderfully warm and humorous family story. When their regular summer plans are suddenly canceled the Penderwick family find themselves bound for a country cottage. They find, to their surprise, that the cottage is nestled in the back of the imposing Arundel estate, owned by the equally imposing Mrs. Tifton. In the course of their stay the four Penderwick sisters, Rosalind, Skye, Jane, and Batty, meet and befriend Jeffery Tifton, son of the estate owner. This friendship leads to various adventures and mishaps. The character of each of the sisters is perfectly developed by Mrs. Birdsall, and the various relationships expertly explored. Rosalind as the oldest sister has had to take on the role of mother to her three younger sisters since the death of Mrs. Penderwick, and is often seen to labor under this burden. Skye is the image of her mother, but she has a temper and opinions all her own, and Jane, the author of the family, finds inspiration for her best ever story in the happenings at Arundel. Batty, the youngest Penderwick at four and a half, and her ever faithful Hound are the jewels of the story. The tale of their exploits winds along at the perfect pace, never lagging or becoming dull. This is a wonderful story for children of any age. Please introduce your children to this charming family; you may even enjoy getting to know them yourself.
Jeanne Birdsall's first book, "The Penderwicks", is truly delightful. At a time when the world of children's literature is flooded with books rewarded for "challenging our children's views of the world" and often, I believe, chipping away at whatever innocence today's society has allowed them to retain, it is a joy to come across the Penderwicks. This book's style harkens back to a time when a book could simply enthrall and entertain, without harrowing up the soul of the reader. It is wonderful to find that a book can still be rewarded for humor, love, and good story telling.
I often buy books such as this delightful tale to read to my grandchildren, but I purchased this one for myself. I admit I'm a big kid at heart and I love to read children's books as well as write them. I find the diversity of plots fascinating; children's book authors have the best imaginations of any writers, in my humble opinion.
Other reviewers have given you detailed insight into the plot, so I won't go there, but I found the four sisters captivating in their inventiveness and humor, while their new friend, Jeffrey and the rabbits were quite entertaining in a different way. I also loooooved the dog, Hound, and wish he'd been mentioned in the title. Another favorite character is Churchie, the kind housekeeper.
I giggled almost all the way through this book, but it had its poignant moments too. You'll delight in the ingenious ways the girls try to help Jeffrey escape a bleak future planned for him by his "less than likable" mother and her irritating boyfriend.
Ms. Birdsall certainly has a way with words, and her character and scene descriptions bring the book alive. Certainly she has had a brilliant past in her photography career, but if this book is any indication, she will be one of the "movers and shakers" in the literary field as well.
On a personal level, I was pleased to learn that the four Penderwick sisters shared a close bond, because it was reminiscent of me and my three sisters whiling away our childhood in Ohio. I, being the youngest, thought I would see myself like Batty in the book. But as it turned out, I'm more like Jane with a touch of the "spirit" of Skye. These girls and other characters were so realistically depicted I'm sure readers will see themselves in one or more of them, as I did.
Congratulations, Jeanne Birdsall, on this wonderful debut novel; you deserved to win the 2005 National Book Award for this enchanting book that's bound to be treasured by children all around the world ... for generations to come.
SIDENOTE: You may have noticed that Amazon has made some changes to its website. If it looks the same to you right now, look out for a new format that will be rolling out gradually in the weeks to come. If you can see the changes, especially the review format, I'd like to know what you think. Please leave me a comment with your opinion.
"Love the new look" or "Hate the new look" comments are perfectly acceptable.
My e-mail address is at top of this review. Thank you for your time."
on July 10, 2006
This is my favorite book!! I found out about it when we were going on a vacation, it was a 10 hour drive and I asked my mom if we could go to the bookstore, she said yes. I saw the book read the first page and knew I would like it right away. If you like snappy,funny, and heart warming adventure books then you will like this one. This book is about 4 sisters who go on a vacation and rent a cottage in an estate called Arundel. There is Rosalind the pratical,and oldest Penderwick, Skye the smartest and stubborn one, Jane the writer who writes the "Sabrina Starr" books and often narrates her life aloud, and Batty the shy one who always wears her beloved butterfly wings,and of course Hound Penderwick. They meet a boy named Jefferey on the estate who becomes their companion on each adventure,as well as Cagney the gardener, Churchie who makes the best gingerbread in the country, two rabbits named yaz and carla, and unfortunately Mrs.Tifton and her Boyfriend Dexter. I hope this review helps you READ THIS BOOK!!
on April 8, 2006
I have bought this book for my 8 year old daughter and hopefully she will like it. I LOVED it, spending yesterday afternoon on the family room sofa with a cold, a cup of tea and The Penderwicks - perfect afternoon. It does have the cosy feel that many books from older generations possess describing the everyday lives of a lovely family (Nesbit, Estes, etc. ), and I understand Birdsall exactly when she describes going to the library in hope that her favourite authors had written something new and when there was nothing realising she would have to do it herself. I'm so glad she did and look forward to more tales from both the Penderwicks and any other characters Birdsall has lurking in her imagination.
All four daughters are beautifully created - Rosalind has just the right amount of big sister responsibility and this is realistically balanced in a perfectly modern way when she not only dreams of Cagney the gardener, but especially feels awkward about him - I know at 12 I would have felt empathy for her and enormous comfort that she felt so out of her depth! Jane the dreamer is an absolute delight - she is my favourite character as she balances that dreamy, imaginative writer quality (soft echoes of Anne Shirley) with that fiercesome soccer alter-ego - again, Birdsall has created an endearing girl who embodies not just the sentimental delights of older books but has a contemporary streak that is utterly realistic and funny. Skye is my least favourite of the sisters but she too is touching and realistic - definitely a young girl who has yet to settle into herself - very like many of the girls I teach (you see I want them all to be Janes and Rosalinds!). As for Batty - Birdsall delivers the perfect young child. I loathe little children in books who are given ridiculous speech impediments, cannot make their own way about, and have almost no personality (eg. Merry in "Each little bird...") They grate on my nerves and can easily spoil the rest of the book, and with 18 cousins and years working with children I have never met a child that behaves like this - I have, however, met many Battys and she is lovely. Jeffrey and Cagney are the two sides of the boy I always wanted to meet - the lonely, wealthy, talented and immensely likable and down to earth boy when I was in my early teens and the strong, sensible, caring, working hard to make his own way in the world boy when I was in my latter teens (on a rosy morning I think I married him!). Hound the dog is a delight - he behaves just as dogs should - the innocence he protests each night "No, no I won't get on the bed, heavens no!" and then thump as he does the minute Rosalind walks out of the room - Hound made me laugh. They are all good, good, good.
The writing flows effortlessly, the descriptions are laid back but still evocative, the pace is perfect and the dialogue always spot on. The plot is simple but enjoyable and the resolution great. The dramas and mishaps experienced by the girls during their three weeks are smoothly and believably told - Batty and the bull is definitely my favourite and the scene where Skye needs Cagney's help out of the tree sends a little thrill down your spine. The balance between Skye, Jane and Jeffrey was really well done - there was always that little bit of competition between the two sisters - the soccer game scene was fantastic - the writing here was great, and my heart was racing as I watched them darting amongst the trees and leaping after each other and the ball. And the attention and friendliness displayed by both Jeffrey and Cagney to Batty was sweet without being silly. The little references here and there to other books are sweet and hopefully inspiring and whilst there are some "standard" scenes that are a little bit coy they are sheer pleasure. I LONGED for those things to happen when I was young (eg. the attic and its treasures, Churchie and her gingerbread). Birdsall also captures their emotions so well, especially that sense of "Oh no, the holiday is already half over", and that despair as you try to hold onto each of the last days of the holiday as long as you can whilst still enjoying them.
"The Penderwicks" is a wonderful book and I would recommend it to all who enjoy reading and particularly those with a romantic sensibility (I don't think it would suit those pre-teens/early teens who are madly painting their nails, straightning their hair and champing at the bit to get to their first party where there's no adult supervision, lots of boys, and lots of other hair-raising elements). I read widely and appreciate books with varied themes but I like that a book with good people (and the ghastly Mrs. Tifton and Dexter - ugh!) and a mostly happy everyday life can still garner so much positive attention. Long live this particular genre of fiction and write more Ms. Birdsall!
on July 9, 2005
What an elegant, seemingly-effortless surprise. This one is for keeps -- I've set it alongside E. Nesbit and Mistress Masham's Repose.
on April 15, 2006
I thought that The Penderwicks was wonderful. The book is about the four Penderwick sisters. Together with their father and their dog, they rent a summer cottage in the Berkshires for three weeks. The cottage turns out to be located on the grounds of a large estate, Arundel Hall, which includes a fairy-tale mansion and extensive gardens. The estate also boasts the modern-day equivalent of the wicked witch, Arundel Hall's owner, Mrs. Tifton, as well as her minion/boyfriend Dexter.
During their tenure at Arundel Hall the Penderwicks befriend Mrs. Tifton's 11-year-old son, Jeffrey, as well as the 18-year-old gardener Cagney (a Red Sox fan!), the motherly housekeeper Churchy, and a pair of rabbits. The sisters are a breath of fresh air for Jeffrey, who lives a relatively isolated life on the family estate and is faced with the imminent and dreadful prospect of attending military school. Together and separately, the five children embark on a series of adventures.
This book has a very old-fashioned feel, featuring children let loose on a large estate, with gardens and statues and attics and secret passages through the shrubbery. It reminded me of The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit, and the many excellent books by Elizabeth Enright. It also reminded me, a bit, of Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon, both by L. M. Montgomery. There's no magic in The Penderwicks, and no improbably coincidences. It's a story of regular kids having a memorable summer, with a conveniently vague father hovering as a benevolent presence in the background.
What makes this book special is the depth of the characterization of the Penderwick sisters. The oldest is 12-year-old Rosalind, the maternal and responsible caretaker over her motherless sisters. Next comes 11-year-old Skye, prickly and difficult, with a love of math and of order. 10-year-old Jane is the writer and dreamer of the group, with a love of stories and big words that evokes a young Anne Shirley. Finally, four-year-old Batty rounds out the sisters, with her shyness, and her passionate love for the family dog, Hound. The girls' characters are so well-drawn, and so distinct from one another, that the dialog attributions (Rosalind said, etc.) are almost completely unnecessary. I found this to be true before the end of the very first chapter. The viewpoint of the book shifts seamlessly between the four sisters, leaving the reader with a feeling of knowing them all well by the end of the story.
The supporting characters are not quite so well fleshed out, but I think that this is deliberate, to keep the focus on the Penderwick sisters. And of course, we don't hear the story from the perspective of any of the other characters, so we can't know them as well. But I did empathize for both Mr. Penderwick and for Jeffrey at different points in the story.
The Penderwicks won the 2005 National Book Award for Young People's Literature. I think that it was much deserved. I'm pleased that the National Book Foundation chose a book that is well-written, while also being a story that people will enjoy reading. If you have a child in the 9 to 12 age range, I strongly recommend that you get them a copy of this book. And if you don't have a child in that age range, then you'll just have to get it for yourself. Because the book contains hardly any pop cultural references (beyond Cagney's ubiquitous Red Sox cap), I think that it will hold up many years from now without seeming dated. I know that it's one that I will want to re-read in the future. I highly recommend that you spend some time with The Penderwicks this summer. You'll be glad that you did.
This book review was originally published on my blog, Jen Robinson's Book Page, on April 15th, 2006.
on February 11, 2006
Breaking out of their summer routine, the Penderwick sisters, along with their dad, stay at Arundel Cottage for a few weeks. With beautiful gardens and new friends, the girls' excitement builds as the days progress. Until, of course, trouble arises - mainly in the form of Mrs. Tifton and her creep of a boyfriend, Dreadful Dopey Dexter Dupree. Each girl must experience some personal sorrow, in addition to collective worry over the fate of their new friend, Jeffrey. As the plot develops, so too does the girls' knowledge of themselves and what it means to be "family."
Nonetheless, it is not the plot which makes this book wonderful -although it is both exciting and suspenseful. Nor is it the characters themselves who made me love reading it - though they are colorful, unique, lovable, realistic. No, it is the amusing dialogue and swift, spirited interplay between the characters, especially the sisters, which made Birdsall's story well worth reading. Few authors can capture everyday language and make it into something enthralling. Birdsall can. She wrote an excellent book, which I highly recommend to readers of all ages.
Reviewed by a student reviewer for Flamingnet Book Reviewers
Preteen, teen, and young adult book reviews and recommendations.