When I was a child, I used to love reading about kids living in their own worlds, free of constant adult oversight, but nonetheless charged with responsibilities of their own. Do you ever get nostalgic like this about your childhood reading days? These books were great. Maybe the kid protagonists had to feed the pigs in the morning. And, of course, they always had some crisis happening at school, maybe a play that they were sure they were going to bomb in or a snobby classmate their friends defended them from. There was usually a whole lot of nature in these books – the kids could always run to the barn or a treehouse when the world got to be too much. That was my kind of world as a reading child. Usually, someone in them loved books, too.
The Penderwicks is a series by Jeanne Birdsall that is just like that. And, somehow, it feels neither dated nor modern. It’s just right in that timeless way that will always translate well no matter how far into the future it finds its way onto bookshelves.
The first, The Penderwicks, A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy is a complete charmer that came out in 2005. Since then, there have only been two more: The Penderwicks on Gardam Street (2008) and last year’s The Penderwicks at Point Mouette.
The first book introduces the family of four girls and a father; the mother died of illness much earlier. This is a topic handled with enormous care by Birdsall and with as light a touch as is possible. But the absence of a mother is felt as the eldest girl, just old enough to develop her first crush on the family vacation, plays a loving mum to her younger sisters, especially the little one one named Batty. The middle sisters consist of a tomboy and a budding novelist whose own series shows up now and then, reminding any former child-bookworm about their own made-up stories. The father’s in just enough to give a sense of grown-up security and a parent’s love.
And, love? The place names, the character names, the settings…it all smacks of an enormous love Birdsall must have for the world she’s created here. But, don’t let that by any means fool you into thinking the books must be syrup. Far from that, they include the kind of sadness that is normal in life, that we all deal with and need to learn to handle. They’re just very good quality, and a whole lot fun, too.
Birdsall’s books, I’m convinced, will be beloved in the future in much the same way we now look at Little Women or Betsy-Tacy. It’s girl-meets-world in those books and in the Penderwicksbooks, too, but it’s a version that translates utterly well into the twenty-first century. And, yet, you never think that these kids are going to Google anything or recharge their cell phones. They are contemporary, but the accoutrements of contemporary life are unconsciously absent. So all you’re left with is - yes, here’s the word – the magic of kids set loose in gardens and in their own lives. It is, in other words, the childhood we dream of.
Three books in seven years might seem like a bit of a wait, but when reading these books I appreciate the patience and love that Birdsall must have with her creation. I enjoyed and recommend books one and two. But, I’ll admit, I’m saving book 3. They are well worth the wait, but grown-up reader or not, I’m going to try to stretch it out as long as I can.