BookBrowse Reviews The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall

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The Penderwicks

A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy

by Jeanne Birdsall

The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2005, 272 pages
    Mar 2007, 272 pages

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"Problems are solved and lessons learned in this wonderful, humorous book that features characters whom readers will immediately love, as well as a superb writing style." - Ages 8-12

From the book jacket: This summer the Penderwick sisters have a wonderful surprise: a holiday on the grounds of a beautiful estate called Arundel. Soon they are busy discovering the summertime magic of Arundel's sprawling gardens, treasure-filled attic, tame rabbits, and the cook who makes the best gingerbread in Massachusetts. But the best discovery of all is Jeffrey Tifton, son of Arundel's owner, who quickly proves to be the perfect companion for their adventures.  The icy-hearted Mrs. Tifton is not as pleased with the Penderwicks as Jeffrey is, though, and warns the new friends to stay out of trouble. Which, of course, they will—won't they? One thing's for sure: it will be a summer the Penderwicks will never forget.  Deliciously nostalgic and quaintly witty, this is a story as breezy and carefree as a summer day.

Comments: The media reviews of The Penderwicks are universally favorable (other than the odd quibble here and there about minor plot elements), the National Book Award judges named it the 2005 winner of the children's literature category, and BookBrowse's subscribers voted it the best children's book of 2005. 

Critics variously describe it as happy, comforting, a throwback to the 1950s (although it's set in the current day), humorous, with characters that readers will immediately love, as well as a superb writing style. Comparisons are made to older titles/series such as The Five Little Peppers, The Happy Hollisters, Pollyanna, Little Women and to more recent books such as those by Hilary McKay.  However, cynically speaking, all the media reviews are written by adults who see in The Penderwicks something of the books they enjoyed as children.  The questions is, what do today's children aged 8-12 (the intended audience) think of it? 

To answer this I scoured the web for reader reviews and found about an equal number of reviews by adults and children, the vast majority are strongly in favor (4.5/5 at Amazon, 5/5 at Next, we did what we always do - read it aloud to our son and daughter, then aged 10 and 12, (children are never too old to be read to!) and it was a huge success with all of us. 

Some children's books can be very hard going for an adult to read (our daughter's enthralled by Eldest by Christopher Paolini at the moment, and I have a very hard time reading just the couple of pages that she begs of me from time to time); other books have appealed greatly to the judges of children's book awards but have left their intended audience unmoved.

However, first time author Jeanne Birdsall has somehow hit on the narrow but golden middle-ground - bringing us a family that is idiosyncratic without being ridiculously eccentric, and a charming set of children who are opinionated but not obnoxious.   Little Batty, in particular, is a winner. I look forward to seeing if Birdsall can continue to work the same magic in the follow up due to be published in 2008, which will feature the four Penderwick children and a boy called Tommy Geiger who lives across the street and loves football above all.

This review was originally published in November 2005, and has been updated for the March 2007 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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