As Christmas vacation approaches and kids everywhere are looking forward to closing the books for a spell, parents might be wanting otherwise and be seeking other books for their children to open. Jeanne Birdsall’s The Penderwicks: A Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy is waiting on the shelves at bookstores and online, eager to be opened and read. A National Book Award winner, Birdsall’s novel tells the story of four young sisters who go on a summer vacation with their widowed father and encounter various adventures, ranging from a bull stampede to a fancy dinner party.
The four Penderwick sisters, Rosalind, 12; Skye, 11; Jane, 10; and Batty, 4; arrive at the vacation cottage with some speculation. Their usual destination was not available, as their father—who proves throughout the novel to be a tad absent-minded, although tender-hearted—neglected to book it. Rather than cancel the annual holiday, he stumbles upon the opportunity to rent a cottage on the Arundel estate. Almost as soon as they arrive, the girls befriend the wealthy estate owner’s young son, Jeffrey. They find that, as an only child, he is hungry for their company and friendship. Sharing in the girls’ adventures and influenced by their vivacity, Jeffrey begins to blossom, although his mother sees it as rebellion. Jeffrey confides in the girls that his mother is planning on sending him away to military school, something that he does not want to do but cannot find the courage to tell his mother so. After a memorable show-down between his mother and Skye, she forbids Jeffrey to interact with the Penderwicks further. The girls soon discover that Jeffrey is no longer at the estate, having been taken by his mother to the military school. They fear they have lost him forever—or that he has lost himself.
Set in the Massachusetts countryside, The Penderwicks is a story unlike most being written today; it is “the kind of book you may have thought no one wrote or published anymore” (MacPherson 2). It is reminiscent of the classics, with its core themes of family love and loyalty. It is written in a breezy, witty style, with the ability to charm readers into turning page after page. It feels like summer, with its smooth prose and innocent humor. It has its share of sadness – the girls lost their mother to cancer, and Jeffrey’s family life is far from picturesque – but Birdsall is still able to avoid weighing down the story with sorrow. Rather, she writes it through a child’s eyes, one who is just trying to figure life out.
Birdsall’s writing is sharp and clear, and the story moves onto the pages easily. Young readers and adults will find the text easy, suitable for young readers to read alone, but would also make for a good read-aloud book. The book may not appeal to all young readers, as it lacks suspenseful adventure and intrigue, and older readers may not be interested at all as it is told from the points-of-view of young children. But Birdsall’s intended audience was always children. In an interview with Tracy Gant of the Washington Post, Birdsall states that she wrote the novel from her “heart and memory,” and when she “sat down to write a children’s story, the only path [she] understood was to write the kind of books [she] loved as a child” (1). Therefore, if readers are searching for a charming, easy-to-read, even cozy text, Birdsall’s novel has the right ingredients.
The novel isn’t perfect – it does have a few inexplicable flaws related to characters, one being why the estate’s housekeeper would call the girls to report Jeffrey’s being taken away, but overall the novel stands out because Birdsall’s writing is convincing and the story is unlike any other novels being written today. Birdsall’s ability to keep readers engaged comes from the fact that readers will care about the characters; the novel “invites readers to become part of the family [she] created” (MacPherson 1). The Penderwicks and Jeffrey all have a sense of wanting to feel safe in a family who loves them, a theme that children will understand personally.
A Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy
By Jeanne Birdsall
262 pp. Knopf. $7.99