Book Review: The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall

By Elizabeth Contos in Poetry & Literature


Children’s books. They are tricky things.
After perusing shelves in libraries and stores to hunt them out, one truth resurfaces over and over again – not just anyone can write a good children’s book.
It has always been the unspoken rule that, in order to make a book for younger audiences worthwhile, it should be a delight not only to them, but to older audiences as well. This is why many children’s books have become so very famous – The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, Harry Potter, any of Beatrix Potter’s works – because they are intelligently written. The key is, when you are writing children’s books, you are not really writing for the young, but for the young at heart.
Now for The Penderwicks. I found this little book in February while spending a good hour in a bookstore. I picked it up, leafed through it, and put it down again. I left the store and I never forgot it.
Around three months ago, I went into another bookstore and bought it.
When my coworkers asked me what I was reading, I would show them the volume and put forth some explanation of how I was writing a children’s book myself, and wanted to get an idea of what was in the market now. But that was only part of the truth. The whole of it was that The Penderwicks intrigued me, and I had to find out why.
The plot is a simple one. Four sisters spend several weeks at a summer cottage and make friends with the landlady’s son, cook and gardener. Nothing particularly extraordinary happens. But that is exactly why the book is interesting.
As the story unfolds through the perspective of each sister, it becomes a tale with dimension. Jeanne Birdsall, understands the workings of youth and personality on perspective, and sketches a believable scenario with a touch of the fantastical. Make no mistake, there are no magical creatures here….but the way in which we learn to see the world through the eyes of Batty, Skye, Jane and Rosalind recalls to us how we were once children, and felt and did the same things, and there is a wonder there and an innocence.
A stroke of genius in the book, too, is the tangible ‘grown-up’ story that affects the actions and emotions of the main characters. Some things are blown out of proportion in the narrative, which is exactly how it should be, because that is just what the mind of a child does: it magnifies what is of importance in its own circle of influence and relationships and leaves the ‘unimportant’ things hanging. What is going on with the elder characters is not necessarily stressed, but insinuated, and makes us as adults realize that not only does the author understand children, but she knows fully what it is to be an adult.
There are several things in the book that are a little silly and out of the ordinary. But Birdsall offers us a good mixture of humour and reason, which is a vital ingredient to this genre.
In conclusion, I would say: even if you are not a child, try picking this up and getting acquainted. There is a reason it won The National Book Award. I think it is worth a read….or two.