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

by Jeanne Birdsall

Alfred A. Knopf, 2005

262 pages

The Penderwicks is a fresh but near-timeless novel. Even without its National Book Award trophy, it would be a classic-in-waiting, destined to entertain many generations of readers.

Set on an estate in the Berkshire Mountains, the book tells the story of four sisters who are on summer vacation with their widowed father.

Mr. Penderwick, a professor of botany, is a bit prone to getting lost in his plants.  His absent-mindedness leaves the girls free to explore the countryside, befriend the locals–and upend the lives of the estate’s owners.

The four sisters, ranging in age from 12 to 4, are Rosalind, Skye, Jane, and Batty.  Their dog Hound is part of the adventures, too, as are all the estate’s denizens: owner Mrs. Tifton and her son Jeffrey, her boyfriend Dexter, gardener Cagney and his rabbits, and housekeeper Churchie.

The girls quickly charm everyone except convention-obsessed Mrs. Tifton and Dexter, who are baffled–and somewhat frightened–by the Penderwicks’ earthy energy.

Compounding the tension is Jeffrey’s simmering rebellion against his mother’s carefully crafted plans for his life.  She wants to send him to military school to become a general, like her father; Jeffrey wants to attend a conservatory and become a pianist.

Birdsall deftly weaves these more serious threads together with humor and adventure as the Penderwicks and their new friends careen from page to page.

I probably loved the story best for its tongue-in-cheek nod to classic fairy tales. Instead of a dragon guarding a treasure-filled lair, we have a bull who wants to keep his clover to himself.  Instead of a noble sidekick or steed, we have a preschooler in butterfly wings and a dog who throws up a lot.

And instead of a prince rescuing a princess, we have four princesses working together to rescue the prince.

I think that’s inspiring for girls to see: teamwork among sisters, courage in helping a friend, and strength to stand up for both individual and family identity.

Which brings me to my next point: Birdsall’s book is incredibly inspiring in its treatment of girls’ identities.

No two Penderwick sisters are alike, but, throughout the story, each girl plays an indispensable part.

Rosalind’s nurturing gives her sisters confidence.  Skye’s temper gives Jeffrey courage.  Jane’s imagination generates solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems.  And Batty’s dogged devotion throws up roadblocks to Dexter’s narcissism.

In the Penderwick world, in other words, girls come in all types–and that’s a good thing.

Every age, every interest, every personality is valuable.  Valuable to friends, to family, and to each girl in and of herself.  They all contribute to mutual success and happiness, and those who say otherwise are just plain wrong.

As Skye says to Batty after one of Mrs. Tifton’s rants against the “uncouth” and “odd” Penderwicks: “There’s nothing wrong with you.  You’re perfect. Mrs. Tifton doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”

I’m a grown woman, with a fairly high level of confidence in my identity and purpose, and that message inspires me.  How much more would it inspire a 10-year-old girl?

Do you have a favorite summer-adventure book you’d like to share with a girl you know?

If you like the Penderwicks, their adventures continue in The Penderwicks on Gardam Street and The Penderwicks at Point Mouette (to be released May 2011).

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5 thoughts on “Of Fairy Tales, Family, and Friends

  1. Thanks for sharing this one. It’s a new one for me, so I’ll definitely put it on the list.

    The boys reading “girlie” books is definitely a problem. Girls are very accustomed to reading books with boys as main characters, but the reverse is much less true, or at least, requires some significant leading on the part of a librarian/parent/teacher. If you can hook them in enough, they’ll love it just as much as the girls will; it’s just a matter of getting over the initial reaction.

    What I often did in book-talking books to kids was to ask them a question — “have you ever…” or “What would it be like if” and then finish the question with something that related to the book, preferably one of the most weird or interesting parts or characters. Of course, some are easier than others. I remember book-talking Skeleton Man by Joseph Bruchac, a book with a girl as the main character, and in fact, not too many other characters besides. Hooking boys into this one, however, took no effort at all — just a peek at the cover which showed a skeletal hand and arm grasping at a kid’s sneakered foot and a paragraph from the first chapter, and they (boys and girls) were clamoring for it.

    Our job as parents too is to make sure that from day one, we’re not limiting our children to just “boys” or “girls” books/topics, so that when the gender pressure heats up later on, you have a good history to fall back on. 🙂

  2. Aubrey’s comment brings up a concern I have. How do you get boys to read books or see movies that they perceive to be “girlie”?

    I was recommending the “Ramona and Beezus” movie to a friend recently, and her son asked if it was a “girlie” movie. I told him that it had girls in it, but that it was not “girlie”. This boy is really fond of the “diary of a wimpy kid” books, and I think that Ramona et al. are in the same vein….just featuring girls.

    1. Great question, MEC. As long as people use femininity as an insult (e.g., “You run/throw/scream like a girl”), I think it’s going to be a challenge to get boys past the “girlie” issue.

      I love Anne’s practical suggestion for hooking kids with questions. I think we can also help by speaking positively about femininity and not pigeonholing toys, activities, etc. by sex. That can help remove some of the stigma of anything being “girlie” and make it less of a stretch for boys to read “girlie” books.

    1. I think you’re right on, Aubrey. Both boys and girls need to grow up with healthy, respectful ideas of what it means to be male OR female. And I think encouraging kids to read books about the opposite sex is a great way to encourage empathy, compassion, and relatability–all important traits for healthy relationships (and a healthy society).

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