This blog is basically about how good books are nice and bad books are the pits. And then I get grumpy.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

This one fits right in - Review of The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall

It seems as though there have been very few books which fit the theme of this blog quite so well as does The Penderwicks, A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy by Jeanne Birdsall.

This delightful read had me from line 1. It's the type of children's book that I wish I saw more of these days, reminiscent of Louisa May Alcott, L.M. Montgomery, Maud Hart Lovelace, C.S. Lewis and so many others who were on the literary scene in those eras when childhood really seemed to be childlike. That is not at all to say it's out of touch. It's not to say it's childish. Far from it. This middle-grade novel presents the whimsy of a child's summer in a natural wonderland while deftly touching such subjects as death, memory, first love, sibling relationships. I enjoyed its retro-yet-timeless feel; it may have taken place a hundred years ago, so little does the garishness of twenty-first century life invade its bucolic magic.The eldest daughter in this story of four sisters actually writes letters to her friend while on vacation. Forget emails. But a computer is mentioned, and subtle details allow the reader's subconscious to know it's a contemporary story without overpowering the tale and robbing it of the kind of natural spell children's stories so often used to weave. You know, I'm talking back in the days before the A-list and Clique novels brought wetbars into kids' books. Wetbars or enchanting gardens? Which will I choose? If only all decisions in life were so easy.

The characters are believable down to the youngest, an adorably-drawn four year old who sticks to her dog and costume butterfly wings with an endearing stubborness that makes an older reader want to adopt her and a younger reader identify with her. The middle sisters are a scream. Young Jane, a budding writer, sometimes finds herself narrating her life in the third person and Skye, math whiz, has great one-liners. The eldest spends much of the book lovesick and is presented respectfully by Birdsall, who bestows the same respect on the entire cast of characters. Each is written with compassion.

I had to put the book down for a split second out of admiration when I read a passage describing the little Batty playing in a field with birds singing overhead and worms gliding through the earth below. There's an obvious love of nature present in the book, as well as a love of words. Birdsall possesses the happy ability to create place and character names which simultaneously charm and remain credible.

I have occasionally heard of children today who are described as "old-fashioned," the kind who read Anne of Green Gables or A Little Princess. If you're stumped for a new read for such a child, I suggest The Penderwicks. It deserves its place among these wonderful books.

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