Yes, I Read a Lot: The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall

The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy
The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy by Jeanne Birdsall
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I promised myself I’d focus on not writing sardonic, Gen-Xer reviews because they’re hurtful and not at all compassionate to the authors who’ve worked so hard to bring their literary children to us. But this book makes that a bit of a challenge because I had such high hopes for the series, and I feel kind of let down.

I picked this book up because a friend said that she and her son were loving the series and because the author is from Massachusetts (I always try to show pride in my adopted home locale by reading the local authors; I was not at all disappointed by Utahan Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl) and because it won a National Book Award in 2005 and I generally have a favorable opinion of National Book Award Winners and runners-up (and 2005 was the year I became a mom so I think of it as an auspicious year).

So, now the challenge to be gentle.

On the positive side, this book was clearly informed by classics of children’s literature. It had elements of The Secret Garden and the Narnia series and Little Women and The Sound of Music and even Curious George (I’m thinking of the rabbits here). But I think it took Birdsall a good 2/3 of the way through the book to find her unique theme.

The characters were disappointingly (but not unpredictably for children’s literature), two-dimensional. Rosalind is the dutiful older sister, Skye is the tomboy who hates dresses and and loves math and can’t stand the idea of nurturing another human being (even if that’s her 4-year-old sister), Jane loves to stay in her room and write but is also, inexplicably, a soccer phenom, and Batty is alternately younger than her four years (wearing wings all the time, hiding behind her sisters) and older than her four years (speaking up for herself to adults she fears in the last two chapters). And the father. Sure, his wife died four years ago, but really…how can you be so uninvolved in your kids’ lives? I’m not a fan of a man who lets a 12-year-old take over the parenting responsibilities (and she was 8 when her mom died…).

Reading this book I was struck by the reality that I’m closer in age to the parents in children’s books than I am to the children. And in some of my daughter’s favorites (the Little House books and the Ramona books come to mind), I’m older than the parents. And I have no idea how to start building a log house or how to slaughter a pig, and only the most vague idea of how to jump-start a car (and after watching the main character of the show Breaking Bad blow up a car by strategically placing a squeegee on a car battery, I think I might be too afraid to even attempt to jump-start a car). I don’t stack up well to these parents at all. Even the sub-par parents in this book have knowledge of botany and Latin, two subjects in which I’m woefully lacking.

But none of these is the reason I won’t be reading this book to my daughter. So, she’s six, but a very strong reader and, I think, ready to tackle a lot of more “grown-up” issues. She and I read Bambi for crying out loud. The kid is ready for reality.

But.

I’m not ready for her to be thinking about crushes, and I think crushes were an issue in the book not only for the 12-year-old, but also for the 11-year-old and the 10-year-old. Why bring crushes into it at all? I’m grateful that (spoiler alert) Birdsall didn’t let them go anywhere, but she left the hope, and that’s almost as bad.

I don’t know. I just wasn’t all that thrilled with this book. It wasn’t awful, but still I think I’ll table the series for a while. I think I’d be more likely to read my daughter Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events before I’d read her this series, but I wouldn’t keep her from the Penderwicks if she expressed an interest. I’d rather her read this series than Babysitters Club or Goosebumps, but I’d also like her to stick with E.B. White and Beverly Cleary and Roald Dahl for as long as possible.

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