Ten Things I Love About the Penderwicks

I first read The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall a couple of months ago, during those last hazy days of summer, and as the sun shines here for the first time in days, I find myself thinking of it with a faint bit of longing. I love winter, don't get me wrong, but there's something to be said for that slow lull of a summer day, for the romance of sitting outside and feeling the sun soak into your skin, the breeze ruffle your hair, sipping something cool and pleasant, and losing yourself in the perfect summer book- and The Penderwicks is just that. Deftly tracing the adventures of four sisters as they pass their summer holidays in the picturesque cottage of the grand estate Arundel, the book weighs in with some surprisingly hefty issues such as first love, sibling rivalry, the childhood struggle to be heard, and death- to name a few- and yet Birdsall successfully manages to dispose of them all accurately and humorously, making her one of undeniable masters in the field of children's literature.

As I have said, The Penderwicks follows the adventures of the the four Penderwick sisters as they pass their summer vacation with their botany loving father-- and the undeniably loveable Hound-- on the estate of Arundel. Of course, all is not roses and bunnies (or, is it?) as the estate is owned by the crotchety and snooty Mrs. Tipton who would prefer nothing more than to win the Garden Club competition and see those wretched Penderwicks gone... only something strange has come over her son Jeffrey, no doubt all due to those uncouth girls in the cottage. Featuring a cast of loveable characters (excluding the evil Mrs. Tipton who arouses less compassion that her Dickensian counterpart, Miss Havisham- at least in my mind), the story weaves in and -out with smaller adventures securing neatly and entertainingly a surprisingly lovely package, ideal for children 8-12, or adults who love the genre and long for a slow summer afternoon.

In case you require further tantalization, click below for my ten favorite things about the Penderwicks:

1. Batty- the youngest sister who parades around with lovely butterfly wings on her back at all times, and pretends to be invisible whenever she's nervous or scared, is the love of Hound's life and my favorite Penderwick sister.

2. Hound- since we were talking about Batty, it only seems appropriate to follow her with Hound, the absolutely loveable dog of the Penderwicks who is also there to provide a laugh, protect the girls, and make sure that everything turns out as it must. In some respects, if this story has a fairy godmother, it's Hound.

3. Mr. Penderwick- if this story has a fairy godfather, then it's Mr. Penderwick who loves his daughters pretty much more than anything else and yet isn't blind to their faults either. Of course, one of my favorite things about Mr. Penderwick is his propensity to interject the tale with Latin advice and remarks for his four daughters and anyone else who might listen- I certainly did.

4. Rosalind- probably my second favorite Penderwick sister, Rosalind is the oldest who often finds herself struggling to keep the family composed and grow up at the same time. Being the only child in the bunch to have any recollection of Mrs. Penderwick, she's the source of of most of what we learn about their mother which is appropriate since she's the stand in for her in the girls' lives as well. She's young and wise for her years, she's a child who transitions throughout the course of the book into a young woman, and she's an utterly flawed yet completely perfect character.

5. Sabrina Starr- Jane, the second youngest Penderwick sister provides a great deal of comedic relief in the story through her writing, nearly all of which features her brave and resourceful heroine, Sabrina Starr. Sabrina Starr does pretty much everything you would expect her to do and reading of her adventures, and Jane's composition of them, will have you walking around the house thinking, "Sabrina Starr, smelling the rich scent of coffee, pounces upon the pot to fortify herself for the daring adventure that lay ahead." Go ahead, laugh- but I dare you to not start composing Sabrina Starr stories in your head.

6. Jane- If Sabrina Starr is so lively and entertaining, it's because Jane breathes so much life into her. The most romantic and fanciful of all of the Penderwick sisters, Jane is apt to see things in a positive and dreamy sort of light- "it was fate" she remarks several times throughout the book, and with Jane, it always is. Also not to miss is Jane's fictional persona, Mick Hart, a football player from Manchester, England, who will leave you howling with laughter and wiping tears from your eyes.

7. Skye- Each Penderwick sister brings something unique to the tale and Skye, the second oldest sister, is no exception. If Jane is the sister who declares that it's fate, Skye is the sister who will reduce the matter to it's factual elements, and the tension between them is one of the great sources of entertainment in this book. The tomboy of the girls who is more likely to trot around on her own,  Skye is also the one who always says the wrong thing at the wrong time- even though she means well, and then sits to soothe it all over in her mind with her math book. Skye is rough around the edges, she's going to tell you what she thinks, and she's got a lot of pluck, but that's all part of what will make you fall in love with her.

8. Mrs. Churchill- the housekeeper/ cook of Arundel, this woman is the grandmother that you probably always wanted. She's kind to the girls from day one, sees all of their gifts and perfections and only a minimal amount of their flaws, and shes always got something tasty in the oven. Plus, she'll alter the perfect dress for you from all of the treasures in the attic. It's hard not to love Churchie, as she's called, because she's so kind and sweet tempered- she also serves as the perfect foil to Mrs. Tipton.

9. Harry the Tomato Man- We first meet Harry in the book's opening chapter when he gives the absent minded and lost Mr. Penderwick (via Rosalind) directions to Arundel, and he reappears several times throughout the book to keep up laughing and marveling at the antics of those Penderwick girls. Often found in Churchie's kitchen trying to scrounge up sweets (which is where I would be, too), Harry is one of the driving good-natured forces in this book who will help adults remember what is just so magical about these girls to begin with. I imagine Harry as one of those, "easy come, easy go" cheerful sort of types who has virtually infinite patience, and for that I love him.

10. Jeffrey- it seems a shame to have Jeffrey so far down on this list and so I should probably say that this list is in no particular order, well, except for number one because I really do love Batty most of all. And Hound. But Jeffrey is pretty swell, too. The son of Mrs. Tipton, Jeffrey is "the boy in the window" who, in the course of the story, comes very much out of the window and into your heart. He's an aspiring musician who has enough talent to get Skye to keep quiet when she hears him (and believe me, that's really saying something) and what's more, he's a got a good heart that gets him through some of the tougher moments in this book. Jeffrey is, in a lot of ways, the character in this book who children will probably relate to most as he tries to find his way and grow into his own despite all of Mrs. Tiption's preconceived plans for him.

So, if sometime this winter you find yourself craving a little slice of lemon cake and summer warmth, I recommend you pick yourself up a copy of The Penderwicks and let yourself go.


Anonymous said...

this may just be next on my list :) it sounds fantastic!

Mary said...

I really love this one- it's in the classic vein of Ballet Shoes, a sort of Little Women of a more modern and younger era.