Birdsall, Jeanne. The Penderwicks.

NY: Knopf, 2005.

I have a granddaughter just turned nine who has always read well beyond her theoretical level, and this book and its two sequels are presently her favorites. In fact, she insisted I read them. Probably not many adults without kids in the house read children’s books, but having been a public librarian all my life, I’m well used to reading almost anything and everything. (How else can you make suggestions to patrons?)

Birdsall is a new author to me, but this one — her debut novel — won the National Book Award for YP Lit, which in itself is an excellent recommendation.

The set-up is straightforward: The four Penderwick sisters of Massachusetts and their widowed father (a professor of botany) are headed off to a cottage in the Berkshires for their summer holiday. They represent quite an array of personality types, too. The practical Rosalind, at twelve, is the oldest. She has become her sisters’ substitute mother, the caregiver, and she’s pretty good at it. Skye, age eleven, is the smartest, adventurous, fiery-tempered, but also fanatically neat and tidy, the only blonde in the family, and is teaching herself algebra and irrational numbers just for the fun of it. Jane, age ten, is the most athletic, romantic and dramatic by nature, determined to become a published author, and has already written a stack of spiral-notebook novels about “Sabrina Starr,” heroine to small animals. And then there’s four-year-old Batty, the shyest, who insists on wearing her butterfly wings all day, everyday, and who seems to have a special ability to communicate with Hound, the family dog.

It appears they’re all going to have an ordinary, pleasant vacation — though what passes for “ordinary” among the Penderwick sisters would exhaust anyone else — but then they meet Jeffrey Tifton, young son of the rather unpleasant woman who owns the mansion behind which their summer cottage is located. Moreover, Rosalind meets Cagney, the friendly, good-looking young gardener, for whom she is soon baking brownies. Everyone has their problems, of course. Cagney has to suffer being employed by Mrs. Tifton. Batty has to deal with the restrictions put on her independent movement by her age. Rosalind has to figure out how to handle her crush, as well as keeping an eye on everyone else. Jane has to work out a ending to her latest book. Mr. Penderwick, though unflappable, has to deal with being the father of four bright, active daughters. And Jeffrey has to figure out how to avoid being packed off to military school and instead pursue his ambition to be a classical musician.

Birdsall creates a perfect balance among these disparate personalities, playing them off each other and telling her story from the viewpoints of each of the sisters in turn. It’s a delightful, often very funny book about absolutely real, believeable people that thoughtful adults will enjoy as much as adolescents. Most important, the author never condescends to the reader, assuming instead that anyone who picks up the book will be willing to put in a bit of work themselves — a somewhat chancy narrative decision whose success in this case comes through on every brilliant page. It has “classic” written all over it.


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