I have a mixed history with The Penderwicks books by Jeanne Birdsall. The first book, The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale Of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy came out in 2005 when #1 Son was eight and Darling Daughter was three. It won the National Book Award that year and there was much flurry over it.
It’s the sort of book I love — a family story, gentle adventures, quotidian details — and with a modern setting, as opposed to the more dated books that had inspired it like The Melendy Quartet, The Moffats, and the E. Nesbit books.
People pressed The Penderwicks upon me. “Look at the cover!” they said.
It was an adorable cover. So we read it.
I must’ve been in a mood or something…. I just didn’t love it. The kids liked it just fine. I was…very critical. I wonder now if I was jealous, actually. It’s the kind of book I might like to write.
Fast forward six years or so…. I was working toward an MFA in writing for children and young adults. I had to do a critical thesis — a scholarly work of in-depth analysis and criticism. I decided to write my critical thesis on The Twenty-First Century Happy Family Story. I looked at the history of the genre (the “Happy Family Story” was a recognized genre at one time) and many of the twentieth century examples, which were all on my shelves as they are beloved works I’d read as a child and to my children.
After analyzing these older books I loved so much, I proposed certain changes — tweaks, really — that might be needed to make the genre appeal to twenty-first century kid readers. In that process, I looked at The Penderwicks again. Was it a good model of the twenty-first century happy family story I was proposing? Two more books had come out in the series in the meantime. I read those, too, stubbornly holding to my mostly crabby stance. Of course these books had their charms, but I picked apart places where I thought they’d fallen short. I learned a lot doing this. I’d be grateful to Ms. Birdsall if this was all I got from her books.
Meanwhile, people continued to press the Penderwicks books upon me. My writing teachers…librarians and booksellers who know me well…my agent…my agent’s adorable daughter…. “Why don’t you love the Penderwicks?” they’d say. I started to feel like a heel. And I had to admit it didn’t make sense. (This is when I formed the jealousy hypothesis.)
Still, I didn’t pick them up again until just recently. I opened the first book to look at how Birdsall uses point of view since I was stuck on a POV problem in my own novel…and this time, for whatever reason, I fell into the book. I asked my nieces who live just around the corner to read it with me. Their mother had just ordered the book for them — it being exactly the sort of book they would love. (It’s genetic, this love of happy family stories.) And they did love that first Penderwicks book — we read the first chapters together this summer and they finished on their own, unable to wait for me.
Last week, while my sister and brother-in-law were out, I had a chance to do one of my favorite things: sit on the floor in the hallway between my nieces’ bedrooms and read them to sleep. Only they couldn’t go to sleep. We are now on the second book in the series, The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, and it was entirely too absorbing to put anyone to sleep. I eventually had to say, “It’s late. We really need to be done for now….”
Today after school they came over for another couple of chapters. Who knows how these things happen, but I’m in love with the Penderwicks at last! The fifth book came out this fall. We’re planning on reading the whole series together.